Philly's Pride March returns this week with new organizers and focus
If anyone knows Pride at its best, it's Elicia Gonzales.
The 46-year-old queer, Latina activist experienced one of her biggest milestones there. She proposed to her wife, Megan Hannah, in the middle of the Philly Pride Parade in 2014.
"I wanted it to be really over the top," said Gonzales, who's now the executive director of the Abortion Liberation Fund of Pennsylvania. "And it was like our biggest Pride ever. When I look back over the video, it's just filled with queerness and Latinidad. It was cool."
But even Gonzales can understand why some people don't feel welcome at Pride, especially LGBTQ people of color. In Philadelphia, she has joined a new group of queer and trans activists who are trying to rebuild Pride into something more welcoming — and more revolutionary.
2022 has been a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation, according to the LGBTQ rights group Freedom For All Americans. Hundreds of bills have been introduced around the country attempting to ban gender-affirming healthcare for LGBTQ youth, and keep trans kids out of school sports. That, stacked on top of a nationwide reckoning over racism in policing, has inspired many cities to change how they celebrate LGBTQ people.
In Philadelphia, a nonprofit called Philly Pride Presents ran the city's biggest LGBTQ events for decades. That is, until it suddenly disbanded in June 2021 after being accused of racism and transphobia.
The accusations were based on a series of now-deleted Facebook posts. Philly Pride Presents posted a Memorial Day status last year that included what appeared to be the Blue Lives Matter flag — but with a rainbow stripe instead of a blue one.
The Blue Lives Matter flag is a symbol that has come to represent everything from support for police officers to white nationalism, and even that 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. — which left one person dead.
A few weeks later, a separate post that described the Stonewall Riots referred to the trans women who led the resistance as "those dressed as women," implying that trans women aren't actually women.
"That really was the worst kind of insult you could pay," said José de Marco, a longtime organizer with the HIV/AIDS coalition ACT UP Philadelphia. "People saw this and had absolutely enough of Pride and their B.S."
Activists say the Facebook posts echoed a long history of Philly Pride Presents being too cozy with police, and too centered on the white, cisgender gay male experience.
The LGBTQ community had previously criticized the group for charging money to get into the Pride festival, and for hosting the event on a date that always conflicted with the Odunde Festival — the largest and longest-running African American street festival in the country.
Then, in 2016, Philly Pride Presents offered the title of parade grand marshal to a group of LGBTQ police officers, called the Gay Officer Action League of Greater Philadelphia. GOAL turned down the honor after backlash from queer people of color.
To Gonzales, honoring police at Pride was offensive — since the annual parade started with the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. That's when a group of LGBTQ patrons at the Stonewall Inn finally pushed back against constant raids of gay bars and violence by the police. The protest is known as the catalyst for the annual Pride parades — and the modern LGBTQ rights movement as a whole.
"To be so brazen as to not only work in collaboration, but to try to celebrate the police at your event was not even a dog whistle," Gonzales said. "It was blatantly harmful."
When the old Pride fell apart, a new group stepped in. For the first time, a group of mostly Black and brown LGBTQ organizers are throwing Pride in Philadelphia on June 5.
This year, Philly Pride will be a march instead of a parade, to emphasize an ongoing fight for LGBTQ rights. It'll end in a street fair with music and dancing, food and drinks, and multiple stages for performers. And it'll be free to enter — for the first time in almost 30 years.
Ashley Coleman, a member of the new PHL Pride Collective, said there will be no police officers marching at Pride this year. The group also put together its own community safety model.
"In addition to private security, we have the medics, the doctors and nurses," Coleman said. "But also mental health providers, social workers, therapists on site at our community resource centers to come in if things start getting a little hot, little heated. [They] can come in and de-escalate things."
Philly isn't the only place where Pride is changing. A new coalition of LGBTQ groups has taken over Pittsburgh Pride, after the nonprofit that used to run the event disbanded in the summer of 2020.
Boston's long-running Pride organization also disbanded over concerns about inclusivity in the summer of 2021. A new Pride group has not yet formed publicly.
In San Francisco, Pride organizers aren't allowing police to march in uniform this year. So they're boycotting Pride, along with the San Francisco sheriff's department and fire department. The whole ordeal has led San Francisco Mayor London Breed to declare she's not going to Pride this year.
With hundreds of anti-trans bills sweeping the nation, some say Pride should return to a protest, like its Stonewall roots.
Ciora Thomas, a Black trans woman from Pittsburgh, organizes an event called the People's Pride.
"As an LGBTQ community, we need to be centering Black and brown trans people," Thomas said. "Because our ancestors, our trans-cestors, they fought so hard, but for the gay rights movement. But the main folks who are being targeted now are trans folks."
Copyright 2022 WHYY