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How Pride Attendees Kept The Spirit Of Protest Alive

'Yes, we party together. But we also rally'

By Sarah Emily Baum

Drag queens left trails of glitter everywhere they walked. The sidewalks were packed so tightly that teenagers wearing rainbow capes and body paint climbed massive construction girders to get a better view of the parade. In the distance, counter-protestors waving Bibles in the air were drowned out by crowds who formed a circle around them and chanted over and over and over: “God is gay! God is gay!”

They were just some of the millions of people who visited New York City on the weekend of June 29 and 30 for World Pride, and any of the related Pride events throughout the city. This weekend in particular was meant to be special: It was the first time World Pride itself was hosted by the United States, and held on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which many say propelled the modern queer liberation movement.

Because of that, many attendees were reflective, and paid tribute to the people who rose up the night of June 28, 1969. “Trans women of color started this for all of us,” said Sarah Rosenwald, a New York University student who identifies as bisexual. She referenced queer activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were deeply influential before and during the Stonewall riots and in the years after advocating against police brutality and working to protect homeless queer youth. 

Pride has taken many different shapes over the past few decades. Police now march alongside drag queens and activists alike, and corporate logos co-opt the names of queer figureheads, many of whom cannot sign off on their likenesses being used for profit. (In recent months, police in some cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have opted for alternative ways to involve themselves with Pride.)

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This new version of Pride, Rosenwald tells MTV News, feels like too much of a celebration. She attended World Pride because she wanted to be with friends, but says aspects of the event felt “hypocritical” in contrast to the anti-establishment, anti-police violence origins of the queer liberation movement.

“It feels deliberately ignorant that now there are rainbow police cars and cops in the [Pride] parade,” she added. For her, a pink-washed pride feels especially glaring given recent news: that this year alone, at least 10 Black trans women have been murdered or found dead. Their deaths were part of what activists like Johnson and Rivera were fighting to prevent.

Of the young people MTV News spoke with at World Pride, most associated the start of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the U.S. with the Stonewall riots, which served as a breaking point. But LGBTQ+ Americans had already made great strides in visibility by then: The first documented LGBTQ+ rights group in the country, the Human Rights Society, was founded in 1924, and same-sex couples and gender variance have existed “in every documented culture” across every continent, according to the American Psychological Association.

When the Stonewall riots erupted in the 1960s, police had begun cracking down on underground bars and paying particular attention to gay bars like The Stonewall Inn, which was run by the mob and selling liquor without an alcohol license at the time, according to the New York Times. But its clientele were also victims of systemic homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism. Police thought LGBTQ+ people, especially the young people of color who frequented Stonewall, would be an easy target. They were wrong; the Stonewall patrons fought back against the raid, throwing bottles and (rumor has it) bricks at the police. It started a days-long riot that fueled a movement with ripple effects on the community today.

“I think you can mix in protest and awareness within the celebration,” Megan Grahm, an 18-year-old at University of Connecticut who identifies as asexual, told MTV News. She attended Pride to partake in the “celebration” of LGBTQ+ identities, but acknowledges the political importance of the occasion as well. She pointed to the use of Black Lives Matter and Protect Trans Women signs by activists looking to remind people that these ideas have always been intersectional.

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The people who attended the first Pride parade, which marched as the Christopher Street Liberation Day in honor of the city street where Stonewall sits, expressed similar sentiments when they marched in 1970. And by the 1980s and 1990s, LGBTQ+ activists and groups like ACT UP also began addressing the AIDS epidemic. Other activists took up other battles: In 2015, the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges mandated that same-sex marriage be legalized across the country — but just under a year later, a gunman opened fire at Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida that was hosting “Latin night.” He killed 49 patrons, many of them people of color.

To this day LGBTQ+ Americans lack federal protections that other minorities have; in many states, someone can still be fired from their job, denied a lease, or barred from university based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Same-sex couples may even be banned from adopting children. Earlier this year, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era protections for trans people and instituted a ban on trans members of the military.

“The beginning [of the Trump presidency] was scary,” Oliver Trimmer, a 19-year-old trans man from Flemington, New Jersey, told MTV News. “I didn’t know what would happen to my healthcare. Was I still going to be able to afford my hormone treatments? Would I still be able to get top surgery and have that not be an issue?”

Though LGBTQ+ discrmination existed before the Trump administration and will likely exist long after, the FBI found hate crimes increased 17 percent after Trump was inaugurated, with trans women of color being especially vulnerable.

“Once [Trump] became president, people started saying stuff to [trans] kids in bathrooms [at my school] like, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed, this isn’t the right gender,’” Trimmer said. “Outwardly supporting Trump was used as leeway, saying its political speech when in reality it was just blatant [transphobia] they tried to blame on Trump or say, ‘That’s just my political view.’”

Because of rising political tension and the perceived evolution of Pride from its initial conception, some members of the LGBTQ+ community opted to skip the Pride Parade altogether. Diego Fernandez-Pages, a 22-year-old Yale University graduate who identifies as gay, instead attended the Queer and Trans Liberation March, which held a rally in Central Park that same day — sans police and corporate sponserships.

He was compelled to make the switch due to the “corporatization” of the parade and the prohibitive expenses of many Pride-sanctioned events, which he says makes such occasions inaccessible for working class queer people. And Pride’s police presence has long been a contentious one. (Heritage of Pride, the primary organization behind NYC Pride events, released a statement late last year addressing many of these community concerns.)

“Pride has always been about fighting for queer and trans rights,” Fernandez-Pages told MTV News. “The Queer and Trans Liberation March is an actual protest, one that really adheres to the values of the queer community and the people who laid down their lives for the queer community.”

He’s not alone; tens of thousands of people went to alternative Pride events this year, or turned the more mainstream events into protests of their own. On June 29, a Black trans woman interrupted a drag show at the Stonewall Inn to protest mainstream Pride and to bring attention to the deaths of other Black trans women; per reports, some patrons attempted to have her kicked out of the venue. And on Friday, June 28, LGBTQ+ activists like Emma González and New York City Councilman Corey Johnson paid homage to their roots at a rally outside Stonewall.

Watching from the crowd was Brandon Wolf, a 30-year LGBTQ+ activist with The Dru Project from Tallahassee, Florida, who survived the Pulse Nightclub shooting. His best friend Drew Leinonen was killed in the massacre, as was Drew’s partner Juan Guerrero. 

“The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is one of pride and joy, but also one of reflection. The rally struck home for me as a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come and also acknowledge the work we have left to do,” Wolf told MTV News.

“Pride, to this day, is a protest,” he continued. “A protest against discrimination. A protest against bigotry and hate. Yes, we celebrate with parades. Yes, we party together. But we also rally. And until everyone is truly equal, we must continue to rally.”