Pride season has arrived yet again. Pride parades will roll all over the country throughout the month, and as its 50th Anniversary approaches, Stonewall memes will undoubtedly flood social media. That’s all good and well; however, not everyone in our community is feeling the pride. In fact, some folks are not proud of Pride at all—at least not what it has become.
This discontent will be clearly on display later this month in New York when a group called the Reclaim Pride Coalition stages an alternative march to the “official” parade. The RPC was formed last year within the auspices of Heritage of Pride (HOP), which organizes the New York City Pride Parade. The group argued that HOP should restore the historic march route, drop wristband requirements to march, obtain an apology from the New York Police Department for raiding the Stonewall Inn, and secure an acknowledgement of ongoing oppression and the need for change.
When these demands were not met, the RPC broke away and organized another march—the Queer Liberation March and Rally. In the RPC’s words, “The Queer Liberation March is a people’s political march—no corporate floats and no police in our march. Our 2019 march is a truly grassroots action that will mobilize the community to address the many social and political battles that continue to be fought locally, nationally, and globally.”
This is just one example of recent challenges to the Pride Establishment. In 2017, a group calling itself No Justice No Pride (NJNP) disrupted the Capital City Pride Parade in Washington D.C. by targeting floats sponsored by banks, the police, and military contractors. The NJNP’s Mission Statement is “We exist to end the LGBT movement’s complicity with systems of oppression that further marginalize queer and trans individuals. . . . there can be no pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” Their calls for the removal of police and corporate presences in the Capital City Pride Parade fell mostly on deaf ears.
In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, trans activist Sylvia Rivera led an alternative march in New York to protest the exclusion of trans people in the “official” parade. Rivera was at the Stonewall Inn on the night it was raided. She is credited with throwing the first Molotov Cocktail at the police, but she is quick to correct that claim. “I threw the second one,” she says.
Think about it—transgender people, often of color, including New Orleans’ own Storme Delarverie, throwing makeshift bombs at the police as well as punching them. Trans anger and violence was at the very heart of Stonewall. And that is precisely what has been lost, critics of the Pride Establishment argue.
The chief complaint against Pride Parades is essentially that they have been hijacked by capitalism and conservative goals. More specifically, that they are now dominated by corporate floats and wealthy organizations, and that they represent the LGBT establishment, which is mostly urban and wealthy. Trans people, people of color, rural communities, non-binary folks and others are left out, or shunted aside like red-headed step-children.
Critics of the Pride Establishment have a valid point. Initially, just after Stonewall, there were marches, not parades. These marches were angry and radical. Today’s parades are little more than happy corporate trade shows. The early marches resisted the white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy. Today’s parades seek its approval. Early marchers were desperately declaring “We have a right to exist!” Today’s corporate paraders are letting us know they want our rainbow dollars. Instead of “Fuck you!” it’s now “Buy from us.”
Sarah Schulman describes the usurpation of Pride Parades by corporate interests as “Pinkwashing.” And Robert Baez writes: “These are not public displays that aid in the collective liberation of marginal [sic] people, but instead drape the imperialist capitalist forces of the U.S. in literal rainbows.”
This division in Pride circles is emblematic of rifts within the larger movement. Again, this is not new. Shortly after the Stonewall uprising, the Gay Liberation Front was formed from a split within the Mattachine Society, the conservative organization that had been formed in 1950. The founders of the GLF did not agree with the Mattachine Society’s philosophy of assimilation. Shortly after its founding, the GLF itself suffered a split when several members broke away and founded the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA).
The GLF had one goal—sexual liberation. Its underlying philosophy was essentially Marxist, if not anarchist. The GLF had no interest in working within the system to bring about change. In its view, the system itself was the problem. The GAA adopted a more pragmatic approach. It would work within the system, primarily in the form of political lobbying, to affect change. Ultimately, the single-issue/lobbying model of the GAA won out and was carried on by groups such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Lambda Legal (LL).
To their credit, the HRC and LL can point to milestone victories like the legalization of same-sex marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but some would argue these are fairly conservative victories. The Gay Liberators of the early 1970s would certainly have thought so. After all, gay liberation arose out of the anti-patriarchal, radical, Marxist-infused milieu of the counter-culture. Many of the early gay libers were also heavily involved in the anti-war movement, as were many lesbian feminists, who correctly pointed out that marriage was a tool of the hetero-normative patriarchy, which, of course, was maintained and perpetuated by an oppressive hierarchical capitalistic system.
The nature of Pride Parades today demonstrates that the debate between assimilation and non-assimilation has been settled, but critics of assimilation—people who are trans, non-binary, asexual, queer, pansexual, etc.—are attempting to reopen that debate.
All of this brings us back to Stonewall. Opponents of assimilation point to Stonewall (and more specifically the symbol it has become) as an example of the danger of romanticizing the past. Some commentators have suggested that the fetishization of Stonewall has effectively erased other history. In some ways, it has. How many people are familiar with the uprisings and marches before Stonewall? The East Coast Homophile Organization held annual marches on July 4th in Philadelphia beginning in 1963. And who can name the trans woman who started the Compton Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966 when she resisted arrest by throwing hot coffee in a cop’s face? Or who remembers the “Sip In” at Julius’ bar in New York in 1966? And what about the police raid of the bar, Trip, in Chicago in 1968?
Not only does the laser focus on Stonewall diminish other important historical events, it also gives rise to incomplete and misleading “progress narratives,” all of which inevitably start at the Stonewall Inn. For these reasons, Yasmin Nair has suggested we should “Forget Stonewall.”
Pride marches were born of anger and there is still much to be angry about—transphobic violence, socioeconomic inequality, cuts in HIV/AIDS funding, lack of adequate access to healthcare, police brutality, employment discrimination, a hostile presidential administration, etc. Critics of the Pride Establishment are absolutely correct to point out its shortcomings for in so doing, they are also highlighting significant failures in the Gay Liberation movement.
Richard Schneider, Jr. Editor of the Gay & Lesbian Review, sums it up well when he writes of the assimilation issue: “The fact that the LGBT community can mount a gigantic parade with major corporations endorsing our cause is a testament to that strategy’s effectiveness. But it’s also fair to ask the question: is this what the struggle was all about?”