A critical view on Pride Month

Pride parades will be taking place all over the country this month. As we all rev up for this year’s festivities, so, too, will the fault lines of race, gender identity and class emerge. In addition to Gay Pride events, there will be a segment of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) population attending Black Gay Pride and Latino Gay Pride events, to name a few.

Pride is about the varied expressions of the life, gifts, and talents of the entire (LGBTQ) community. But the divisions in our community during Pride also show us something troubling and broken within ourselves. Unlike the revolutionary decade of the 1960s, during which the air bred dissent, we LGBTQ people appear to be residing in a sanguine time — rebels without a cause, a context, or an agenda. Many of us would argue that we have moved from our once urgent state of “Why we can’t wait!” to our present lull state of “Where do we go from here?” Some in our community contest that we are in a holding pattern while other argue that we are ready to assimilate into mainstream society. And here are some reasons why:

With advances such as hate crime laws, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states, anti-homophobic bullying becoming a national concern, we have come a long way since the first Pride marches four plus decades ago. With the AIDS epidemic no longer ravaging our entire community as it once did – an epidemic that galvanized us to organize – and with the Religious Right becoming more of a political liability than an asset to political candidates these days, our backs appear not to be slammed as harshly up against a brick wall like they used to be. And, with the LGBTQ community being the fastest disenfranchised group to touch the fringes of America’s mainstream since the Stonewall Riots in 1969, some contest the only thing holding ourselves back is us.

But many who oppose the LGBTQ community driving forth an assimilationist agenda are waving a cautionary finger, saying to us “not too fast now”. And the cautionary finger waving is because not everyone in the LGBTQ community is accepted. And Pride events can be public displays of our disparities. So, as we hit the streets all month, going to various celebrations, let’s query who’s missing from these Pride festivities and why?

For example, Black Pride plays an important role in the larger gay rights movement, but cultural exclusion and social isolation were just a few things gay revelers of African descent experienced in Pride events. Racism is the other. And so after decades of Pride events, where many gays of African descent tried to be included and were rejected, Black Gay Pride was born. And what started out in Los Angeles in 1988 as the only Black Gay Pride in the country has grown to over 35 gatherings nationwide.

Sunday gospel brunches, Saturday night Poetry slams, Friday evening fashion shows, bid whist tournaments, house parties, the smell of soul food and Caribbean cuisine, and the beautiful display of African art and clothing are just a few of the cultural markers that make Black Pride distinct from the dominant queer culture.

The themes and focus of Black, Asian, and Latino Pride events are different from the larger Pride events. Prides of communities of color focus on issues not solely pertaining to the LGBTQ community but rather on social, economic, and health issues impacting their entire communities. For example, where the primary focus and themes in white Prides has been on marriage equality, as in the larger community, Pride events for LGBTQ people of African descent have had to focus not only on HIV/AIDS but also on unemployment, gang violence, LGBTQ youth homelessness, and immigration, to name a few.

Boston’s LGBTQ people of color Pride theme for 2014 was health. Flyers and pamphlets about HIV/AIDS prevention will be disseminated at the LGBTQ people of color Pride Picnic – known among us folks as BASK, which is organized by the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition’s (HBGC) HUES program. Going on its third year, BASK draws LGBTQ people of color from all over New England. And as an all-day extravaganza showcasing musicians, poets, artists, poetry jams, dancers, and, of course, our beautiful selves, you are advised to “bring a blanket, pop a squat, and stay awhile!”

“It’s a way to celebrate our lived experiences and to take up space in our community, a space that feels like us and is for us,” activist Nichole Herring told me last year. And it’s that feeling of belonging and being in our own space that BASK successfully creates among its revelers that it will also be showcasing healthcare workers to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex. And these healthcare workers will look like the attendants.

But for Boston’s LGBTQ people of color Pride begins weeks before Boston Pride. Last year, its kick-off event was the HBGC health expo “Our Health Matters, Too!” The gymnasium of the Epiphany School in Dorchester that Saturday was filled with health booths, workshops, exhibits, and screenings. There were workshops on sex positivity, anal and prostate health, trans health, domestic violence, and LGBTQ depression, to name just a few. And there were screenings for the following: STDs, vision, hypertension, and HIV/AIDS. And, needless to say, the community came out.

While it might seem odd that LGBTQ people of color would prefer going to a school gym or a Pride picnic for health check-ups and information than to a hospital, the reasons are unfortunately rooted in systemic healthcare disparities due not only to race discrimination, but also to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Massachusetts is known across the country as queer friendly and for its outstanding hospitals. People travel from other states and countries to be cared for. But adequate, culturally competent, and compassion healthcare for its LGBTQ population is gravely lacking.

The growing distance between our larger and white LGBTQ community and LGBTQ communities of color has a historical antecedent. Many LGBTQ people of African decent and Latinos argue that the gulf between whites and themselves is also about how the dominant queer community rewrote and continues to control the history of Stonewall. The Stonewall Riot of June 27-29, 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, started on the backs of working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown and black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of that night, but they are also bleached from its written history. Because of the bleaching of the Stonewall Riots, the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement post-Stonewall is an appropriation of a black, brown, trans, and queer liberation narrative. And it is the deliberate visible absence of these African American, Latino, and API LGBTQ people that makes it harder, if not near impossible for LGBTQ communities to build trusted coalitions with white LGBTQ communities.

Boston Pride in recent years has turned over a new leaf, working indefatigably to build trust and partnership with LGBTQ communities of color. But the community building has not been easy. And to date only one person of color is on Boston Pride’s five-person board. “We have reached out to dozens of people of color to invite them to join our board. In every single instance, those invitations were declined…I add that we are currently looking at the candidacy of two people of color,” Sylvain Bruni told me. He notes, moreover, “We are a working rather than solely a governance board, which makes it difficult in general to recruit members.”

Bruni, a native of France, was appointed President of the Board of Directors of Boston Pride in January 2014 and has been involved with Pride for over a decade. He proudly acclaims that Boston Pride Week has become the city’s most diverse public event because some real changes have been made to bring in communities of color. “I attended the working meeting of our Black and Latin@ Pride team. About a dozen folks showed up, and we reviewed a series of possible events branded as “Black Pride” and/or “Latin@ Pride” during Pride Week and beyond. Several black organizations were represented and said that they want to continue working with Boston Pride year-round to expand this programming, which is very encouraging,” Bruni beams with pride.

But Bruni realizes more successful outreach needs to be done in order to keep the doors open in LGBTQ communities of color that are receptive to working with Boston Pride. “I would welcome any advice or feedback on how to make Boston Pride even more diverse and welcoming to communities of color,” Bruni stated.

Views on Pride are mixed – and not just along lines of race, class, and gender identity. For many, Pride represents a bone of contention. Once many thought the celebration was too political and had lost its vision of what it means for people just to have a good time. But others now think of it as a weekend bacchanalia of drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex, desecrating the memorial of the Stonewall Riots and the chance to make a political statement.

Pride need not be viewed as either a political statement or a senseless non-stop orgy. Such an either/or approach artificially divides the integral connection between political action and celebratory acts in our fight for civil rights.

At its core, Pride events are an invitation for community. They should highlight the multicultural aspect of joy and celebration that symbolizes not only our uniqueness as individuals and communities, but also affirms our varied expressions of LGBTQ life in America. While Pride events are still fraught with divisions, they nonetheless bind us to a common struggle for LGBTQ equality. And our diversity not only affirms our uniqueness as LGBTQ people, but also broadens America’s understanding that a democratic society is a diverse one. But as long as LGBTQ communities and cultures of color across the country continue to be absent each June, Pride month is an event not to be proud of.