Ki came to perform — no one in the crowd could doubt that. The 11-year-old was hard to miss in her lime-green parachute jumpsuit, dancing in a downtown plaza to the vibrations of house music. She was a foot shorter than most spectators, but their eyes were dragged upward as she strode down the elevated runway — the latest performer in a decades-old tradition for LGBTQ people of color.
Ki had never vogued before. She had never been to a Black Pride event either, for that matter. But on that hot Sunday afternoon, the transgender girl was surrounded by queer people of color she felt loved her without question or hesitation.
“When I was up there, all my fears went away and I could just be myself,” said Ki, whose parents asked that her last name not be printed due to privacy concerns. “I felt empowered. Very empowered.”
Therein lies the point of Black Pride events. After decades of national struggle against homophobia, LGBTQ celebrations have become commonplace across much of the United States. Pride Month in June can resemble a sea of rainbow flags and smiling faces — overwhelmingly White faces, often.
“When we look at the mainstream Pride, you don’t really see intentional involvement of Black and Brown queer folk — it looks very much like a White Pride,” said Kenya Hutton, deputy director of the Center for Black Equity, a D.C.-based group that supports nearly 50 events for queer people of color, including Silver Spring’s Pride in the Plaza celebration last weekend. “It’s important for us to have a space of our own that celebrates our history and celebrates representation.”
It’s a history with its own traditions of artistry and alienation.
The runway show Ki took part in was inspired by the “ballroom scene” that took shape in New York’s underground Black LGBTQ spaces in the 1960s. Excluded from White drag shows (or expected to lighten their faces with makeup to participate), Black performers held their own ballroom shows where they strutted, vogued and posed to compete for awards and prizes.
The ballroom scene remained underground for decades, even after the Black transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson participated prominently in 1969 Stonewall riots that inspired the LGBTQ rights movement.
D.C. may have been the first large city to hold a Black Pride festival in 1991, and since then the tradition has slowly been emerging from the shadows.
“A lot of the balls are traditionally held in nightclubs very late at night,” said Tony Bush, who DJed Sunday’s event in Silver Spring. “Doing these outdoor events invites new people into the space and allows for us to come out of the darkness of the underground.”
Attending one for the first time can be a life-changing experience.
“People think that once you’re within the LGBT community, then there is no racism, no health disparities, no homophobia or transphobia,” said Tandra LaGrone, who attended her first Black Pride event in 1998 in Washington.
“I had never in my life been in the presence of that many people who looked like me,” she said. “And I had never felt that free and that safe.”
LaGrone is now chief executive director of In Our Own Voices, a support group for LGBT people of color that organizes Albany, N.Y.’s annual festival. But bringing Black Pride to the politically diverse city didn’t go smoothly, she said. Their signs and billboards were vandalized in the early years — and even now, 15 years later, her group’s social media posts are deluged with hateful comments.
Silver Spring’s Pride on the Plaza event wasn’t all parachute pants and dancing. The revelers were surrounded by tents advocating for safe sex, gun control and mental health — a reminder that disease and violence still threaten many queer people of color.
Dozens of transgender and non-gender-conforming people were killed last year, according to a report by the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which wrote that Black people made up the “vast majority” of those victims. Gay and bisexual Black men had more HIV diagnoses than any other group in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And some research suggests that young gay and bisexual people of color attempt suicide at higher rates than their White peers.
But on the runway that day, the celebrations took center stage.
“In other Prides I always felt so disconnected from the crowds,” said Julie Adams, a 19-year-old Latina who sat with her friends by the runway holding a lesbian flag. “Here, I’m expressing myself. They give you the chance to join the runway and they wouldn’t at these big Pride events.”
Ki, the ballroom show’s preteen star, arrived early and spent most of the day dancing in the middle of the sunken plaza, mingling with a crowd of performers, drag queens and bedazzled adults.
She stood comfortably when it was time to take the stage, soaking up the cheers, hoots and cameras flashes.
Then she danced. Her large ponytails moved and bopped to the rhythm while her parents cheered from the crowd. The crowd didn’t stop screaming until Ki was out of sight.