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Don’t Let The Parade (March?) Pass Me By

COMMENTARY: The 2018 NYC Pride Parade got me thinking. I’d heard rumblings from others about the new and shortened parade route. And that our more political and radical groups, which normally lead and anchor our parade, were taking a backseat to the mainstream corporate interests now supporting the LGBTQ community. Our acceptance by the mainstream is an amazing step forward for our civil rights and in our fight against discrimination. But, at what cost?

The traditional NYC Heritage of Pride Parade on June 24, 2018, with marchers and corporate floats in the streets and droves of spectators cordoned behind barriers on the left.

The LGBTQ community is a complex group that includes a diversity of both gender identity and sexual orientation and crosses all ethnic and economic boundaries. As the rest of society begins to open its arms to us, how do we preserve and protect the essence of who we are as LGBTQ people? Assimilation threatens to overwhelm and dilute the very qualities which define us.

The 2018 traditional NYC LGBTQ Pride parade (not then called a march)

The change in the 2018 Pride parade route offers a good example of how we may potentially be ruined by our success. The route change had been justified as part of a plan to prepare for the following year’s 50th-anniversary parade, expected to bring 5 million people to the city— double 2018's attendance of 2.5 million. As there ended up being no arrests or major disturbances in 2018, the parade’s organizers probably consider the change to the parade route an unqualified success.

One of the marchers in the 2018 NYC LGBTQ Pride parade.

But, for the first time, the parade neither started nor ended on Christopher Street, the site of the Stonewall Riots which gave birth to the march (which later become a parade). With this omission, are we losing a sense of our heritage and the reason for what was once a protest march, but now is becoming a tourist attraction?

Also, by not starting or ending the parade at the Christopher Street Pier – traditionally the site of the annual Pier Dance (now called Pride Island) or at the base of Central Park (where the parade used to end in its early years), the traditional rallying of our community after the parade was shortcircuited. The question was "Were we losing our parade to accommodate the smooth handing of tourism to our city?"

An Irish LGBTQ rights group marching in the 2018 parade.

I participated in the 2018 parade, stationed on a corporate float in a front section of the procession, by virtue of corporate sponsorship of a non-profit whose board I chaired the previous five years. Because of logistical problems, our group”s movement forward was delayed for an hour, which allowed me to observe a decent swath of floats and groups passing by. None of them remotely qualified as “activist”. I was unable to observe which groups led off the day’s parade OR which ones brought up the rear hours later. Yet, I fear that what I’d heard predicted — that corporate groups had usurped the prime positions in the parade — had, in fact, happened.

Deutsche Bank's float in the 2018 NYC LGBTQ parade. In my role as Board Chairman of Athlete Ally, which Deutsche invited to march with its employees, I was there waving from the bank's float.

Had our more radical LBGTQ community elements been sidelined? Had corporate money bought more beneficial placement for sponsors without a concomitant effort by parade organizers to find room for traditional activist groups at the front of the parade?

Our community was built on the shoulders of outsiders—and will always include a fringe population. In fact, we are a community of minorities, of disruptors, who will always be different no matter how successfully we may assimilate. How do we preserve and champion our diversity as we become “mainstreamed”? Is it possible to become fully a part of mainstream society, yet retain and encourage our diversity and individuality, remaining our unique queer selves?

As a post-script, in 2019, when NYC celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and hosted WorldPride NYC, an interesting development occurred: an alternative organization sprung up to challenge the traditional Pride parade that had been organized for decades by a privileged group called Heritage of Pride.

The start of the Queer Liberation March in NYC's Sheridan Square on June 30, 2019

The newcomers, the Queer Liberation March (QLM), were a feisty group of longtime activists who championed a corporation-free, police-free march uptown ending in Central Park, a traditional route harkening back to 1970. The organizing committee (of which I was loosely a part) was a non-hierarchical crew of volunteers. It planned a hugely successful event marked by the esprit de corp that had once characterized the early Pride marches in NYC. Its turnout of 50,000 paled in comparison to the millions that joined the traditional parade, but the joy and emotion were megawatts greater.

A Russian language banner in the 2019 Queer Liberation March as the contingent turned onto Christopher Street, where the Stonewall riots took place in 1969.

Then, in 2020, COVID shut down NYC and both the traditional and upstart parade / march organizers were forced to cancel their plans. But, a momentary respite in the pandemic opened the city briefly and QLM capitalized on its spryness and flexibility to quickly organize another march uptown, this time ending in Greenwich Village. Once again, it attracted a corps of 50,000 participants, every one of them masked, despite taking place, in the midst of the pandemic.

An example of the individiualistic, colorful, and spirited tone of the 2019 Queer Liberation March.

The appeal was the march's theme of intersectionality: Queer Liberation March For Black Lives Matter and Against Police Brutality. Unfortunately, there was a spasm of police-initiated violence at the end of the march in Greenwich Village's Washington Square which resulted in investigations and, later, a cut in the annual budget of the NY City Police Dept.

The leaders of the Queer Liberation March escorting their 50,000 supporters up Sixth Avenue with no police presence, no barriers to spectators joining in, and no corporate presence.


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