The pride march is one of the most visible, powerful and longstanding traditions of queer rights movements. But it is also a point of contention.
In the early 1990s, Chicago and San Francisco saw local ACT UP chapters call for more attention to the AIDS crisis, and 1993 saw the first Dyke Marches in Philadelphia and Los Angeles that advocated for improved lesbian rights and visibility. Protests and self-dubbed “disruptions” have continued nationally since then, often calling out the increasing inclusion of corporate sponsors.
The institution of the pride march may have reached the point that, as with many traditions, it is primed to either evolve or die. And even if change is to come — which traditionalists and more radical activists alike have called for — perhaps the more relevant question is not whether pride should change, but how.
This past June, pride festivals in several cities began to show signs of change. Resist march demonstrations emerged from Washington to Los Angeles to New York, calling for sweeping changes to the current structures of pride celebrations. The marchers’ demands varied, but major concerns included corporate sponsorship of pride, large police presences, the level of straight people’s involvement and a lack of inclusivity of queer and trans people of color.
“We wanted to communicate that trans people were at the forefront,” said LaSaia Wade, a marcher and member of the Black Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Collective of Chicago. “The original pride was a resistance march.”
Pride as a means of visibility
One of the first arguments for hosting pride is the need for queer people to be seen. Politicians need to know that LGBTQ people are a voting bloc to be reckoned with, and those who are anti-LGBTQ need to know that these are real human beings who live in their neighborhoods, activists said. Other queer people need to know they’re not alone. Even straight and cisgender allies need to be reminded of the queer issues that matter.
“In the past few years, pride has taken on a celebratory tone,” said Dan Rafter, who works in Texas as chief public affairs officer for the civil rights organization Freedom for All Americans. “But when the parades are over and the floats are taken down, the same openness isn’t always there. A lot of people aren’t necessarily going home to a city like Austin or New York.”
Certainly, this was a crucial element of early marches, according to Lillian Faderman, a queer historian and author of the lesbian history classic “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.” She remembers marching in the first Los Angeles pride parade in 1970, following demonstrations in New York and San Francisco.
“It was incredible,” she said. “There were a couple of thousand gay people brave enough to walk down Hollywood Boulevard.”
Faderman also discussed the history of the events that led to that first march a year after Stonewall. She said the co-founders of the famous queer rights organization the Mattachine Society, Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols, were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963. They wanted to have a queer version, but the idea of rallying thousands of gay people to march openly in Washington was unthinkable at the time.
Still, the Mattachine Society members held smaller protests at the White House and outside of Liberty Hall in Philadelphia. Kameny, having been fired from his government job for being gay, was particularly interested in workplace rights and had his protesters march in professional clothing. He dreamed of the day when people could hold civil positions regardless of their sexuality.
Pride as an expensive party
Now there are stronger workplace protections, and acceptance is far more widespread. The longtime central issue of same-sex marriage is settled for now, and while plenty of other queer civil rights issues linger unresolved, there is a view of pride focused on celebrating the progress that has been made.
Celebrations can be expensive, however, and the cost of pride celebrations is often overlooked. Organizers, who might or might not be volunteers, must think about the cost of entertainment, permits, rental fees, decorations, fencing, street closure signs, radios, golf carts, insurance policies and, most especially, security.
The presence of police officers is a particularly complex matter. Their very attendance at the parades, either as guards or participants, is one that some queer people of color have said made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In light of police brutality that is disproportionately directed at those communities, especially with a spate of unarmed police shootings, critics argue that police presence could lead to more such interactions or trigger past traumas.
The idea isn’t popular with parade organizers, who feel that attendees’ safety is at risk without police. Chris Wigley, vice president of finance for the Denver GLBT Center, who is white, said he wanted to make sure everyone is safe at the parade.
Michael Doughman, who is also white, acts as executive director of the Dallas Tavern Guild and sees police marching in parades as a positive change.
“Those cops aren’t afraid to put their name on a gay and lesbian event,” he said. “That’s progress from when I grew up.”
Others point to efforts by police departments to reach out to the queer community. In Detroit, Officer Danielle Woods created an LGBTQ liaison department, which has worked and marched with Dave Wait, who organizes the annual Motor City Pride. In Dallas, Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is a lesbian, has also marched in the pride parade, organizers said.
