Gay Pride in the Age of Trump

From Stonewall to AIDS to the new administration, a look inside the modern LGBTQ movement's past – and where it's going next.

In January, LGBTQ activists gathered at the home of Vice President Mike Pence to draw attention to his anti-gay views. Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Redux

On a mild night in January, the buttoned-up enclave of Washington D.C.'s Chevy Chase neighborhood was suddenly overrun. The invaders – more than 200 of them, some in rainbow suspenders, others in tutus, a few toting homemade signs – gathered outside the house of the neighborhood's newest (albeit temporary) resident, Mike Pence, who would be sworn in as Vice President just 48 hours later. They were there for a "queer dance party," organized via Facebook, with the purpose of letting Pence know that homo- and transphobia would not be tolerated in this country. While Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Madonna blared, the invaders, such as they were, twerked atop a parked car and chanted, "Daddy Pence, come dance with us!"

Pence, who was having dinner out with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, was a no-show. But that didn't stop the disco block party, which continued for nearly three hours, and was reportedly cheered on by neighbors in the heavily Democratic district. "It tarnished [Pence's] image of being this straight, homophobic guy," says Firas Nasr, one of the activists behind the event. "Here I am in booty shorts shaking my ass in front of his house." Nor was it the first time Pence was trolled in his own backyard. Days after moving into his new rental, many neighbors hung rainbow flags outside their homes in a not-so-subtle rebuke.

Despite this outpour of support, even before Inauguration Day the LGBTQ community was in crisis mode, braced for whatever outrages and rollbacks the new White House has in store. Pence's anti-LGBTQ record is well known, from the religious freedom bill he signed as governor of Indiana, to the ambiguous nod toward conversion therapy made during his congressional bid in 2000. Donald Trump's own tepid endorsement of LGBTQ rights – particularly his view that same-sex marriage is a "settled" issue – is in stark contrast to the GOP and the conservative, evangelical base that rallies around him. It's also in contrast to many members of his cabinet. More recently, the administration rescinded Obama's directive allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. And rumors of an executive order that will chill workplace protections for LGBTQ people panicked many liberal tweeters last month, including Anthony Oliveira, who advised his 23,000-plus followers to "get married, insurance, passports now."

Resistance to Trump has become a new national pastime, at least for the millions who swelled Women's Marches across the country, besieged airports, upended town halls and who continue to hound politicos on everything from healthcare to immigration. This summer, when LGBTQ people and their allies hit the streets for annual Pride celebrations – in cities from coast to coast, in states red and blue – they will confront the question of how to mix partying with protest. It's a question that's faded in and out of urgency over the past half-century as the gay rights movement rode the currents of post-Stonewall liberation, AIDS anxiety, "don't ask, don't tell" compromises and same-sex marriage, all the way to last summer's massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year, with a far-right administration taking office, the stakes are once again high. Pride organizers – who, at this point, oversee a year-round operation that's far bigger than one day or one parade – are looking to history for inspiration. Activists like Firas Nasr, meanwhile, see the coming culture war less as a battleground than as a dance floor. Pride 2017 has three months to figure out its message.

On June 28th, 1970, between 2,000 AND 3,000 LGBTQ people and allies marched from Greenwich Village to Central Park in New York, a roughly three-mile trek. Drag queens with bouffant wigs and feather boas marched alongside activists whose signs proclaimed "All Power to Butch Bull-Dykes" and "I am your worst fear, I am your best fantasy." The event, dubbed Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, was replicated more or less simultaneously in Chicago, San Francisco and L.A., where nearly a thousand people paraded down Hollywood Boulevard. The march was organized to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the uprising at New York's Stonewall Inn, during which gay men, drag queens, transgender patrons, street hustlers and assorted others fought back against an early morning police raid. The rioters threw bottles and bricks, lit garbage on fire and erupted into a spontaneous chorus line – all of it lasting until about 4:00 AM on two consecutive nights. It wasn't the first such clash – others, like the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco and the 1967 Black Cat Tavern riot in L.A. set the stage. However, Stonewall's press coverage, including write-ups in The Village Voice, inspired a groundswell of LGBTQ pushback, such as a community newspaper bluntly titled Gay, and a collective called the Gay Activists Alliance. Stonewall is credited as the beginning of the gay liberation movement in America and it continues to be the spiritual touchstone for Pride today.

