In June 1969, police raided New York’s Stonewall Inn, assaulting and arresting its 2SLGBT customers.
More than 50 years later, Pride celebrations held across North America, often on 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-spirited lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community gained acceptance from mainstream culture and even recognition as a lucrative consumer group, Pride events have sometimes become a source of tension in the community.
Some embrace them as a colorful cultural celebration of liberties already won; others lament seeing Pride being used by corporations and in marketing campaigns, while the ongoing struggles of more marginalized members of the community are pushed to the sidelines.
Those perspectives will be juxtaposed on Saturday in Thunder Bay, Ont., starting with a protest march called Pride is a Protest – which has the support of city Pride organizer Thunder Pride.
Later in the day, Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective will hold two events more conventionally associated with Pride: an afternoon street festival and an evening 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 did not have the resources to hold a formal pride parade this year.
“Many members of our community, especially the people who finally came out this year, were very excited to be a part of the pride parade, but were either disappointed or very disappointed that some of our questions weren’t able to be answered.” said Williams.
“We’re taking care of the matter and making sure Pride is more than a party. Everyone knows it started as a protest.”
Some people expressed concern for the duo about missing out on the opportunity to proudly march through the streets, DiBiagio said, while others were frustrated with the company-sponsored parades.
“Many of the events being held this year for Pride Month revolve around parties, drinking alcohol and pay-to-plays,” he added.
“The average cost of one of the drag shows is around $30. So that’s also one way Pride was limited this year to a lot of people who needed access to it.”
This year is particularly important for returning politics to Pride, DiBiagio said, as the rights of bisexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans/non-binary people are under attack, particularly in the United States.
Additionally, the Ontario Provincial Police is investigating after LGBT Pride decorations and flags in several communities were ripped, cut and shredded.
“It’s very problematic to see how far back it is going,” said Scotia Kauppi, Thunder Pride’s new executive secretary and treasurer.
Kauppi said he takes the concerns raised to activists like Williams and DiBiaigio seriously, and the organization has tried to be transparent about the reasons for not holding the Pride Parade this year.
“Our advice was on nothing, and with COVID-19, our funding was non-existent,” she said. “We didn’t have the resources or volunteers to start parade planning. Parade planning has to start, like, January.”
Thunder Pride posted notices earlier this year looking for new directors; a full complement is now lacking, although the organization currently has no indigenous board members, Kauppi said, something she is trying to correct.
The struggle to attract board members has multiple sources, she said.
“With COVID, there was a pause where we couldn’t do anything anyway,” Kauppi said. “But there was also drama that happened before… Obviously, it left a bad taste in people’s mouths about our council and our association.”
In 2020, the organization announced that it had suspended one member for racism and that two board members were also being suspended.
Events spread over a month
Later that summer, then-chairman Jason Veltri resigned after public criticism of his management 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 publicized this year’s Pride events over the course of an entire month to prevent the excessive spread of COVID-19 and provide more opportunities for out-of-towners to attend 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 run into thousands of dollars.
Williams criticized the idea that the 2SLGBT community should raise funds to cover policing costs.
“Pride started as a protest against police brutality,” they said. “So if the police really wanted to show their allegiance to the queer community, we shouldn’t have to pay 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 are also tired of the “entertainment and corporate side of Pride”.
“I think, historically, Thunder Pride has always been very… shallow-level events: pride parade, flag-raising and maybe a little bit of activism, but not a lot,” she said.
“I’m finding that the core group… still has a lot of struggle 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 council a chance and welcomes the work of Williams and DiBiagio in organizing the protest.
“I think Saturday will be a good mix of everything we need for Pride,” she said. “There’s activism. There’s community and there’s fun.”
The Pride March is a Protest begins Saturday at 11 am ET at Waverly Park, while the street festival takes place from noon to 6 pm in the city’s waterfront neighborhood.