Pride is more than a parade

In these pandemic times, let's remember that Pride Month is about the resilience, creativity and beauty of the LGBTQ community.

(Valerie Niemeyer/Crosscut)

I don’t relish the idea of spending Pride at home. There is no substitute for the heady, liberating feeling of being surrounded by fellow LGBTQ people. For a few fleeting hours each June, we get to own the streets, to experience firsthand what it would be like if we were not so few and far between — because even in a relative hotspot like Seattle, with its rainbow crosswalks and long history as a queer enclave, only about 5% of us are LGBTQ, according to the most recent Gallup data.

Sadly, mass gatherings like Pride just aren’t possible as we try to manage the spread of COVID-19. The organizers of the Seattle Pride Parade moved the event online all the way back in April, and that was smart timing: We have known for a while that June would look different this year, giving us plenty of time to adjust our expectations. And as the weeks of self-isolation ticked by, I decided that I should quit mourning the loss of an in-person parade and use 2020 to reassess what I want out of Pride in the first place.

I’d like to ask my queer peers to do the same. This June can be a moment to pause, ask ourselves what Pride means and reimagine what it could be in the future. The parties and parades, with their crowds and commotion, will return one day. But if we actually make the most out of this June instead of treating it as a one-off, we might learn lessons that we’d want to apply for many Junes to come.

One of the many unexpected disruptions of the pandemic is its arrival at a particularly strained juncture in the history of Pride. In the 50-plus years since the Stonewall riots, Pride events at first proliferated but then all too quickly metamorphosed from powerful displays of LGBTQ political visibility into corporate-sponsored street parties. In our community, there has long been tension between radicalism and assimilationism — between those who stick out and those who blend in, between those who want to upend systems of power and those who want to work within them — and that tension has come to a head in recent summers. Some have embraced the support large employers have shown Pride events; others, like the “No Justice, No Pride” protesters who have interrupted parades in recent years, including Seattle’s, don’t believe that event organizers should touch corporate money.

Since coming out as queer in 2012, I have grown frustrated with the dialectical nature of this debate. On one hand, I have never been comfortable with the way in which corporations dye their logos rainbow each June, throw money at Pride events and then go right back to reinforcing the socioeconomic status quo. I remember walking away from my first Pride in Atlanta with a free tote bag full of rainbow pens, Frisbees and other useless knickknacks — all of them festooned with brand names — and feeling vaguely icky about the whole thing. I liked marching down Peachtree with other transgender people; I didn’t care for the mountain of multicolored plastic I accrued afterward. Here in Seattle, Pride is sponsored by huge corporations: tech companies, banks, insurers and, of course, Starbucks.

But even though I’m on the more radical side of things, I question the efficacy of raining on anyone’s Pride parade. If fellow LGBTQ people want to use their free speech to interrupt major Pride events, go ahead! But I also recognize the value these more mainstream events provide for people whose political journeys have not yet taken them as far to the left as I’ve traveled. And if I were to spend my energy in June decrying large-scale Pride events, I would still feel like corporations were somehow dictating the terms of my experience. I would still be making it all about them instead of proliferating different conceptions of what Pride can be. So, ultimately, the arguments over Pride end up feeling circular, all of us fighting over one overdetermined day in the sun.

All of which is to say: the COVID-19 pandemic has canceled in-person Pride events all around the world at a time when I think we could afford to start looking at Pride differently anyway. With all of our lives  interrupted regardless, we might as well take advantage of this chance to step outside the rut of the long-running debate over mainstream Pride and figure out what we want out of June. This is the moment to envision what Pride looks like apart from big events underwritten by billionaires. For those of us who liked those mass gatherings, this is the time to dig deeper, to find purpose in Pride beneath the hubbub. For those who criticized those events, this is the time to continue bringing more ethical alternatives into the world, as time and resources allow.

This is a unique challenge. Whereas many aspects of our lives can seamlessly be moved online, a parade does not translate easily into a virtual format. Along with live sports, Pride is one of those things that just isn’t the same without a crowd. It also means your engagement with Pride Month can no longer be passive: You can’t just show up to a festival, parade or street fair, soak in the ambience and enjoy what’s already there; rather, you need to expressly seek out and lift up the LGBTQ causes, performers and businesses that matter to you.

In recent years, already frustrated with the back and forth over the larger citywide Pride events, I have started trying to be more intentional in June. In 2018, for example, I commissioned Maudlyn Claire, a nonbinary artist living in Tennessee, to draw a Pride-themed portrait of my wife and me. Last June, we celebrated Pride by going to see comedian Patti Harrison perform at the Egyptian along an all-LGBTQ lineup — and by going to the Seattle Storm’s Pride Night game against the Phoenix Mercury a few days later, where I had a blast cheering a team that loudly supports LGBTQ people year-round. (The Storm lost by two points, despite a valiant last-minute effort from Sami Whitcomb and Jordin Canada, but we still walked out of the arena smiling, holding hands.) It feels good, I have found, to handpick a few things that bring you queer joy and then double down on them.

This June, I want to do more of that while also finding new ways to celebrate Pride during a pandemic. By all indications, Washington state will spend most of June in Phase 2 of reopening, during which we will be resigned to limited, nonessential travel, even locally, and to small gathering with no more than five people outside our households. Maybe Pride this year looks like a small, socially distanced gathering with three or four LGBTQ friends. Maybe it looks like ordering food from the Wildrose, so the lesbian bar can survive the impacts of COVID-19, and having a picnic with my wife in Volunteer Park. Depending on travel guidelines and case numbers, maybe we could abscond to a nearby LGBTQ-owned bed and breakfast for a weekend. There are virtual options, too, like supporting online drag shows, ordering LGBTQ books from local independent booksellers like Elliott Bay, Left Bank Books and Third Place Books or attending queer Zoom parties. If we all invest some time and energy, we can curate our own socially distanced Pride Months instead of sitting on our hands and waiting for the parties to return. We can establish new traditions that we’ll repeat even after COVID-19 is reduced to memory.

Indeed, I hope semi-isolation reminds us that Pride Month is about the resilience, creativity and beauty of the LGBTQ community — and that the temporary absence of large, corporate-sponsored and often-inaccessible mass gatherings cannot suppress that underlying strength. Those events, and the joy people find in them, will come back. For now, as trying as this time is, let’s use this strange moment to show up for our community however we can. Let’s remember that Pride is so much more than a parade.

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