Gay rainbow flag at Montreal gay pride parade with blurred participants in the background
Credit: Getty Images

Pride Month was always going to look different this year—at least, once the pandemic hit.

When the novel coronavirus arrived to America earlier this year, states and municipalities implemented physical-distancing measures to mitigate its spread; universities sent college students home; and businesses were forced to furlough or fire millions of employees due to the economic fallout. Naturally, more than 500 parades and festivals scheduled for June’s Pride Month were cancelled in major cities across the world, from New York City and Washington, D.C., to London and Paris.

Then, on May 25, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, sparking mass protests and riots. Countless Americans decided to get out of their homes and onto the streets—furious over police brutality and widespread racial injustices.

Quickly, it became apparent that LGBTQ people were playing an outsize role at the protests, where pride flags have been common fixtures. This makes sense: Gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals have also been victims of systemic oppression. In the 1960s, for instance, it was common practice for cops to threaten and harass gay bars.  

No doubt, that was part of what compelled so many in the community to speak out. On May 29, four days after Floyd’s murder, more than 100 LGBTQ organizations released a joint statement condemning racial violence. “We understand what it means to rise up and push back against a culture that tells us we are less than, that our lives don’t matter,” they said.  

But while LBGTQ groups have emphatically supported the Black Lives Matter movement, some civil rights activists argue that they haven’t done enough to stamp out racism within their own community. “The statement is great for solidarity,” said Earl D. Fowlkes, Jr. “But it’s empty if there is no action behind it.”  

Fowlkes is the founder of the Center for Black Equity, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing equality for Black LGBTQ people. One of the biggest obstacles they face, he told me, is not just acceptance in straight society—but in white LGBTQ society.

In 2017, for instance, Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations ordered 11 gay bars to take a training course on the city’s anti-discrimination laws after there were reports of them denying Black people entry for vague dress codes and bartenders giving preferential treatment to white gay men. One bar owner was caught on YouTube saying racial slurs.

Unfortunately, stories like these are all too commonplace. In 2018, an Atlanta gay bar owner posted on Facebook that “if the South had won, we would be a hell of a lot better off.” Fowlkes told me of an incident from two weeks ago when a group of Black men were seated at a different section of a D.C. gay bar than the rest of the white patrons. CBE was contacted about it as a potential discrimination case. “It happens all the time,” he told me.

Yet some queer people are more at-risk than others. According to the Human Rights Center, Black transgender women face the highest levels of fatal violence within the LGBTQ community—and are less likely to turn to the police for help for fear of revictimization by law enforcement personnel. 

But with LGBTQ organizations now thrusting themselves into the national fight against racism, it’s time for them to take a hard look inward. 

One of the ways they can start is by refashioning this year’s Pride Month in yet another way: by embarking on a long overdue conversation about how anti-Blackness has long manifested within queer spaces. That might mean a departure from the joyful and triumphant marches in years past—we are still in a pandemic, after all—but it may spur some much-needed progress on an issue that is too often neglected. 

In the 1960s, community centers or meet ups didn’t exist for LGBTQ people as they do now. This meant that bars were one of the few, if not the only, spaces where police officers knew they could openly target gays and lesbians.

For a long time, this was simply the way things were. Police would barge into these establishments to harass and beat up the patrons. “Gay people just took it,” historian Lillian Faderman, author of The Gay Revolution, told me. “They would scurry off, people who were let go by the police would run off.”

Until, one day, they stopped taking it.

On June 28, 1969, a group of police officers showed up at the Stonewall Inn—a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York—for what they probably thought would be yet another routine night of harassing patrons. But this night ended differently. A fight broke out between the cops and everybody else. More people resisted, others joined in the pushback. At some point, someone threw a brick through the bar’s window, igniting the famed Stonewall Riots. 