In the 1980s, as AIDS ravaged the country, Pride intensified as a theater of political critique. One of the more acerbic floats from the 1987 New York City Pride parade, for example, was a mock quarantine camp replete with barbed wire and paramilitary guards in surgical masks, a response to the then-prevalent suggestion that AIDS patients be isolated from society. By the mid-1990s, with the death toll slowing, big-city Prides evolved into slick corporate machines with their own sales, marketing and PR arms. Companies hoping to rehab their image or court gay dollars – Coors, for example, which had been boycotted because of its alleged anti-gay practices in the Seventies – ponied up Pride sponsorships. That trend has continued. Last year, NYC Pride estimated that half of its $2.4 million budget came from sponsorships. Activists like Ann Jane in San Francisco see this Fortune 500 iteration as a betrayal of Pride's roots. "It feels more performative and for a straight audience," she says. Lesbians and the transgender community organized their own marches in 1993 and 2004 respectively, which Jane considers more "organic and real expressions of queer community and resistance."

Today, it's standard for progressives to bemoan Pride as an outdoor frat party plastered with corporate logos. It's hard to say just when Pride jumped the shark for critics like Jane, but surely it was long before Burger King unveiled the "Proud Whopper" in 2014 or Apple bloated San Francisco Pride with 8,000 marchers a year later – a display of corporate goodwill that was almost militaristic. In the past two years, though, Pride has found itself coinciding with flashpoints. In June 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, and last June, the Pulse shooting turned Pride into an impromptu memorial for the 49 people killed.

"Pulse made a very big impact," says Ryan Bos, director of Capital Pride Alliance in Washington D.C., the organization that produces D.C.'s Pride. "Folks who never came to Pride before came out to feel part of the community. It's the same feeling this year."

This year, too, members of the LGBTQ community have seen widespread violence against them. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that approximately 95 of 867 post-election hate crimes were directed at LGBTQ people. ThinkProgress tallied 261 hate crimes in the first three months of Trump's presidency, with about 36 targeting LGBTQ people. (Not to mention the Jews, Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, and assorted others who've found themselves in the crosshairs.) 

"We've planned Pride in the midst of hostile administrations before, but Trump represents a whole new set of challenges," says James Fallarino, media director of New York City Pride. He's particularly troubled by Trump's pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides Fallarino and many other gay men with pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a pill that when taken daily is 99 percent effective at preventing HIV transmission. As to whether NYC Pride will be more confrontational this year, Fallarino says, "We need to find a balance between being political and being a celebration – even during AIDS people still danced."

That balance may not be as easy to find in rural America, where many state legislatures are working to revoke or undermine LGBTQ protections. In Montana, for example, it's still legal for landlords and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. On February 20th, the state's House Judiciary Committee voted 11-8 along party lines to kill a bill that would outlaw such discrimination. In South Dakota, meanwhile, lawmakers recently advanced a bill that will allow religious adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex parents, while another bill, one of the anti-transgender laws sweeping the nation, died in committee last month. (South Dakota's Republican governor had vowed to veto it anyway, insisting that these matters are best decided by local school officials.)

Such tense environments are one reason that Prides in Louisville, Sioux Falls, Billings, Birmingham and other metro areas in conservative states punch far above their weight politically. As Fallarino says, "Local Prides can really change people in a way that even New York City Pride can't." Pride in Birmingham, Alabama, resonates differently since, according to organizer Destiny Clark, it's still risky for a gay couple in parts of the state to hold hands while walking down the street. In Montana, Big Sky Pride director Kevin Hamm says that the event's annual economic windfall has endeared the LGBTQ community to the locals.

"We had a $175,000 economic impact in Butte over one weekend [in 2014]," Hamm says. "We had just under a $200,000 impact in Great Falls [in 2016]. They love us now." This year, Hamm expects 5,000 Pride attendees to descend on Billings, almost 5 percent of the city's total population.

In South Dakota, Pride organizer Ashley Gaddis has witnessed a similar culture shift. Last year she persuaded Sioux Falls to light the city's iconic namesake waterfalls in rainbow colors – a hard-won victory for a town that has only one "unofficial" gay bar and where Trump carried the county with 53 percent of the vote. In fact, Trump-Pence signs still linger in Gaddis' neighborhood, a confederate flag hangs in a nearby window and there's even a lingering Ben Carson bumper sticker.

"People aren't walking around Sioux Falls embracing their queerness," Gaddis says. "The word queer is still a slur here."

It's a slur in parts of Kentucky and Alabama too, where Pride organizers have contended with bullying and violence. In Birmingham, for instance, two transgender women were shot just days apart last fall. One died; the other sustained life-threatening injuries. In Louisville, Kentucky, Pride organizer Rodney Coffman recalls a gay friend who received an image of the grim reaper via social media.

"It's like the Seventies and Eighties when somebody would drive by and yell 'fag,'" Coffman says. "They didn't have the balls to say it to your face."

Yet all of these suburban and rural Pride organizers are committed to fighting back. Destiny Clark, director of Central Alabama Pride, says that Trump's election brought the LGBTQ community in Birmingham closer than anything else she's experienced in the past decade. In Kentucky, Coffman notes that companies that never sponsored Pride before have expressed interest this year. And in Montana, Hamm expects more attendees and a more strident political tone – eruptions not often seen in a state whose two gay bars are separated by a five-hour drive.

