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They call it gay Christmas, but it feels more like New Year’s Eve. Stroll—or inch, more like it—down 17th Street next Saturday, and you’ll encounter all the unbridled joy of a kid’s first trip to Disneyland, all the see-and-be-seen plumage of a second-rate fashion week, and all the drunken mayhem of a Cinco de Mayo bar crawl.
Like Christmas, though, Capital Pride seems to start earlier, stray further from its historic roots, and grow more co-opted by corporations every year. It’s endured criticism for being too white, too male, too bland, too outrageous, too trendy, too old-school. Capital Pride is an organization that produces an event said to be for everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella, but it’s gotten caught in the trap of conflicting expectations and inflated ambition. Like so many gay political activists, to become one of the largest events on the D.C. social calendar, Pride has had to fall in line with moneymakers, straight allies, and mainstream culture, sometimes at the expense of the very people it should represent: D.C. queers.
But in a city that has some of the most comprehensive queer and trans rights and protections in the country, where white gay men are a hypervisible demographic and you’re nearly as likely to find queers hanging out at Dacha or Red Derby as you are at Town or Phase 1, it can seem that while we’re here and queer, everyone’s already used to it.
“We are more integrated into the community than ever before, and that’s posed certain challenges for… gay businesses and gay-centered organizations,” says Washington Blade columnist Mark Lee. “There’s always a point of reference and a framework of community that’s important, but it’s very different even than it was 10 years ago.” This year, on its 40th anniversary, Capital Pride could use an occasion to soul-search, if not have a full-on midlife crisis.
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Today’s Pride originated in the Stonewall riots of June 1969, when New York queers fought back against a police raid of a gay bar in the Village. Starting in 1970, to celebrate the anniversary of what’s widely considered to be the genesis of the gay liberation movement, gays have marched down Christopher Street every last weekend of June in a show of power and visibility.
D.C. followed suit on Father’s Day of 1975 when Deacon Maccubbin, founder of Lambda Rising, a prominent gay bookstore in Dupont from 1974 to 2010, held a block party on 20th Street NW between R and S streets. A couple thousand people showed up to first annual D.C. Pride celebration, which hosted booths for local nonprofits and attracted more than one D.C. Council candidate. (Once Marion Barry took the mayorship in 1979, he showed up every year he held the office and sometimes spoke onstage.) By 1980, the event had gotten too big for Maccubbin to manage on the street in front of his store, so he handed it over to a new coalition called the P Street Festival Committee.
For 15 years, what was then called Gay Pride took place on the lawns in front of the Francis School at N and 23rd streets NW. “It was a small little party, sort of a hometown outdoor picnic thing,” says Lee. Community organizations handed out literature, and there was always a band or two—Lee remembers one performance from new-wave act Dead or Alive, of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” fame. A come-as-you-are march started at Malcolm X Park and continued on Columbia Road and Connecticut Avenue to the Francis School festival.
Some years, Gay Pride attracted crowds of 25,000 or so, but attendance would wax and wane with community interest; in a decade and a half, not much changed to recharge locals’ excitement about the event. The P Street Festival Committee had money troubles and weathered allegations of exclusivity, and after its 1990 dissolution, Gay Pride suffered a few years of rain and even sharper drops in attendance.
1995 marked a turning point for the celebration. One in Ten, the organization behind the Reel Affirmations LGBTQ film festival, took over Pride and the $50,000 the event had left in the bank. “All of a sudden, One in Ten had this opportunity: The community was maturing and growing in size. Our collective identity was much stronger—we had finally beat back the [D.C. anti-]sodomy law. The community was politically recognized, and a lot of people were very much a part of the local political culture. There were a lot more gay businesses in those days, too,” says Lee, who was brought on to coordinate the 1995 event. With an expansive vision for a blowout that would make the entire city take notice, One in Ten brought the festival downtown. That year, Lee says, 100,000 people showed up to Freedom Plaza for the renamed Lesbian and Gay Freedom Festival, headlined by the recently reunited Village People.