Then there is the matter of the cost of police presence. The price can differ based on the length of a parade, the number of attendees and the distance covered. But in recent years, the scale has changed completely. After mass shootings and other attacks on crowds, such as the Boston Marathon in 2013 or in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security mandated a much larger police presence. Now, officers are required every 20 feet, as are a number of specialized security officials, including sharpshooters and SWAT team members, Doughman said.
“Five years ago, we weren’t required to have bomb sniffing dogs or SWAT teams,” Doughman said.
Without the police presence, these parades don’t receive permits. Doughman said that six years ago, he needed two permits. This year, it’s nine. That takes more and more money, as do increased insurance policies, which are harder to obtain as well because of the perceived risk of mass shootings.
Pride organizers have tried to cover rising costs, but some methods are less popular than others. New York Pride, for example, has been called out for not paying its performers, promising exposure instead of pay. In June, performer Mal Blum wrote a piece for Autostraddle called, “Why I’m Saying No To Playing (And Attending Pride) This Year,” which detailed the performer’s reservations about being asked to perform for “exposure.”
“Instead, I told them I’d donate my performance, but I’d at least need a small stipend to pay my band,” Blum said. “I value my band members and their time and energy. I recognize they are making livings, that they could take other gigs that day … This, I was told, was not in the budget. Nothing was in the budget. ‘There is no stipend to pay musicians.’
“Yet, when I asked if the headliner for the event, famed country singer, and cisgender straight woman, LeAnn Rimes is ‘donating’ her set, I received no response. Because of course she isn’t … They also have to pay for the stage and the lights and the sound system and security and advertising and every other minute detail that an event of this magnitude requires.”
These celebrations have become so expensive that there were fears in London and Toronto, among other cities, that the festivals would have to cease. In Toronto, the money troubles go back to security.
The Canadian city’s chapter of Black Lives Matter held a sit-in during this year’s parade in July until Toronto Pride signed a list of demands, including the banning of police floats. As a result, Toronto City Councillor John Campbell suggested the event’s $260,000 grant be cut.
There’s another solution for these budgetary concerns: corporate sponsors. Motor City Pride needs them for about 41 percent of its budget, while corporate sponsorships make up about 60 percent of Colorado Pride’s budget, organizers said. It’s estimated that corporate sponsors cover 75 percent of Dallas’s pride festival. There are some other sources of revenue from admission sales to other pride events, beverage sales and float fees, but they’re usually much less profitable.
Each organizer reported that they vet their sponsors, checking things like voting records of politicians, history of humanitarian donations and queer-friendly employment policies.
Perhaps the most noticeable example of this transformation toward reliance on corporate sponsors has occurred in New York. Last year, corporate sponsorship donated $1.7 million to the $2.3 million budget, Forbes reported. There were 56 sponsors that spent an average of $30,000 each, though different tiers could command sponsorship levels into six figures. Even the City University of New York, which is facing huge financial setbacks, gave $25,000 to march. And The Financial Times noted that since Chris Frederick, the managing director, was hired in 2009, corporate sponsorship has increased tenfold.
In return, marketing packets promise an ever-increasing captive audience that skews young, has tremendous spending power and includes either queer people or those who care deeply about LGBT causes.
But not everyone loves the newcomers: straight people and sponsors. Wade, the #Resist marcher, said that while she sees a use for fundraising, she has concerns about where the money actually goes.
“Will it go into our pockets or into our communities?” she said.
Also crucial to the argument is an understanding of the way corporate policies affect queer people intersectionally. Apple, for example, has a 100 percent Human Rights Campaign rating, yet has been the subject of investigations over human rights abuses at its plants in China. Goldman Sachs, notorious for its lack of diversity and its role in the 2008 financial crisis, also has a 100 percent rating.
Yet at Freedom for All Americans, Rafter has a different perspective on corporate involvement, having just finished a battle to defeat an anti-trans bathroom bill in the Texas Senate. While the effort relied partly on impassioned testimony from dozens of trans Texans and their relatives, Rafter admits that corporations were also crucial to the fight. They made the case that, especially in a big oil state like Texas, anti-trans legislation would drive out business like it had in North Carolina when that state passed a similar bill.