If Pride is more political this year, equal parts protest and celebration, what should it look like? And is there a playbook for how to be joyfully incensed?

History offers some examples. In a recent essay for Bookforum, Sarah Jaffe points to ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy group whose flamboyant actions in the 1980s and early 1990s – putting a jumbo condom over Jesse Helms's house, occupying Times Square during rush hour – provoked both headlines and reforms. "The lesson from ACT UP... is that a small but intensely motivated group can cause enough trouble to make even the most oblivious and hostile administration change its policies," Jaffe writes. 

Andrew Velez, a Bronx-born activist who joined ACT UP in 1987, offers another lesson: "good taste is too expensive." He recalls an action at the Albany statehouse in which ACT UP members dumped stage blood over their faces and stormed the legislature chanting, "The government has blood on its hands!" The event made international news – and made legislators wary of antagonizing this band of guerilla activists.

"AIDS threw a spotlight on everything that was broken in our society," Velez says, checking off the failures: housing, economics, race, gender, children's welfare. Two generations later, the Trump Administration puts in the spotlight everything that's still broken. Noted activist Peter Staley argues that Trump could politicize Pride in the same way that AIDS did in the 1980s and early 1990s, provided that progressives continue to push organizers in that direction. Humor and humiliation, he adds, could again become powerful centerpieces for Pride, just as they were powerful for ACT UP, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, Guerilla Girls and Stop AIDS Now.

Waiyde Palmer, another ACT UP veteran who joined the group's San Francisco chapter in 1987, puts it this way: "Protest without humor is just rage unsatisfied." His philosophy of activism is that every movement needs a "pitbull portion" that's confrontational, along with a more "reasonable legislative portion" that will actually get invited into City Hall and the Capitol. Given the spate of anti-protester bills now wending through at least 10 state legislatures, it's unlikely that ACT UP-style mayhem would go unpunished today.

"[We] were able to do in-your-face stuff that got a public pass because we were desperate people who had only a few years to live," Staley says. "I'm not sure you could count on that kind of leeway for those in the resistance now."

But following the example of the Women's March and the queer dance party, playful yet subversive opposition is what Pride organizers are after in 2017. In fact, the Women's March seems to be the inspiration for the Equality March for Unity and Pride slated for Washington, D.C. on June 11th. (At press time, 33,000 people had RSVP'd on Facebook, with another 112,000 interested.) Smaller solidarity marches are planned in Austin, Seattle, Indianapolis and Portland, Maine. "Pride organizers worldwide have been talking about how to best capture this energy and create change," says Ryan Bos of Capital Pride Alliance in Washington D.C. "It's a global movement."

Like the resistance at large, Pride is bigger than one day. Many Pride organizations, rural and urban alike, sponsor smaller LGBTQ nonprofits and host town halls and other community forums year-round. Chris Classen, president of L.A. Pride, says he "can't think of another event that's 50 years old and still relevant to the current generation." Criticisms aside – corporate sponsorships, for example, which Classen sees as evidence of LGBTQ influence in the workplace – Pride has been central to the LGBTQ movement over the past half-century. It's been a political bellwether, a coming-of-age ritual and an explicitly gay noisemaker in towns not renowned for diversity.

"The gays know how to celebrate," Classen says, "but we've also been fighting for 50 years. It's not like we've put down our swords." He adds that this year, L.A. Pride will return to its 1970 incarnation, featuring a solidarity march and rally, with grassroots activists taking the streets. In Washington D.C., the theme of this year's event is "unapologetically proud," which director Ryan Bos defines as pride in one's race, gender, sexual orientation, and individuality – a one-size-fits-all rallying cry that nonetheless harkens back to the Stonewall era and the days of ACT UP. As activist Andrew Velez says, their movement was built on the movements for civil rights and women's rights.

"We were never violent, but we were angry," Velez says. "There was an intelligence to what we did, a wit and humor and passion that crossed every age group, gender, and background." He chokes up as he remembers friends, long since dead, who spoke out for their lives. "I saw such bravery from faggots."

In 2017, LGBTQ America once again finds itself under threat and in search of brave, audacious tactics. Perhaps the most audacious – echoed from Birmingham to Billings, Washington to Louisville, Sioux Falls to San Francisco – is also the most obvious: keep fighting, and showing up, no matter what.

"When we take two steps forward and one step back, you can either look at it as regression or as doing the cha-cha," Kevin Hamm says from Montana. "I choose to see it as doing the cha-cha. Because it's the biggest mistake ever to attack queers. Even when we were dying we fought, and we won."