“We pulled it out of our ass,” Lee says. “We didn’t know what we were doing, and we got such a late start.” By the time they got around to finding tents for the vendors and organizations, which lined five blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue, everything within a couple-hundred-mile radius had been booked—so they shipped them in on trucks from Canada. Keith Clark, then head of One in Ten and founder of Universal Gear, took out a second mortgage on his house to cover the costs until donations at the festival could be used to pay the bills.
That year, the march ran from the old Francis School location to Freedom Plaza. As people turned from 14th Street on to Pennsylvania and saw the new scope of the festival, tears flowed. “It was sort of a moment of graduation for the community,” Lee says. “In a way, it was sort of a moment of affirmation and a coming of age of the gay community in Washington.”
Since then, the Sunday festival has moved further down Pennsylvania to its current location between 3rd and 7th streets, with the Capitol building as a backdrop. Whitman-Walker took the reins for several years, then invited other nonprofits onboard, then spun Capital Pride off as its own independent nonprofit. What was once a same-day march for any interested Pridegoer is now a three-hour Saturday parade with highly organized registration, glitzy floats, and crowd control. The old homegrown celebration of community leaders and gay-owned businesses now includes multinational corporations, hosts year-round events, and draws revelers from up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Though Pride has grown bigger and broader, and its audience has gotten more diverse, it’s not immune to the biases of society at large, nor from the racist and misogynist legacy of gay movements of yore, which forefronted the voices of white, wealthy cismen.
Each Memorial Day Weekend since 1991, DC Black Pride has staged its own program of events. Born from an annual regional celebration at the Club House, a popular D.C. black gay club that closed in 1990 after several staff members died of AIDS, DCBP was started by Welmore Cook, Theodore Kirkland, and Ernest Hopkins to educate their peers on HIV/AIDS prevention and provide a once-a-year safe space for mid-Atlantic and Southern black queers, many of whom were not out in their communities. The first iteration, held on Banneker Field, raised money for HIV/AIDS organizations that served black neighborhoods. “This was before government provided money [for AIDS treatment], so when someone got sick, you basically passed the hat around,” says Earl Fowlkes, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and president and CEO of the D.C.-based Center for Black Equity.
Having additional, black-centered Pride festivities served several purposes in D.C.: First, black gays often faced racial discrimination in white gay bars, and the mainstream Gay Pride event was not always a welcoming space for people of color. And Gay Pride was too big and public for closeted black queers who grew up in the city and had family close by—as opposed to many white gays, who moved to D.C. as adults—or attended churches that rejected queer members. (Fowlkes says some churches are still major hubs of homophobia.) “If I had a dollar for everyone who came to DC Black Pride and told me they weren’t out when they went back home, I’d be a rich man,” Fowlkes says. “You’ve got to have baby steps. DC Black Pride is a good entryway to being around other people who are openly gay.”
Though a good number of queer spaces have gotten better at discouraging racist behavior and being explicitly inclusive, DCBP maintains its import. Just as a major selling point of any Capital Pride event is the rare chance to be surrounded by thousands of fellow queers, DCBP is a rare majority-black, majority-queer event, where attendees can celebrate their whole selves without prioritizing one aspect of their identity over another. DCBP provides a platform for issues specifically concerning black queers, too—a disproportionate number of victims of gay-bashing are black transwomen, and since many leaders of the DC Ferguson movement are queer, DCBP has been a place to speak out on police brutality against people of color.
“I think the community Prides around the country really need to make a greater effort to be inclusive,” Fowlkes says. “Even in Black Pride, for many years, it was mostly male-dominated.” To better fulfill D.C. queers’ needs, a bevy of specialized Prides, each held on separate weekends, have popped up: There’s Youth Pride, which was founded in 1997;
Latino Pride, which started in 2007; and Trans Pride, also founded in 2007. Bi- and pansexual people have also felt excluded or invisible in the mainstream Pride proceedings.
