On a cloudy Friday last June, a congregation of around 25,000 transgender people and allies marched through Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Decked out in bright pinks, blues and whites, the cheery crowd repeated chants such as “Trans rights are human rights” as they stepped toward Cal Anderson Park, where a rally culminated one of the largest such Pride gatherings in recent history.
“Our march is typically only a few blocks long, but it’s powerful,” said Elayne Wylie, co-executive director of the Gender Justice League, the organization behind Trans Pride Seattle, which has grown into a marquee event during Seattle Pride weekend. As similar festivals nationwide broke attendance records in 2019, it was a peak moment for LGBTQ tourism: An estimated 5 million people visited New York City for its Pride weekend, contributing to the around 20 million people who attended U.S. events overall.
Organizers, venues, performers and companies were expecting to ride that wave of enthusiasm into this June, which will mark a half-century since activists assembled for the first-ever gay-pride marches through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Instead, because of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 475 Pride events have been canceled or postponed. Now, to go on at all, Trans Pride Seattle and dozens of other celebrations are scrambling to digitize.
It’s a frantic, unprecedented effort — and, organizers say, a critical one.
“If you’re queer and from [a] far-out community, you might keep your head low because maybe you don’t feel welcomed or you’ve seen a lot of discrimination,” Wylie said. “Pride offers you that opportunity to surround yourself with people who get you and lift you up.”
“The idea of a year without Pride was unacceptable,” said Cathy Renna, communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force and an organizer for the most ambitious online project of all, a sweeping broadcast called Global Pride. But the conundrum facing organizers like her and Wylie is daunting: How do you keep such a massive event, one that’s as celebratory as it is political, from turning into just another long-winded Zoom call?
An international tour
For Global Pride, announced in early April and slated for June 27, answering that question, among others, is a work in progress.
The organization behind the event, InterPride, likens its concept to New Year’s Eve broadcasts, which cycle through time zones with fireworks and fanfare. So far, about 350 Prides have indicated their desire to participate, allowing organizers to spotlight queer hot spots like Sydney, Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro, as well as less-covered events in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Along the way, the event will feature political speakers, musical performances, celebrity cameos, stories from locals and possibly, to encourage engagement, at-home videos shared by participants.
Organizers also, Renna said, intend to incorporate a relief fund for struggling queer communities. The economic ramifications of a year without Pride could be devastating, as the survival of queer community centers, small businesses and independent artists depends heavily on each Pride season. Smaller Prides might not be able to endure a year without the associated revenue, either, planting “a real fear that this could be a setback,” Renna said.
With so many disparate elements and contacts, the team’s challenge is considerable, from the time crunch (“This was an idea on a napkin not even a month ago”) to the deeper logistics (if the broadcast pivots from time zone to time zone, what should they do for the Atlantic Ocean?). But InterPride is “inundated” with eager volunteers — and Renna is confident.
"If any community is going to do this, it’s us,” she said. “We’ve harnessed the power of the Internet to deal with isolation as queer people when we thought we were the only one. The Internet’s been a lifeline for people who thought they were alone to find information, connection and community.”
A local rush
New York City, perhaps unsurprisingly, is thinking big, too: Last week, NYC Pride announced that singer Janelle Monae and “Schitt’s Creek” actor Dan Levy would be among the headliners of a virtual June 28 event, which will be broadcast on local TV and streamed on ABC News Live.
Wylie and Trans Pride Seattle, for their part, are quickly trying to crowdsource talent from within their own community: finding people who have live-event production experience, locals with a “powerful message,” and singers and performers for their virtual stage.
Nationwide, nonprofit executives and event planners are quickly learning the ins and outs of online video as they rework main-stage performances into long-form broadcasts on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Normal exhibitors’ booths are being reinterpreted as online marketplaces and job boards. DJs are teaming up with queer venues to host late-night dance parties on Twitch and Zoom.
“When we were facing the music that cancellation was the reality, our team quickly came up with some clever ideas,” said Rex Fuller, CEO of the Center on Colfax, which usually draws 500,000 people for Denver PrideFest.
One of those ideas was a virtual parade, but “instead of having a float or a marching contingent,” Fuller said, “we are asking everyone from the parade to enter short videos.” That feed of DIY video “floats” should supply plenty of fodder for sharp-tongued drag queens, who will help emcee the live stream.
“It’s either going to work really well or be a spectacular failure,” Fuller said, laughing. “Who knows? But at least we’re giving it a shot.”
Even online, corporatism promises to be a Pride flash point.
Major festivals such as San Francisco Pride and Washington, D.C.'s Capital Pride are often criticized within the LGBTQ community for their plentiful sponsors; the latter was interrupted by protesters accordingly in 2017. Ann Northrop, a longtime activist, is similarly skeptical of InterPride, whose homepage prominently mentions a partnership with booking site Priceline.
Last year, as grassroots counterprogramming, Northrop helped the Reclaim Pride Coalition organize the Queer Liberation March, a protest bringing out 45,000 people to retrace the route of New York City’s first Pride demonstration. Reclaim Pride has called off its 2020 march, but Northrop and her fellow organizers are exploring going virtual themselves.
“We’re talking about how we can plan a political, looser, certainly non-corporate thing online, or something safe and legally acceptable in the streets,” said Northrop, a host of the weekly news program “Gay USA.”
In the meantime, grassroots activists have quickly shifted their priorities to mutual aid and (socially distanced) direct action, such as their protest of the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park. Urgency is high as the Trump administration seeks to remove health-care protections for queer patients and states such as Idaho continue to pass anti-trans laws.
“Pride started as a way to celebrate us, but also to express our grievances,” Northrop said. “We need to express ourselves in serious political ways. Our communities are in trouble in this country.”
On that — and on the continued importance of Pride this year — organizers from all cities and of all philosophies can agree.
“Being able to provide something this June, with everything going on in the world, is acknowledging and participating in the tenacity of our community. It’s standing up and making sure we’re heard,” said Wylie. “That’s why Pride is so important, even when it’s online.”