Queer editor reflects on monetization of Pride

A mob erupts into anger. Bottles, rocks, and bricks sail through the air. Down the street, inmates of a women's prison set fire to their belongings and throw them to the ground below, chanting "Gay rights." Now-revered icon Marsha P. Johnson scales a lamppost and drops a heavy bag onto a police car, shattering the windshield. All were scenes that occurred on the nights of the famous Stonewall Riots in June of 1969, when a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, triggered a massive riot that ignited a movement and paved the way for the rights and acceptance of future generations.

Queer activism skyrocketed in the months following the event, and the first Pride parades were held in cities a year afterwards. In 1999, President Bill Clinton officially declared June "Gay & Lesbian Pride Month," the same month as the riots. Nowadays, Pride events are a common fixture of cities and towns during June. But while the Pride events inspired in the direct aftermath of Stonewall were grassroots efforts, today they are largely organized and sponsored by corporations. This transition of leadership from community to business calls some of its qualities into question: who is pride for, and to what ends does it now serve?

As queer people have become increasingly merged with mainstream society, many of the more privileged demographics of our community seem to carry the impression that the new norm of corporate sponsorship represents an upward trend in the cisgender and heterosexual embrace of queer lives. This view is predominantly held by the privileged because it is those very people that cisheterosexual society is embracing; not all of us, but white people, cisgender people, and the abled, among others. The rest of us are still being pushed to the margins. Queer disability advocates are still forced to frequently argue the inherent inaccessibility of Pride celebrations everywhere, from a lack of ramps to quiet zones or simply a refusal to listen to disabled voices. This marginalization extends to race. I myself witnessed criticism arise in the comment section of Pflugerville Pride's Instagram after their announcement of an Amazon sponsorship, concerning Amazon’s frequent and patterned mistreatment of Black workers that has resulted in dozens of lawsuits filed against them, particularly Black women. The criticism was deleted minutes later.

Intersectionality reminds us that while we are all in community together as queer people, certain inequalities still exist between us along lines of race, class, gender, etc., and conducting a Pride festival with funds generated by mistreated Black labor sends the message that we will remain complicit with those inequalities. Still, accepting sponsorship from corporate giants like Amazon is not without benefits. The funds provided allow for Pride organizations to book high-profile entertainers like Tammie Brown, drag queen and alumnus of RuPaul's Drag Race who performed at Pflugerville Pride. They can purchase more games to set up, or allow people to attend festivals free of charge, which PF Pride also did.

However, all of that is just entertainment. Entertainment is not without value, providing a much-needed respite for queer people under attack from a homophobic and transphobic society, but it is not enough. To reduce the goals of Pride to a fun festival, parade, or performance betrays its original meaning as a radical act of protest.

When I celebrated at Round Rock Pride, what was memorable and important to me was not rainbow-splattered merchandise, but the true solidarity and compassion queer people have for one another. Towards the corner of the festival grounds was a blue STI testing van adorned with the logo of KindClinic. I would visit that same clinic, created for the purpose of transgender care and sexual health services for queer people in particular, to receive gender affirming hormones and assistance with a legal name change — all free of charge. That is the true solidarity I desire in Pride; a solidarity that derives from compassion, not materialism. Knowing that my gender and sexual health needs could be met no matter my income, gender identity, or expression brought me a level of comfort that Dell rainbow bracelets cannot provide.

Our festivals, parades, and performances cannot lose sight of the revolutionary acts of the queer movement. The only solution to this dilemma is a complete reorganization of ideals and leadership as a community. We can no longer continue to be complicit in social inequality simply because queer people have achieved a modicum of respect in this society. If we want to truly be in community for queers of color and other marginalized peers, we have a responsibility to reclaim Pride; by the people, for the people—and that means all of us.

Originally published in "The Hawk," September 2022, p. 2.