Who, exactly, threw that first brick remains unknown. The two main suspects, however, shared something in common: Marsha P. Johnson, a prominent figure during this period, was a Black trans woman. Sylvia Rivera, who was present at the first fight, was a Latina trans woman. Witnesses have also described what the majority of the people at Stonewall looked like that night: drag queens or gay men of color. In other words, Black LGBTQ people were some of the first who resisted brutality and oppression on behalf of the entire LGBTQ community.  

Images from that night shocked the nation—and shifted the public consciousness about the treatment of gay people. Shortly thereafter, a movement was formed. Over the next few years, more than 1,500 new LGBTQ organizations were created. Still, it took decades of sustained advocacy to gain traction. By 1999, then president Bill Clinton enacted Proclamation 7203, turning the month of June into a federally recognized holiday. Pride Month was born.

But as the LGBTQ community continued to make progress—through increased representation in politics and media, through legislative actions, executive orders, and court rulings to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination—its non-white members have often been left behind.

A 2013 study found that while LGBTQ youth are more likely than their straight counterparts to be homeless, and that the bulk of homeless youth are LGBTQ people of color. Other studies have shown that Black LGBTQ people are more likely to commit suicide. At the same time, Black queer people have amassed far less political capital. A recent study from the Victory Institute found that 77.4 percent of all openly LGBTQ people in elected office are white.  

The increased acceptance of white LGBTQ Americans in mainstream society is at least partly due to the fact that the vast majority of media depictions of queer life—which have helped change the culture—have historically been white-centric.  

Groundbreaking films that found mass audiences have tended to focus on white gay men, such as The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Call Me by Your Name (2017). The few films about queer people of color—such as Tongues Untied (1989) or The Watermelon Woman (1996)—have generally not been as widely seen. In essence, Black LGBTQ people have always been left out of the aesthetic representations that have helped to normalize the white LGBTQ experience.

For this reason, Cleo Manago coined the term “same-gender loving” for Black gay men and lesbians in the 1990s as a separate identity, due to how isolated many felt in traditional LGBTQ spaces.  

Pride Month festivities have been no exception. Even after the 2015 landmark Supreme Court ruling declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right, and Pride marches became an established mark of the beginning of the summer in major cosmopolitan cities, many noticed that they seemed awfully white.

Non-white queer people have complained they aren’t always as welcomed at Pride events by their white counterparts. Moreover Pride celebrations have often whitewashed the fact that the early leaders of this movement were people of color, such as Johnson and Rivera.  

Black LGBTQ people felt even more alienated in 2017, when a proposed addition to the pride flag of brown and Black stripes to represent racial diversity received immediate backlash from white, gay members of the community.  

Of course, queer people of color don’t just face racism from inside the LGBTQ community. They have to face it from the rest of the world, too. Indeed, Black queer people are more susceptible to assault and discrimination and the very forms of bigotry and police brutality that the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting against.

Just two days after George Floyd’s death, a Black trans man named Tony McDade became the third victim of a fatal officer-involved shooting in Florida in the past two months. That’s why Black LGBTQ activists argue that the anti-racism and queer-rights movements are deeply intertwined. 

“We know that queer liberation also means Black liberation,” Tyrone Hanley, senior policy council for the National Center for Lesbian rights and a black queer man, told me. “There is a desperate need to look inside and re-examine how LGBTQ communities reinforce white supremacy and anti-blackness.”  

That means reimagining Pride Month. It means placing Black and brown issues at the forefront of the agenda. It means no longer allowing LGBTQ spaces or marches where queer people of color are invisible, nor ignoring the plight of this vulnerable population.

There are already signs of progress. Roughly 30,000 people rallied in West Hollywood on Sunday to protest police brutality and systemic racism, with a specific focus on Black LGBTQ people.

The COVID-19 pandemic made this year’s Pride Month look different. But the entire LGBTQ community’s commitment to tangible anti-racist action should be what does the trick next year—and every year after that.

Giulia Heyward

Follow Giulia on Twitter @giulia_heyward. Giulia Heyward is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.