Back to Our Roots: Pride, Protest, and Black History

Paula Molina Acosta, Serena Zets

This year’s Pride Month comes at a time of national and global unrest. In April and May, Pride parades, festivals and other celebrations nationwide set for June were cancelled due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. Although parades, festivals and celebrations would not be possible, many assumed that other usual markers of Pride — colorful clothing collections, glittering #LoveIsLove Instagram posts and month-long rainbow advertising — would continue as they usually do each year. Instead, the first weeks of Pride Month have been dominated by news and social media buzz surrounding the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Instead of celebrating the fifth anniversary of same-sex marriage equality in the United States, the country has been preoccupied with discussions about white supremacy, police brutality, and the history of racial inequity in America. Many people, straight and LGBTQ alike, have lamented the cancellation of Pride celebrations, even as they support ongoing protests and dialogues.

But as we scroll through the news, watching Black Lives Matter protests erupt in all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, we have to realize that Pride Month is not cancelled at all. In fact, the opposite is true. These events provide us with our greatest LGBTQ opportunity yet: a return to our roots.

There is nothing more true to the legacy of Pride than the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. Protest has long been the successful strategy of the unheard, especially for LGBTQ people.

During the 1950s and 1960s, activists organized against the ban on the employment of gay people in the federal government and led a successful movement to no longer categorize homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1970, a group of lesbians stormed the stage at the National Organization for Women’s Second Congress to Unite Women in protest of the exclusion of lesbians from feminist organizing. In 1977, the community organized a national gay boycott of orange juice to protest the homophobic remarks of Anita Bryant, a singer and orange juice spokeswoman (one activist even threw a pie in her face on national television).

Throughout the AIDS epidemic, LGBTQ activists organized die-ins and kiss-ins, stormed government buildings, and even poured victims’ ashes on the White House lawn to demand government action towards treating and curing the disease. Nationwide protests secured the repeal of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, and numerous similar policies across the country. Protesting, organizing and taking to the streets is a time-honored practice of gay, lesbian, and LGBTQ history. Protest has fundamentally shaped policy where no other course of action could, and our community today has reaped the benefits.

But beyond simply protesting, Pride has a legacy of Black resistance. A black butch lesbian named Stormé Delarverie is believed to have thrown the first punch inciting the famed Stonewall Riots, which first thrust gay rights into the national spotlight and led to the first Pride celebrations in the United States. Black LGBTQ people are our most beloved and important historical figures: writers like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Octavia Butler; performers like Josephine Baker and Ma Rainey; and activists like Marsha P. Johnson, Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis. Black LGBTQ people have contributed to both Black and LGBTQ history for decades. At the same time, they continue to suffer the consequences of racism that many non-Black LGBTQ people and communities have ignored.

You can draw a direct connection between these historical examples of Black LGBTQ organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement currently influencing policy, discourse and culture. Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Both Cullors and Garza openly identify as queer and their lived experiences as queer Black women has shaped the movement’s scope and demands. Black Lives Matter as a movement leads with an intersectional framework that originated with Black women and LGBTQ theorists like Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective. This approach centers the leadership of those who have historically been left out of the movement, and intentionally seeks to end historical patterns of exclusion in these spaces.

In 2016, The New York Times called Black Lives Matter the first 21st-century civil rights movement and that feels more true than ever today. In adopting this intersectional lens, the three founders of Black Lives Matter and their now-millions of supporters are creating a movement not just for our current moment, but for the future.

In an era where every issue is inherently politicized, Black Lives Matter appears to be a rare issue that’s uniting people across dividing lines. According to The New York Times, American voters’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much in the last two weeks as it did in the last two years. This is a moment of reckoning for the United States and it feels fitting that it is occurring this month.

As we find ourselves this June without a Pride parade to dress up for, we have an opportunity to relearn the lessons history has taught us. Not only is the Black Lives Matter fight essential on its own, but it is critically connected to our own history, and to our future. LGBTQ justice and racial justice are inextricable, and this simultaneous Pride month and series of protests reminds us of that. It is a reminder to move forward in support of each other and continue demanding the change the LGBTQ community needs.

Although we can’t celebrate together this year, we can do something more important in the spirit of Pride: Stand in solidarity. In addition to joining protests, supporting organizers and sharing resources, consider donating to organizations that support Black and LGBTQ people this month, including The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, The Black Youth Project, Casa Ruby and The Audre Lorde Project.

This Pride should serve as a reminder that the issues we consider separate from each other are in reality deeply intertwined. They always have been. #BlackLivesMatter. #BlackLGBTQLivesMatter. #BlackTransLivesMatter.

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