N.Y.C. Pride: How the Virus and Protests Changed a 50-Year Celebration

Not six months ago, the idea of this year’s Pride March in New York City, on the 50th anniversary of the first parade, would have conjured images of colorful floats and hundreds of thousands of revelers packed into city streets.

But under the threat of the pandemic, and with official festivities canceled, the march on Sunday was nearly unrecognizable. The parade, which began in the Flatiron section of Manhattan before heading south toward the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, stretched only about a block, led by five rainbow-colored BMW convertibles flying big, brightly colored balloons. Behind them was a mostly-empty double-decker bus. A few dozen people milled about.

“While we are out for everyone, we also encourage everyone to stay home and stay safe,” said Harish Karthikeyan, 26, the director of diversity, accessibility and inclusion for N.Y.C. Pride, which each year runs official Pride events for the city. His sign read, “Stay Safe Stay Home Stay Proud.”

He added that while he understood why celebrations had to be muted this year, he still missed the “whole shebang” of last year’s celebration.

An unofficial event, the Queer Liberation March — a protest against racism and police brutality — attracted a larger, more vociferous crowd who marched uptown from Lower Manhattan to the Stonewall.

Pride celebrations in New York City, and around the country, have looked much different this year. The risk of coronavirus infection has kept many people from turning out. Those celebrating on Sunday had to be reminded by organizers to keep their distance from one another and wear masks.

And the tenor of the marches has also been altered by the weeks of protests against police brutality and racism set off by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.

“We can’t be together, and we’re pained by that right now, but there’s a tremendous sense of solidarity in this march,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made an appearance at the procession in Manhattan. “There is an added feeling of solidarity going on right now with the L.G.B.T.Q. community and with the black community, a sense of shared struggle.”

This year’s march was set to mark a major milestone: the 50th anniversary of the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, widely considered to be New York’s first Pride parade.

In that march in 1970, a group of L.G.B.T.Q. activists staged a rally to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, an event that galvanized the modern gay rights movement. Those who assembled were in many ways staging an act of defiance. At the time, homosexuality was viewed by many as a sin and a sickness; in many states, it was crime.

“What it will all come to no one can tell,” a flyer that announced the march said. “It is our hope that the day will come when homosexuals will be an integral part of society — being treated as human beings.”

In the 50 years since, the march has evolved considerably, into a miles-long parade with ornate corporate floats, colorfully festooned dancers, jubilant music and hordes of spectators lining the parade route. Last year’s celebration, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, drew an estimated 5 million people to the city.

As the Pride parade has grown from its more rebellious roots to a mainstream summer event, a segment of the L.G.B.T.Q. community has increasingly complained that the event has become too bloated, commercial and bureaucratic.

Last year, a group known as the Reclaim Pride Coalition organized a competing march for that same day that was meant to hew more closely to the political aims of the initial Christopher Street Liberation Day March.

They raised concerns that the inclusion of uniformed police effectively marginalized transgender people and racial minorities, who have long held that they were unfairly targeted and victimized by law enforcement — a concern that has new relevance this year after weeks of protests against police brutality and systemic racism in New York City.

In this year’s competing march, the Queer Liberation March, more than 1,000 people gathered at Foley Square in Manhattan on Sunday.

“This moment has to be seized and we have to keep pushing things forward,” said Jay W. Walker, co-founder of the Reclaim Pride Coalition and an organizer of the march.

One attendee, Richard Baskin Jr., fanned himself with one sign that read “REPARATIONS” and another that read, “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER.”

“Since we’re not going to work, you know, might as well be safe and come out here and demonstrate,” Mr. Baskins said. “You know we read about this in high school and middle school and I’ve been learning about it since elementary school, but this is our opportunity change the status quo now.”

Mr. Baskin, 29, who lives in Harlem, said he never goes to the city’s commercial Pride celebrations.

“I don’t feel like I’m represented, and I’m not going to sit up here and have arguments with anybody on it,” Mr. Baskins said. “I just celebrate who I am.”

But for him, and many others, the Queer Liberation March felt different.

“We’re doing something, it’s not just like, ‘We’re all gay and we’re proud,’” Baskin said. “It’s got a little muscle on it.”

Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for N.Y.C. Pride, called this year’s procession down Fifth Avenue a “tiny, symbolic gesture.”

“We couldn’t let the 50th year go by without acknowledging it,” she said. “But we’re doing it safely.”

This year’s Pride celebration, along with other scheduled mass gatherings, was canceled in April, when the city was still under a strict lockdown, hospitals were still flooded with virus patients and hundreds of residents were dying daily.

“When thousands and thousands of people gather in one place, of course, that goes against everything we’re trying to do with social distancing and shelter-in-place,” Mr. de Blasio said at the time.

Ellyn Canfield, 35, executive director of the mayor’s Office of Citywide Events, said comparing this year’s minuscule procession to last year gave her “whiplash.”

“I’m from a really small town, and this is what a parade looks like there,” said Ms. Canfield, who is from Adair Village, Ore.

Toward the end of the procession, which lasted about two hours, dozens gathered outside The Stonewall Inn. There, a drag queen posed for photos and a woman with a Chihuahua held a giant balloon that said “Black Lives Matter.”

Wendy Dumas-John, 62, wearing a T-shirt from last year’s massive celebration, said she had been marching for 26 years and the lack of crowds was “a bit strange.”

But she said the smaller crowd had other advantages.

“I tell you the truth I’m kind of happy to see some of the locals around without all the tourists,” she said. “This is us, it’s a breath of fresh air.”

Nate Schweber and Julia Carmel contributed reporting.


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