Before LGBTQ Pride Went Corporate, It Was About Radical Activism & We Should Never Forget That

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When the New York City Pride parade descends down Fifth Avenue this Sunday, the estimated two million participants and spectators can expect to see branding from T-Mobile, marchers wearing t-shirts with bank logos, and other signs of sponsorship from major businesses. In 2017,  Pride is brought to you by corporate America — which is a far cry from the grassroots demonstrations that kicked off the LGBTQ rights movement almost 40 years ago. While additional funding has its perks, this drastic mainstreaming of Pride is concerning for many LGBTQ and activist communities, who are worried that the commercialization overshadows the original, radical purposes of the march — and gives a free pass for companies to throw a party and appear progressive while still harming marginalized peoples.  

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The first official Pride parade, called Christopher Street Liberation Day, took place on the last Sunday of June 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots. A violent 1969 police raid at the Stonewall Inn—New York's iconic and now historically landmarked (thanks to Barack Obama) gay bar — led to a series of riots that occurred over the next several nights; this, in turn, led to increased organizing among the LGBTQ rights movement. A year later, a network of civil rights groups called the Gay Liberation Front held marches in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to commemorate Stonewall. According to Lillian Faderman, a scholar of lesbian and LGBT history and author of The Gay Revolution, Los Angeles had the biggest march, with 1,000 people demonstrating on Hollywood Boulevard — a ground-breaking moment for LGBTQ visibility.

Though Pride has become increasingly mainstream, the early activists involved in the cause were radical — like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, founders of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which championed homeless transgender and gender nonconforming youth. Today, both Johnson and Rivera are still celebrated as icons; in 2002, the year of Rivera's death, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded to provide legal services and amplify the voices of trans people of color, and Netflix recently bought the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which chronicles Johnson's activism and mysterious death in 1992. “It was a very radical group,” Faderman tells Bustle. “They were edgy, they were colorful, they were loud, noisy, original, humorous, and serious.”

Johnson and Rivera's radical work also extended extended into the HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s, which was, quite literally, a fight for survival. Activists came together to get hospitals, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and the United States government itself to pay attention to the disease, and groups like Act Up refined many of the protest tactics we see today, like sit-ins, marches, and rallies to make sure the rest of the world (and their elected officials) took their demands and visibility seriously. “The more they grabbed headlines, the more people who weren’t radical thought ‘maybe I didn’t have to be so closeted,’” Faderman says.

The early participants in the gay liberation movement had roots in anti-war activism and the civil rights movement, according to longtime civil rights activist (and founder of The AIDS Memorial Quilt) Cleve Jones, whose memoir When We Rise is the basis for the eponymous ABC series about the early pioneers of LGBTQ rights.

Today, Jones finds the presence of corporations with anti-union practices “troubling.” “I have always viewed the struggle for LGBTQ liberation as a larger struggle for peace and justice,” he says. “I think it’s important for us to see ourselves as part of that struggle and fight against poverty, racism, war, sexism.”

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The first march Jones attended wasn't even called Pride. “It was called Gay Freedom Day in 1973 and of course there were no corporate sponsors of any kind and no corporation wanted anything to do with us,” he tells Bustle. “My recollection is that the police cooperated in closing the street for it. It was very hippy. It was very flamboyant. It was very political,” he says.

The mainstreaming of Pride concerns many activists because the corporations who sponsor events don't fully grasp this history, or put their money where their mouths are in terms of actually supporting intersectional LGBTQ issues. “Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were trying to uplift this idea that gay and trans are not disconnected from race, from class, from socioeconomic issues, and state sanctioned violence,” L'lerrét Ailith, Communications Manager at BYP 100, tells Bustle. “When I think about corporate institutions sponsoring these things, it's about covering up the issues that affect our community,” she says.

In the last few years, Pride events have often felt more like a party than an act of civil disobedience, partly because LGBTQ people have had much to celebrate, from same-sex marriage to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ But this year, as the Trump administration walked back protections for transgender students and did not declare June LGBT Pride month, millions in the US are attending Pride events with a greater sense of political urgency.

Meanwhile, the issues that Jones, Johnson, and Rivera fought for in the early days of Pride remain as urgent as ever. At least eight transgender women of color have been murdered in 2017 alone, while black and brown Americans continue to face police brutality.

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All of this has some parades embracing the ethos of the Trump resistance. Los Angeles Pride made the parade the “#ResistMarch” instead of a celebration, while Heritage of Pride, the organizer behind New York City Pride, is giving resistance groups prime billing in the parade. And many in the community are looking back on the origins of Pride and giving due respect to the mothers of the movement and their original intentions. For corporations, sponsorship of parades that turn into rallies means bearing witness to the realities of what it means to be marginalized in 2017.

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Even with all the controversy surrounding corporate sponsorship, for many LGBTQ people, Pride is still a revelation. The parades offer a place to find community and affirmation. Growing up in “small town Ohio,” Nate Warden, the founder of Coming Out, was hard-pressed to find positive representations of queer people and community. Then, he went to Pride in Chicago. “I remember walking up to the parade and being astounded,” he tells Bustle. “That was one of my first experiences seeing the community live and in action.”