This past weekend was my first Pride experience. On Sunday, I joined the glitter- and rainbow-covered masses on Caltrain and Bart that flooded into the city to watch San Francisco’s annual Pride parade. I was excited to see my community in its full, unashamed splendor, and to celebrate my authentic queer self with my other LGBT+ friends. However, I also had my reservations; the ongoing debates about the role of allies and corporations in our communities and especially Pride made me question whether the parade would be enjoyable for me.
Despite my hesitation, I decided I wanted to attend, at the very least to say I had. And at first, Pride was mostly the positive experience I had hoped for. Stepping out onto Market Street from the Bart station, I could feel the celebratory anticipation in the cool San Francisco air. Caught up in the cheerful spirit, I purchased an overpriced Pride flag and found some scaffolding to sit on with my friends.
A few minutes later, the roar of engines announced the arrival of Dykes on Bikes, who have led San Francisco Pride since its inception in 1976. The sense of community present between these leather-clad riders and open displays of women loving women filled me with that particular joy of seeing oneself represented on a public stage.
Following Dykes on Bikes was a resistance contingent, a collection of various activist groups that were specifically designated to lead this year’s parade as a response to the current administration. I cheered extra loud for signs that declared slogans like “Corporations, cops, and barricades have no place in our parade,” “death to rainbow capitalism,” and “Stonewall was a riot against police violence.”
Those messages, that acknowledged the radical history of queer liberation and the necessity of continued radicalism today, are exactly what make me truly proud to be part of my community.
I was also proud to see many displays of intersectionality, within and without the LGBT+ community, including support for Black Lives Matter, trans women of color, Palestinian liberation, refugees and immigrants, and indigenous rights.
About twenty minutes after these displays of intersectionality and resistance, the San Francisco Police Department rolled through, and then a seemingly never ending line of corporations and companies, interspersed with smaller community groups. The irony of the police’s and corporations’ presence in the parade despite the strong opposition to them expressed earlier was not lost on me. The elation I felt watching Dykes on Bikes and the resistance contingent began to fade, as the streams of corporation marchers walked by and the parade less and less represented who I am and what I believe in.
I couldn’t help but notice that the largest cheers seemed to be for these companies with loud music, big floats, and free merchandise, rather than for community organizations doing actual work for LGBT+ people, like El/La Para Trans Latinas or the Bay Area Bisexual Network. I started to wonder that if I could not even identify with half of the contingents in the parade, then who was it really for? Was it for the LGBT+ community or the allies who want a pat on the back for showing up for us once a year? Or was it for the companies that value LGBT+ people more as a market than as a community that needs support?
I had the sinking feeling that even if this year’s parade was designed to include more serious messages of resistance and intersectionality, many of the parade-goers were just waiting for the “real” party, with the glitter and rainbows. I looked at the faces around me and wondered how many of them were actually a part of my community and how many were here to just watch the spectacle or get drunk and high in gaudy outfits.
I wondered how many actually knew about the varied realities of being queer in America: that LGB youth are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide compared to straight counterparts, that LGBT youth constitute 40 percent of the homeless youth served by drop-in centers, that transgender people are nearly four times as likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population, that transgender women of color constitute roughly half of LGBT murders, or that bisexual women are nearly twice as likely as straight women to be victims of intimate partner violence.
I acknowledge that not everyone is visibly gay and that the popularity of pride is demonstrative of the incredible progress we have achieved, but I could not shake the thought that many of the people at Pride did not have any real understanding of the issues facing the LGBT+ community nor made any serious efforts to confront them. I could not shake the thought that there were probably even gay people there who were failing to be allies to those within the community, who weren’t supporting our trans and queer siblings of color or our disabled siblings.
I wondered how many people there even knew the history of Pride, and more so than just a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, but that the Stonewall Riots were a militant reaction to police brutality, where drag queens of color, like Marsha P. Johnson, played a crucial role.
As I reflected on Pride to write this piece, I was reminded of an article I read recently, that argued that while identities like gay, bisexual, or transgender are intrinsic, the label “queer” is an active choice to reject oppressive ideas of gender and sexual orientation. To me, this incredibly important aspect of queerness, that acknowledges the political implications and intersectionality of the struggle for LGBT+ justice, was missing from Pride.
In the end, my experience at Pride led me to the conclusion that many other queer people have already reached. Pride is indeed a party, a fun event to mention in casual when someone asks about your weekend, to snatch free products and dress outrageously, that has lost much of its political significance.
I know that queer self-love and pride in the face of a heteronormative cispatriarchy is resistance in itself, and I want my community to have spaces to celebrate ourselves openly. I won’t deny the importance of Pride in that sense. Yet I cannot celebrate the way corporations or police have co-opted this space when being proud means so much more than sticking a rainbow on a logo once a year or a pride flag on a car.
Pride is knowing that queer liberation is not just Harvey Milk, but Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riveira, Dr. Maggi Rubenstein, and thousands of others. Pride is centering and uplifting the voices of the most vulnerable members of our community. Pride is a history of continuous and collective struggle that must not be forgotten or sanitized.