Do two LGBT Pride marches in New York City taking place on the same day next month show the failure of Pride to accommodate everyone, or the acceptance that Pride means very different things to very different people?
Does the presence of two marches symbolize fracture at a time when the LGBT community would be better placed to come together to face down common homophobic foes, or is it a sign of healthy plurality, a true showing of how diverse the LGBT community is, and a timely opportunity to engage in voluble political protest?
On Sunday, June 30, you will be able to take your practical and philosophical pick (or do both) between two very different Pride marches in New York City.
The main NYC Pride March, organized by Heritage of Pride, sets off at noon in the shadow of the Flatiron Building, from 26th Street and Fifth Avenue, making its way downtown to Greenwich Village and the Stonewall Inn, before switching to come uptown and finishing at 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue. (This is good, if inevitably chaotic, news for my excellent local diner, the Malibu, on that very corner.)
Four million people are expected to attend—this year not only marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, but it is also World Pride. Organizers expect New York City to be bursting at the seams with LGBT people from all over the world.
The breakaway Queer Liberation March, organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition, begins earlier, at 9:30 a.m. that day, on Seventh Avenue, just below Christopher Street—so within sight of the Stonewall—before heading across West 10th Street to Sixth Avenue, and then an epic urban march north to Central Park, entering it at 59th Street and Sixth Avenue before a planned rally on the Great Lawn.
It is a replication of the route taken by the marchers of the first Pride march, then known as the Christopher Street Day Liberation March, in 1970.
The 2019 march has been organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition because of what it sees as the over-corporatization of the main event and the presence of police both marching and patrolling at it; the cops’ presence is seen as problematic by the Reclaim Pride Coalition because of the police's past homophobia.
The Queer Liberation March proudly boasts no corporate floats, although some police will be on hand, alongside trained marshals, as the march wends its way north from Greenwich Village. It has been endorsed by more than 100 organizations.
The existence of two marches may seem inevitable to those who have followed the years-long saga that pits the large march—with its raft of big-name sponsors, attended and applauded by thousands watching from the sidewalks—against those on the gay left who think that the march has become too bloated and too in hock with those sponsors and certain groupings, like the police or military, that march in the parade.
Similar controversies have flared in New York and at many other Prides, including in cities like Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, in recent years.
For many, there has been a desire for the Pride march to return to be exactly that, and to be focused on angry and energetic demands for LGBT equality, especially now that the hard-won rights of LGBT people are imperiled under an aggressively anti-LGBT Trump administration.
That will be the fundamental appeal to many of the breakaway march; it recustomizes the Pride march as an overt protest march. You will not have to be in a group or part of a corporation to take part in it, as you must be to participate in the main march, which this year will have 160 floats, roughly split half and half between corporate and community groups.
Cathy Renna, spokesperson of Heritage of Pride, told The Daily Beast: “Our march has always been a free speech march. In fact Reclaim marched in the NYC Pride March last year.”
Heritage of Pride met with the Reclaim Pride Coalition, said Renna; conversations were had, and “just as in the larger community, there was some disagreement about some of the issues, and so they have decided to do a separate march.”
Renna said Heritage of Pride had extended its Pride permit of that day to the new march, meaning the Reclaim Pride Coalition could start its march near the Stonewall.
“We’re about to experience the largest Pride event in history in New York City,” said Renna. “There are hundreds of events happening. We want all those events to be successful. We understand the challenges and disagreements within the community around specific issues. NYC Pride grapples with them as much as the Reclaim Pride Coalition does.”
Terry Roethlein, an organizer with the Reclaim Pride Coalition, said it was hoping for a crowd number in “the tens of thousands.” Interest had increased exponentially since the group announced the march on Tuesday, he said.
“On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it’s really important to go back to the radical roots of the rebellion, fighting back against unequal state control,” Roethlein said. “The present march is highly engaged in corporations and also policing—those two tied together. The true meaning of the actual rebellion was the queer community sustaining a position of fighting for more, and challenging state and corporate control to get more liberation in our lives.”
When it came to corporate sponsorship and the size of the event, Renna said: “Our community not long ago would have begged for support from companies and corporations, so we could have the events in a safe and acceptable way.”
The presence of such companies, and what they financially contributed, meant Pride events could be free of charge, she added. “These organizations don’t just support Pride in June, but all year ’round, and if we didn’t have corporate support for those things, where would the money come from?” she asked.
Renna also noted the lobbying power and support from corporations in states like North Carolina and Texas, where anti-LGBT bills had been introduced. The opposition of companies like Apple to such initiatives has been significant. “We live in the United States, a capitalist country where ‘money talks and BS walks,’ as my father was fond of saying,” said Renna.