Inclusion is important, but there’s value in leaning into our differences; spaces focused on different identities within the LGBTQ world are critical to that goal. Fowlkes remembers growing up in Philadelphia and seeing parades celebrating the city’s ethnic groups: Pulaski Day for the Polish, Columbus Day for the Italians, St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish. “Why do you have all these parades? Because you all march together on the Fourth of July,” he says. “You can bring more to the plate if you’re secure, you’re proud of who you are. [Specialized Prides have] been a gateway for many people to be involved in the greater LGBT experience.”
One of the greatest criticisms of Capital Pride is its neglect of queer women and trans people. The Pride parade in particular is heavily weighted toward cisdudes. For years, the weekend’s big-ass opening party, co-sponsored by Brightest Young Things—the outlet that’s repeatedly run a “Guide for Straight Guys Getting Laid at Gay Pride”—has featured performers that are almost all cis gay men, drag queens, or straight women. (And for years, in accordance with our history, queer women have made their own spaces unsanctioned by Capital Pride proper.) 2013’s opening party, titled “Spandex,” was promoted with a close-up rendering of a superhero’s codpiece and included a special room for bears and otters—as if subcommunities of gay men were worthy of more individual attention than lesbians and queer women at large. (This year’s lineup, which includes Frenchie Davis, Mundy, and DJ Ca$$idy, looks a lot better.) The women’s parties that do exist often hinge on the same gender norms progressive queers are working to dismantle: wet T-shirt contests, pink and purple posters, and thin, hyper-feminine go-go dancers in bikinis.
There used to be an alternative. D.C. holds a proud honor in queer history: On April 24, 1993, it was the location of the first U.S. Dyke March. Organized by the New York-based Lesbian Avengers in conjunction with the next day’s gigantic gay rights rally on the Mall, the 20,000-person march from Dupont Circle to the White House and the Mall was said to be the largest lesbian demonstration in the history of the world. Video footage shows dykes marching with “AIDS Cure Now” and “Support Lesbian Political Prisoners” signs, holding off traffic with locked hands (the march was unpermitted), and spray-painting “Fuck Your Gender” onto a brick sidewalk. There were drumlines, dykes on bikes—both gas- and pedal-powered—and an Avenger-led fire-eating show in front of the White House. Queer women shouted “We’re dykes! We’re out! We’re out for power!” while queer men lining the streets held signs that read “Cocksuckers for Muffdivers.” And there were breasts. Lots of breasts. (It’s legal for women to go topless in D.C., but few take off their push-ups or pasties at today’s Capital Pride parade.)
The Dyke March tradition continued in D.C. for more than a decade. Prominent trans and butch activist Leslie Feinberg spoke at 2005’s event, whose theme, “Thinking Outside the Boxes,” was meant to broaden the definition of “dyke” and acknowledge the growing number of nonbinary ways queer people name their genders and identities. Feinberg’s address recalled the diversity of the Stonewall rioters—they were black, white, Latin@, trans, cis, homeless, wealthy, lesbian, gay, bi, you name it—and called for marchers to stand in solidarity with Iraqis against American occupation: “In order to wage the broadest, most diverse struggle against capitalism and its wars for global empire, we have to unite to fight against all forms of oppression.”
In other words, the Dyke March was to today’s Capital Pride parade as an upside-down pink triangle is to a rainbow: It was unapologetically political, anti-assimilationist, and rooted in the reclamation of historical oppression. Its purpose was empowering queers, not creating a comfortable, one-size-fits-all spectacle. It wasn’t conducive to cutesy slogans and stickers that straight people could wear, too.
This first Dyke March spawned others around the country, including prominent marches in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago that still draw thousands each year. But D.C.’s Dyke March eventually sputtered out. “We endure many indignities in the name of solidarity, and showing up for D.C.’s annual Dyke March is one of my favorites,” read a post on the New Gay, a now-defunct local queer blog, in 2008, one of the last years of the D.C. Dyke March. “It’s smallish, underorganized, unfunded, and there’s nothing like boldly declaring to the [very gay] residents of Dupont Circle, ‘We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used To It!’”
