In June 1969, police raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn, roughing up and arresting its 2SLGBT patrons.
More than 50 years later, the Pride celebrations held across North America, often on or close to the anniversary of the event, bear little resemblance to that uprising against police repression that served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement.
As the two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has gained acceptance from the dominant culture and even recognition as a lucrative consumer group, Pride events have at times become a source of tension in the community.
Some embrace them as a colourful cultural celebration of liberties already won; others regret seeing Pride being used by corporations and in marketing campaigns while the continued struggles of more marginalized members of the community are moved to the sidelines.
Those perspectives will be juxtaposed Saturday in Thunder Bay, Ont., beginning with a protest march called Pride is a Protest — which has the support of the city’s established Pride organizer, Thunder Pride.
Later in the day, Thunder Pride and the Rainbow Collective will hold two events more conventionally associated with Pride: an afternoon street festival and nighttime drag show.
‘Taking matters into our own hands’
Protest co-organizers Lak Williams and Sarah DiBiagio said they organized the march after learning that Thunder Pride didn’t have the resources to hold a formal Pride parade this year.
“A lot of our community members, especially people who have finally come out of the closet this year, they were so excited to be a part of the Pride parade but left disappointed or beyond disappointed because some of our questions weren’t even able to be answered,” Williams said.
“We’re taking matters into our own hands and ensuring that Pride is more than just like a party. Everybody knows it started as a protest.”
Some people had expressed concerns to the duo about losing out on the opportunity to march proudly through the streets, DiBiagio said, while others were frustrated with corporate-sponsored parades.
“A lot of the events that are being held this year for Pride Month do revolve around partying, alcohol consumption and pay-to-plays,” she added.
“The average cost of one of the drag shows is around $30. So that’s also a way that Pride has been limited this year for a lot of people who needed access to it.”
This year is a particularly important one to return politics to Pride, DiBiagio said, as the rights of two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans/non-binary people have come under attack, particularly in the United States.
As well, Ontario Provincial Police are investigating after Pride decorations and flags in several communities were torn up, cut and shredded.
“It’s very troublesome to see how backwards it’s going,” said Scotia Kauppi, the new executive secretary and treasurer of Thunder Pride.
Kauppi said she takes seriously the concerns raised to activists like Williams and DiBiaigio, and the organization has tried to be transparent about the reasons for not holding the Pride parade this year.
“Our board was down to nothing, and with COVID-19, our funding was not there,” she said. “We didn’t have the resources or volunteers to even start parade planning. Parade planning has to start in, like, January.”
Thunder Pride put out notices earlier in the year looking for new directors; it is now one short of a full complement, though the organization currently has no Indigenous board members, Kauppi said, something she is trying to rectify.
The struggle to attract board members has multiple sources, she said.
“With COVID, there was such a lull where we couldn’t really do anything anyway,” Kauppi said. “But there was also drama that happened before.… It did obviously leave a bad taste in people’s mouths about our board and about our association.”
In 2020, the organization announced it had suspended a member for racism and that two board members were also being suspended.
Events spread out over a month
Later that summer, then board chair Jason Veltri resigned following public criticism of his handling of an initiative to bring rainbow crosswalks to the city.
Thunder Pride worked with Veltri’s new organization, Rainbow Collective, on some of this year’s Pride events.
“I’m a very olive branch type of person,” Kauppi said.
The organization spread this year’s Pride events out over an entire month to prevent excessive spread of COVID-19 and provide more opportunities for people from out of town to catch an event in the city, Kauppi said.
The parade, however, was simply too expensive to organize in the time available, she said, saying the cost of hiring police to close the streets and protect protesters would amount to thousands of dollars.
Williams was critical of the idea the 2SLGBT community should fundraise to cover policing costs.
“Pride started as a protest against police brutality,” they said. “So if police really wanted to show their allyship to the queer community, we shouldn’t have to be paying them to, you know, monitor the streets to ensure our safety.”
Kauppi said the new board members share the protest organizers’ desire to see politics return to Pride, saying many of them too are tired of “the corporate, very entertainment side of Pride.”
“I think historically, Thunder Pride was always very … surface-level events: Pride parade, flag raisings and maybe, like, a little bit of activism but not too much,” she said.
“I’m finding that the main group … still has lots of fight in us. And I think activism is going to become a bigger role for us now.”
She said she hopes people will give the new board a chance, and welcomes the work of Williams and DiBiagio in organizing the protest.
“I believe Saturday is going to be a good mix of everything we need for Pride,” she said. “It has the activism. It has the community and it has the fun.”
The Pride is a Protest march begins Saturday at 11 a.m. ET at Waverly Park, while the street festival takes place from noon to 6 p.m. in the city’s waterfront district.