The Reclaim Pride Coalition was “the Occupy Wall Street” of the movement, she added. This wasn’t a dig. “It is bringing real and serious awareness of the issues. But corporations have made socially responsive decisions on our behalf. Simply saying, ‘No corporations at Pride’ is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
There were “definitely some good elements to the Heritage of Pride march,” Roethlein conceded. “But we had multiple conversations with leadership and it wasn’t sinking in. There was too much party planning, too much corporate interest connected to commodification and consumption. I don’t see how they can back down from that, but we have no animosity towards Heritage of Pride at all. We just maintain that a Pride march should be politically engaged and a protest march.
“I don’t feel their march should end. We are just focused on ours being the biggest and most community-based march it can be. We really want this to be flashpoint, showing that people can change how things in the community are done.”
New York City already hosted separate marches with a lesbian, trans, and drag focus, Roethlein pointed out.
When it came to the main march, people wanted to march, which they were currently prevented from doing, said Roethlein, unless they were part of a group or corporation. “On the day, it’s corporations who get the media coverage, and community groups find their message is lost.”
For LGBT people not affiliated with a larger grouping, “there are too many barricades, and too many police,” said Roethlein. “It’s become a spectator thing, not a community activity. People say that to us, that they can’t stand the corporate floats and just basic lack of mobility on the day—being able to cross streets or get into subways.”
Renna recalled and cherished the protest marches of yore, she said. “But in today’s world the size and scope of many of these events means it’s a safety issue. We’re in New York City. You can’t have several million people at an event and not have NYPD and Homeland Security. You have to realize we are a tremendous soft target. The [anti-LGBT] climate we are living in now means it’s more important than ever that we keep events safe and accessible. We have seen hate crimes spike. It’s a real challenge and struggle to find the balance.”
The policing issue is one of presence on the streets protecting public and marchers, and also as marchers themselves.
For Renna, the police are vital to protect and serve the public that day, and the fact that the cops march is part of the plurality of who is marching, she said, alongside groups like the Reclaim Pride Coalition. The main Pride march should accommodate everyone, she said.
“When I talk to larger community populations, what I hear the most is how can we improve relations with, and behavior of, those within law enforcement unless we have out queer law enforcement sensitizing their colleagues? How does excluding the police completely help the situation any? Is it perfect? No. Is it the only thing we should do? Absolutely not. But what we’re trying to do here is address diverse concerns from extraordinarily diverse community.”
Renna said Heritage of Pride was working with the NYC Anti-Violence Project to ensure that all LGBT people’s Pride-related interactions with police were respectful. “If anyone is mistreated or, god forbid, anything worse, there will be a mechanism to report that.” (In fact, the AVP hotline is intended to provide LGBTQ people with a resource to report all kinds of violence, and is not focused on incidents involving police specifically.)
For Roethlein, however, “At Pride, we can really see the creeping police state coming up since 9/11 impacting something as harmless as an LGBT political march.”
When it comes to the Queer Liberation March, said Roethlein, the coalition wanted as “little police presence as possible, and none would be fine. It will be minimal anyway, because most of them will be doing the other march. Our marshals mean we will be organizing our own security.”
Would that really guarantee marchers’ safety?
“This idea that guaranteeing our safety: You’re never going to get that 100 percent,” said Roethlein. “Yes, there have been bashings on Pride day, but I myself have never heard of anyone coming into the march and doing something malevolent. I really don’t think there’s a need for that extent of policing. People should feel comfortable around a lot of other people and marshals and in what is public space.”
The prospect of two marches, and the issues flowing from it, said Renna made her feel “like we’re in one of those situations where a circular firing squad has been created. The common enemy is not each other, it’s not corporate sponsors. The enemy is the Trump administration, which is trying to render us invisible. The president has created a climate of hate against queer people, people of color, women, and people of different religions. We should be coming together.”
“We’re all for unity,” Roethlein said. “Anyone who wants can join our march. We’re setting the tone. This is the primary march. This is the march truest to the spirit of the Stonewall rebellion. And unity goes both ways. People can go to us or the Heritage of Pride march. Or do both.”
The positive response to the Queer Liberation March showed, said Roethlein, “the growth of desire for political education and engagement in the LGBTQ community. It shows a resistance to merely celebrating in this era of Trump and threats to LGBTQ people globally. It shows people really want to engage and do something community-based and active. My goal is that more and more people come to the Queer Liberation March. It’s the only true definition of what the Pride March should be.”
“I don’t buy that it weakens us,” said Roethlein of having the two marches, and the political disagreements behind the move. “More conversation, more difference of opinion, more pushing up against each other, more discussion and debate is always healthy. Americans have fallen way too deeply into the mode of ‘Just leave things as they are.’ That’s why things are getting worse.”