This April, Lisa Ramsden, who does logistics work for Greenpeace USA, rounded up a circle of friends and acquaintances to try and give the Dyke March a fresh, intentional restart. “We wanted it to be an alternative to the male-centric Pride events,” she says. “Unpermitted, unsponsored, not connected to Capital Pride.” In the parade, there are usually so few contingents of queer women that when one walks or rolls by, a different cheer erupts in the crowd for the novelty factor.
But after a few meetings and discussions about the march’s mission, Ramsden and her cohort abandoned the plan. They wanted to make it as inclusive and purpose-driven as possible, and someone suggested that since not many of them were born and bred in D.C., they might not know what D.C. wants and needs. Rather than slap something half-assed together in time for this year’s Pride, they decided to give themselves another year to plan. “It will definitely happen in 2016,” Ramsden says.
Since the early days of D.C.’s Pride celebrations and gay rights demonstrations, there have been respectability politics at play. Frank Kameny, D.C.’s best-known LGBTQ hero, who was fired from his Army job for being gay, bravely led a 1965 White House protest populated by queer men and women in business suits and dresses. A 1980 Washingtonian article describes a Pride festival with a few leather daddies and drag queens, but just as prominent was the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club booth, which housed “people in golf shirts, selling chilled Perrier and handing out Ted Kennedy fliers.”
Though gays are no longer labeled perverts in the media and coming-out campaigns have helped heteros see that queers come in every disposition, dress, and lifestyle, today’s Capital Pride is nearly as watered down for mainstream consumption as that first protest. Starting in 1995, when the Pride festival moved downtown and cost $250,000 to produce, corporate sponsors have both underwritten the event and been active participants. They roll down the parade route in giant billboards on wheels, give out branded pens and coozies at the festival, and plaster P Street with gay-themed ads you’ll never see anywhere else or at any other time of year. The gays have buying power, and now that it’s not okay to be anti-gay in the public sphere, big business wants that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Ramsden brought a “Happy Pride, Fuck Corporate Sponsorship” sign to the parade last year. “It seems like the point of Pride now is to give corporations a chance to show how gay-friendly they are,” she says. “The Lockheed Martin delegation in the parade floored me. It’s an evil entity making money off of wars.”
In 2013, a group of protesters dubbed the Booty Brigadiers and dressed in glitter and pirate gear blocked the parade route of the Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, and Citibank crews. “It seems to me that there is kind of a gay elite that is represented in Pride,” says Emma Cleveland, one of the protest organizers. “It’s incongruous that a bank currently foreclosing on queers is celebrating queerness, and gay business owners actively opposing a raise in minimum wage… but those voices are heard loud and clear, because they can buy floats.”
“Those banks are still kicking people out of their homes, when it’s really difficult for queer people in some areas, especially trans people and people of color, to have access to steady and living-wage sources of income,” says co-organizer Kit Wagner. (Without federal employment protections, in 31 states, employees can be fired just for being queer or trans.) Wells Fargo also invests in private prisons that have been accused of abusing transgender inmates.
Then again, Lockheed Martin has shown a fair amount of support for gays. In 2013, the military contractor stopped its donations to the Boy Scouts of America over the organization’s anti-gay policies. Chipotle, whose Pride Parade contingent has handed out free-burrito vouchers that read “Homo Estas”—forcing us to out ourselves to Chipotle cashiers in the most adorable way—has done the same.
“The biggest ally to the LGBT community at this point in its history is the business community, and they’re driving our progress,” says Lee. “They’ve demonstrated that they want to be part of our community and they want our business. We should happily be willing to share the cost of producing our events with them.”
But the proliferance of corporations can make Capital Pride feel more like a generic rainbow circus than a celebration of actual queer people who live in the D.C. area. Chipotle sent the same burrito-as-mechanical bull float to several U.S. cities, including D.C., for multiple years. Who does this commercial interlude in the parade benefit but Chipotle? What are we clapping for when the float goes by—the company’s burrito profits?
As queers become ever more accepted into mainstream society, we should use our newfound political and economic clout to demand equity for the least privileged among us, not abandon those still marginalized in our quest for a bigger, badder party. If Bank of America wants a Capital Pride sponsorship slot, let it fund a shelter for homeless trans youth first.