It can make for strange bedfellows, given the mounting tensions about corporatization within the movement.
“At the end of the day,” Rafter said. “What matters is working with these companies to fundamentally improve the safety and living conditions of LGBTQ people.”
Pride as a fundraiser
At the same time, some argue that the community should take advantage of pride’s increased visibility. Perhaps ideally, queer issues could more regularly have the attention they command in June or during one parade. Queer people and queer issues exist year-round. But the least that organizers can do is capitalize on that increased attention and make a profit that goes back into the community, organizers and activists said.
It appears to be standard practice to set aside at least some of the profits for charity. Every organizer contacted reported setting some funding aside: for AIDS foundations, for LGBT centers that throw the festival or for partnered queer charities.
Doughman said that the original point of Dallas pride was to raise money for other organizations. But it’s become much harder to do that.
“Our expenses have doubled in recent years, so it’s not nearly as much,” he said.
Sometimes, the money can also go to subsidize smaller nonprofits that cannot afford the fees to march. Though sometimes, when the money’s still not there, organizers will just let them march, trying to absorb the costs as best they can.
The organizers of San Diego Pride have made a decision to highlight charitable giving in their efforts. Since 1994, they have given $3 million in charitable donations.
“We wanted a model of giving, raising funds not just for a party, but to see something more sustainable in the community,” said Fernando Lopez, director of operations for San Diego Pride.
Funds go to subsidizing smaller nonprofits in the parade, implementing HIV-testing facilities at the event and a variety of LGBT nonprofits and community partners, Lopez said. San Diego Pride has been involved with beach cleanups, voter engagement work and even a Habitat for Humanity build. The model also comes from the support of a wide network of volunteers, which in a given year can range from 1,500 to 2,500 people.
“We realized as an organization many, many years ago, we had a massive amount of volunteers. We didn’t want to just engage them once a year,” Lopez said.
And even at that pivotal point, Lopez said the focus is on intersectionality. Every year, they kick off pride with a “Spirit of Stonewall” rally, and this year the event discussed immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter and where those intersect.
The volunteers are also themselves diverse: More 50 percent are women and people of color, and 15 percent are trans.
But still, the parades and festivals are a crucial part of making the charity possible. The organization, which makes its budget public online, saw about 54 percent of its $2.3 million in revenue come from festival and parade funds, and 23 percent from corporate sponsorship.
That’s not to say that San Diego pride doesn’t see problems with pride at large. The organizers hosted their own #Resist march in July to call attention to criticisms of pride celebrations nationally.
Pride as protest
“If you want to continue the legacy of where we came from … we didn’t have permits in the first march,” Wade, the Resist marcher said, referring to the activism of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and the riots at Stonewall. “Their legacy was to burn [stuff] down until they were heard. They didn’t care about respectability.”
Wade said that if the current pride marches do not evolve, she would rather see separate marches form, suggesting a trans pride march divested from capitalism. That would not be without precedent: The decades-old tradition of the Dyke March, started in Washington, D.C., might present an example of such an event.
Faderman also noted the precedent of original pride events being devoid of corporate sponsorship.
“The whole spirit behind [pride] was defiance, and there’s no way a company like AT&T would’ve joined,” she said.
Public backlash to pride is mounting. In the past year or so, headlines like “The Other Corporate Pride Problem,” “Dear Corporate America: Leave Our Pride Celebrations Alone,” and “Is Pride Still For Queer People Like Me?” have flooded the internet.
Wade is skeptical. “Our gay clubs aren’t our own gay clubs anymore. These aren’t our churches anymore. We have become a show, we have become clowns. We have become an episode of ‘Will and Grace’ that straight people can profit from.”
Doughman has somewhat of a different feeling. He said that although he had no problems with protests, he felt sympathy for celebrators caught up in #Resist marches, as they’d been promised an uncontested parade.
“You need to publicize [protests] well in advance,” he said. “You cannot marry those things. You can’t march and party.”
And while these issues might be unresolved now, they will surely be topics of conversation going forward.
“Pride presents opportunities for everyone to come together to collectively celebrate the success we’ve made,” Rafter said. “And discuss the future.”
About the Author
Carmen Triola is a literary studies student at The New School and a native New Jerseyan. Learn more about her here.