Gay Pride’s Choice: March in Protest or Dance Worries Away

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People in the L.G.B.T.Q. community have had many gains to celebrate over the last decade. Marriage became legal. Caitlyn Jenner and others pushed open doors for transgender people. Oregon elected an openly bisexual governor — the nation’s first. Even the Boy Scouts dropped its ban on gay leaders.

But with the election of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and the appointment of several cabinet members whose agendas are perceived by some as anti-gay, many realized that those gains could be easily lost.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Cathy Marino-Thomas, a former co-president of Marriage Equality USA, “it shook up those marriage advocates who thought they could go home.”

So she, like many others, began pushing to turn the nation’s pride parades into old-fashioned protest marches in response to the potential unraveling of decades of political and social progress.

The makeovers have brought tense confrontations between organizers who have spent months planning celebrations and those who think the political situation is so dire that the parades need to be recast.

In the middle, and feeling left out, are the people who just want to show up and party, and the politically conservative who concede that although gay pride marches have always been somewhat political in nature, they have never been deliberately partisan.

But bare-knuckle battles are nothing new when it comes to pride celebrations.

“Many if not most of the L.G.B.T.Q. community know that queer street activism is as old and as predictable as the rainbow,” said Bob Witeck, a communications strategist and onetime congressional press secretary who works with the gay community and businesses like Marriott that market to it.

Marching along Fifth Avenue during last year’s gay pride parade in New York. This year, organizers will blend the traditional parade with more-pointed political protests.
“We create drama as much as confront it,” Mr. Witeck said. “But the questions raised about the purpose and meaning of pride itself are important ones.”

Conflict has been baked into gay pride marches from the beginning. Even at the first march in Manhattan in 1970, organizers fought over whether it should be called a gay pride march or a gay power march. They even debated whether people who joined in the 51-block march from Greenwich Village to Central Park should be required to follow a dress code.

That first march and rally (“a gay-in” in the parlance of the era) were staged on the first anniversary of the days of uprisings that followed a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

Internal conflicts have become a hallmark of gay pride marches ever since. Organizers have grappled with criticism over the lack of attention to women, bisexuals, racial minorities and, more recently, transgender people. They have weathered fights over how to respond to the AIDS crisis and the fight for marriage equality, and weighed whether accepting lucrative corporate sponsorships was selling out.

Last year, grief and heightened concerns about security in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., washed over many gay pride parades. But never have more parades been canceled or seen their focus shifted so dramatically.

Citing the success of the Women’s March on Washington as inspiration, anti-Trump protesters gathered in more than 100 towns and cities on June 11, including in communities that traditionally hold pride parades later in the year or have never held them before.

In Los Angeles, this year’s parade was abandoned in favor of a protest march that both criticized Mr. Trump and championed the importance of diversity. Tens of thousands of people marched, though not everyone was happy with the change. On social media and in interviews, critics said the event was less joyous and felt exclusionary.

It was the second year in a row that Los Angeles organizers had grappled with pressure to change the parade. Last year, protesters staged a boycott of the parade, saying the event had lost focus and was in danger of becoming little more than a music festival for the young that some called a “gay Coachella.”

In Los Angeles this month, the city’s gay pride parade was abandoned in favor of a protest march that criticized the Trump administration.
In Washington, organizers decided to split the difference and hold the traditional Capital Pride Parade on Saturday, June 10, and the Equality March for Unity and Pride the next day.

Protesters from a group that called itself No Justice No Pride disrupted Saturday’s parade, saying that the event had become too aligned with the police and corporate sponsors who had ties to Mr. Trump and projects like the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

The march was less contentious, said Joe Mitchoff, a father of two who traveled from Portland, Ore., with a group of friends and attended both the protest march and the parade.

“There was a celebration, and then a call to action,” he said, and both mattered.

“I pay taxes, I have children,” he said. “To think my family is considered less than anyone else’s is absolutely unacceptable.”

Robert Gonzalez, 47, and his husband, Craig Garmendia, 35, skipped the parade in favor of the march. Pride, they said, has become too commercialized.

“This is more about letting people know we still haven’t made that more-perfect union,” said Mr. Garmendia, a Food and Drug Administration scientist who wore a rainbow bow tie for the march.

Meghan Brown, 34, traveled from Virginia to attend the parade on Saturday and planned to attend the march the next day. She said she wished the two events had been merged, if only to make it more practical for people commuting into the city.

“There’s not really a distinction,” she said of the events.

On June 25 in both New York and San Francisco, organizers will blend the traditional parades with more-pointed political protests at events expected to draw record crowds.

In New York, and elsewhere, there was grief and heightened security concerns last year after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
Heritage of Pride, the committee that organizes New York’s march, has agreed to reconfigure the order of the more than 300 contingents that march along Fifth Avenue, allowing groups pledging opposition to the Trump administration and the Republican leadership to have prominent positions near the front of the march.

It was not an easy compromise. Early organizing meetings were heated, with groups like Gays Against Guns, Rise and Resist, and Act Up pressing the committee to include protest groups or face having tens of thousand of demonstrators show up anyway and possibly lead to disruption and arrests.

“The idea that it’s a parade is against our history,” said Ms. Marino-Thomas, who is now a member of Gays Against Guns and was adamant that what organizers are calling resistance groups be included. “It began as a march. It was not meant to be this big corporate-sponsored parade.”

Making room for so many protesters at the New York march was not a simple task for the city’s Pride celebration, which costs more than $1 million to stage and requires months of careful coordination with the city, the police and hundreds of groups and sponsors.

Some of those sponsors contacted the organizing committee looking for guidance, said James Fallarino, a spokesman for NYC Pride.

“It was more of a concern about how they could strike the right tone, not that they didn’t want to see resistance,” he said. “They wanted to make sure it was O.K. for them to be celebratory as well.”

Sue Doster, who has been a pride organizer in New York and New Jersey for more than 20 years, initially worried about the logistics involved in adding a wave of anti-Trump protesters to the mix, but said the two sides were not really that far apart.

Even the act of attending a gay pride parade or dancing in the street with a lover can be a form of protest when L.G.B.T.Q. people still don’t have full equality.

“Pride in general was born out of protest,” Ms. Doster said. “I think they’re closer than they are portrayed. They are two sides of the same coin.”

Correction: June 19, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a march in Washington. It was the Equality March for Unity and Pride, not the Equity March for Unity and Pride.

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