“People don’t understand how costly these things are—they think these things just magically happen,” Lee says. “Someone’s got to pay the bills.” Still, I’d gladly forgo the fancy sound systems and celebrity appearances for a more homegrown celebration less beholden to companies with dubious ethical underpinnings.
And then there’s the hetero folk. St. Patrick’s Day lets everyone wear orange and green and play Irish for 24 hours. Pride lets straight people join in all the grander parts of gaydom—the disco-house music, the simmering sexuality, the feel-good moments of political victory—without requiring that they take a hard look at the continued oppression of queer and trans people, or how it reinforces their own privilege. Rich straight couples wave from their comfortable balconies on P Street, wearing rainbow beads and gawking at done-up drag queens. Do they know that 2015 has seen what some are calling an “epidemic” of murders of trans women in the U.S.? Or that 40 percent of the country’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ? Have they called on Congress to pass employment protections for queer people? Maybe not, but hey, they got burrito coupons!
Capital Pride has centered the role of straight allies in its festivities, too. Last year’s parade grand marshal was former Minnesota Vikings punter (and straight man) Chris Kluwe. In 2013, it was actress (and straight woman) Lynda Carter. This year’s Pride festival headliners are Carly Rae Jepsen and the members of En Vogue, none of whom identify as queer. Ditto 2014’s Karmin and Rita Ora. What does it mean when the most prominent honors of a celebration for LGBTQ people go to those who aren’t queer? Are the contributions of straight people to our culture and political equity more important than our own?
“So many straight people come out to the parade, which is great, because a show of numbers is great for visibility, and we need allies,” says Ramsden. “But at that point, we become a spectacle… And it seems like half the people marching are straight.” Capital Pride doesn’t keep demographic records, but between the national corporate delegations (some of which, granted, include a fair number of queer employees) and local churches and businesses that march to show off their gay-friendly chops, audience members can spend much of the supposed gay-pride parade cheering straight people for their support.
When Fortune 500 companies reap the benefits of our show of pride in the face of oppression, when straight allies become integral to one of our precious few queer-majority spaces, what has Pride become?
“The first Gay Pride was a riot,” goes a popular radical queer slogan. Celebration and self-love, of course, are political in their own right, and essential to our communities’ well-being. We have the right to be more than a set of rights and disprivileges. We need frivolity and fun. We need to dance and fuck and throw confetti, to let our guts unclench and just laugh in an environment that affirms the core of who we are. But today’s Pride threatens to turn ahistorical, divorced from the context of ongoing battles for queer liberation in favor of a bland street fair that suits the least common denominator of the gay experience.
While measures to advance gay and trans rights have sped through the D.C. Council in the past decade and leather chaps no longer shock many squares, our Pride has been slow to change. “If you asked me in 2015 if we’ll be [having the same kind of Pride] in 2035,” Lee says, “I’d say I doubt it, and maybe even I hope not.” To remain relevant in a city whose queers might brave the bros at a sports pub on Thursday and follow Grindr to the gay disco on Friday—and who count themselves as members of all manner of other social movements—Pride must firmly ground itself in its history and push mainstream culture to embrace an even broader diversity of identities and lifestyles. If we’re not making some people uncomfortable, including some in our own ranks, we’re missing the point.
The best argument I’ve heard for the continued importance of Pride is this: Every year, it’s some baby gay’s first. It’s even more critical, then, that we don’t grow complacent. There are lessons to be learned from the trials of the reproductive rights movement, which is struggling to ignite passion in a generation that, raised under Roe v. Wade, takes abortion rights for granted. Many early leaders of gay liberation died during the AIDS crisis; even more are aging out of the movement. If we don’t recapture Pride’s politics, irreverence, and commercial independence now, we may lose our chance. “Going to Pride is like being on a college campus,” Fowlkes says. “There’s always a freshman class.” They’ll enjoy the keggers, yes, but they deserve a worthy education.
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.