When 2,000 people attended the first D.C. Capital Pride festival in June 1975, their thirst was quenched by one truck with beer and another with soda. Refreshment options were limited, but everyone appeared satisfied that gay men and women were marching at all.
“We were the majority, suddenly,” Deacon Maccubbin, former owner of Lambda Rising bookstore, who helped organize Pride events until 1980, told The Washington Post in 2000. “We could have a good time together without worrying about offending anyone.”
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has made strides since that first Pride festival — both in wider public acceptance and in laws that grant protections and rights — but activists say that sense of unity has slipped away.
An activist collective that says the Pride festival is too closely tied to corporations and police is planning alternative events and action during this weekend’s LGBT rights festival. No Justice No Pride (NJNP) seeks “to end the LGBT movement’s collusion with systems of oppression that further marginalize queer and trans individuals,” according to its Facebook page.
NJNP finds fault with Pride and Capital Pride Alliance, the nonprofit organization behind the festival. Pride sponsors include large corporations such as Wells Fargo, recently condemned by members of the D.C. Council for its lending to private prisons and investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline, and weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman. Another sponsor, Maryland Live Casino, is owned by the Cordish Companies, which has ties to the Trump administration.
“For some time, there’s been a general sense that Pride has become more of a corporate festival rather than being true to Pride’s roots as resistance to state violence,” said Andrew Ambrogi, a spokesman for NJNP.
Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for Capital Pride Alliance, said the LGBT community is a “microcosm of culture.” Not everyone agrees on everything — particularly under a presidential administration hostile to gay rights, she said.
“Having to fight constantly and resist constantly, we are turning a little bit on each other,” Renna said. “It’s totally understandable, but I don’t think it’s totally justified.”
Organizers said there are advantages to having the backing of deep-pocketed businesses, which they see as advancing LGBT rights. Big businesses also helped to fight recent legislation such as the anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in North Carolina, Pride organizers say — adding that rules for which companies can contribute might be needed.
“We know not every corporation is in line with the sentiments of everyone attending,” said Bernie Delia, president of Capital Pride Alliance, adding that the board will develop “criteria for corporate sponsors” later this year.
Some activists say they think that corporate cash comes with a cost, arguing that it sullies the history of LGBT activism, which includes the 1969 Stonewall riots, when drag queens and others battled police after a raid on a gay bar in Manhattan.
“We don’t think it’s right or fair or in line with the legacy of Pride for these institutions . . . to walk alongside us in the parade and say they are standing up for the community,” said Angela Peoples, the D.C.-based director of GetEqual, an LGBT activist organization.
Given the history of relations between police and some members of the LGBT community, others questioned whether police should be part of Pride at all.
Jen Deerinwater, a D.C.-based activist and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, protested the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock last year.
A bisexual and disabled journalist, she said she objects to the presence of police at the Pride parade — not just gay officers who may choose to march in uniform but any uniformed police at all.
“All water protectors have faced a great degree of police brutality,” she said of the pipeline protests. “There’s an idea in America that police are here to keep us safe . . . that their main role is to serve and protect. That’s not really what they do.”
Delia said he understood concerns about “historical problems with law enforcement in general.” After a discussion with the D.C. police LGBT liaison unit, officers participating in the parade will wear polo shirts, not uniforms, he said.
Capital Pride Alliance can’t control how D.C. police deploy officers throughout the city, but Delia said officers would be welcome regardless.
“There’s no interest on our part in removing them from the parade,” Delia said. “They are members of the community.”
The Metropolitan Police Department pointed out that it’s been a part of Pride for decades.
“MPD has a long history dating back at least to the [1990s] of participating in and ensuring the safety and security of the Capital Pride events,” Brett Parson, head of the D.C. police LGBT liaison unit, said in a statement. “We look forward to being part of this year’s festivities, as well as ensuring everyone in attendance has a safe and enjoyable time.”
NJNP also questioned the diversity of the Capital Pride Alliance board, saying various genders and economic classes must be represented.
The 17-member board, for example, includes just one transgender person.
“The board is primarily upper-middle class, able-bodied, American gay cis men,” Deerinwater said. (Cisgender refers to those whose biological sex matches their gender identity.) “That’s not what our community is made up of.”
Although members of NJNP were given the chance to talk to the Capital Pride Alliance board in April and May, Delia said, concerns they identified couldn’t be addressed weeks before a large event. He said critics should “look beyond the board” to volunteers and producers of events, who were members of “an extremely diverse population.”
“We have taken measures to try to make the board as diverse as we possibly can,” he said. “Are we where we need to be and hope to be? No.”
Ambrogi said activists were frustrated with the slow pace of progress on diversity, homelessness in the LGBT community and “overpolicing,” especially after the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples could legally marry.
“They said, ‘Let us win this together, and then we’ll get to those issues,’ ” he said. “Now we’re seeing an identity crisis. We want to see if the establishment is true to their word.”
Maccubbin, 74, said he was an “antiwar protester from the ’60s” sensitive to complaints about sponsors such as Northrop Grumman but has also fought for LGBT visibility and for police to protect gay people rather than harass them.
He said protesters might have trouble getting what they want any time soon.
“People engaged in building the war machine are not my first choice of people to party with, but they have a right to be there,” he said.