Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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On Jan. 28, the Capital Pride Alliance announced D.C.’s annual Pride celebrations will not return to business as usual in 2021. For the second year, the COVID-19 pandemic has halted June’s in-person Pride events, including the annual parade, as organizers try to limit the coronavirus’ spread. Still, the organization responsible for Capital Pride remains committed to celebrating D.C.’s LGBTQ+ community with virtual events and various plans to ensure Pride Month visibility.

“In our eyes, Pride is not canceled,” Capital Pride Alliance Executive Director Ryan Bos tells City Paper. “There will not be a traditional parade or festival and concert in D.C. this June. However, we will be creative to ensure that our community is able to celebrate in unique and creative ways.” 

Plans include encouraging residents and businesses to decorate homes and storefronts in June—à la Mardi Gras “float houses” that popped up in New Orleans in January and February—in addition to virtual programming that will spotlight LGBTQ+ performers, businesses, and community issues such as accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. Bos says CPA is also discussing a potential in-person gathering to take place in mid-to-late October, depending on vaccine rollout and whether the city resumes granting event permits. 

But as Capital Pride continues to evolve in an effort to meet the community’s needs during the pandemic, tension between CPA and activists remains. Since 2017, CPA has faced backlash for lack of leadership diversity, its inclusion of law enforcement at Pride events, and its corporate sponsorships. 

Fueled by the election of Donald Trump, activists formed No Justice No Pride, the grassroots coalition fighting for trans and sex worker rights, to present a unified voice of discontent with Capital Pride. At the time, NJNP’s Emmelia Talarico told City Paper, “Corporations that desecrate Native land, manufacture weapons, and support private prisons—and law enforcement agencies that disproportionately harass, kill, and arrest queer and trans people of color—cannot be considered LGBT[Q] ‘allies.’” 

NJNP, led by trans and queer people of color, provided CPA with a list of demands to make Pride events and the board more inclusive of historically marginalized queer and trans folks who are Black, Latinx, indigenous, low income, Muslim, immigrant, disabled, or undocumented. Current NJNP board member britt walsh tells City Paper those demands have still not been met.

Jen Deerinwater, a bisexual, Two Spirit citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, attended a community meeting prior to the June 2017 Pride Parade to share a statement about Wells Fargo’s involvement with the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock protests. (At the time, Wells Fargo was a sponsor of Capital Pride; it no longer is.) Deerinwater says some attendees rolled their eyes and claims Bos declared afterwards, “Wells Fargo supports queer people.” Deerinwater tells City Paper, “it was like I hadn’t even spoken.” When asked via email to respond to the claim, CPA said only, “Wells Fargo is not currently a sponsor of CPA, but still supports many LGBTQ+ organizations.”

Frustrated by CPA’s response, NJNP organized a day of protests against Capital Pride, effectively rerouting the 2017 parade three times. “We got really lucky with the protests and made what felt like a big impact, at least in terms of drawing attention to the issues we were raising,” Drew Ambrogi, a former NJNP organizer, tells City Paper. “The summer after the protests it was impossible to avoid discussions about the implications of protests, whether people agreed with them or vehemently opposed them. We got a lot of people talking about issues they weren’t necessarily engaging with before.”

NJNP continued to work with Capital Pride on reforms. In January 2018, CPA said the Metropolitan Police Department would no longer participate as a contingent in the parade, but would continue to work with Capital Pride. Frustrations remained, particularly related to corporate sponsorship. That April, NJNP accused CPA of “lip service,” said the organization failed to make “substantive change,” and continued to neglect marginalized communities while continuing to work with “weapons manufacturers, corrupt banks, and police departments.”

Ambrogi adds: “Capital Pride made a few, mostly cosmetic and symbolic changes, changed up their leadership, and sort of tried to work with some members of our group for a period of time.” 

According to walsh, who participated in the 2017 protests along with Ambrogi and Deerinwater, NJNP was in touch with Capital Pride at least through the summer of 2020. However, NJNP’s goals for achieving trans justice have shifted to housing rights in recent years. 

Since 2017, some substantial and progressive changes have been made at Capital Pride. In June, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, a coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations, including CPA, hosted a forum to discuss “defunding” police budgets. CPA aligned itself with the BLM movement and testified before the D.C. Council in support of defunding MPD programs. CPA also announced uniformed and armed police officers will no longer be permitted to march in the parade or participate in Pride events. 

The activists I spoke to applauded the decision to remove police from Pride events. However, walsh, speaking as an individual and not as a representative from NJNP, says, “I think they had the evidence to make that decision and that announcement three years ago, and they didn’t do it then. So I’m glad the decision’s made. It was a very long and prolonged fight to not have cops in D.C. Pride.”

Last year, CPA joined HIPS, Casa Ruby, SMYAL, and other LGBTQ+ organizations to form the DC LGBTQ+ Budget Coalition. According to Japer Bowles, the Coalition’s coordinator, the group successfully advocated for additional LGBTQ+ funding in the District’s budget for fiscal year 2021. A total of $2,394,320 in recurring funds and $320,000 in one-time funding was put toward various LGBTQ+ services and support the coalition fought for, including $945,360 to combat hate crimes and LGBTQ+ discrimination; enhancement of housing funds for LGBTQ+ seniors; funding to study trans and nonbinary employment in D.C.; and additional support for The DC Center for the LGBT Community. The Coalition has reunited this budget season to ask for additional funds for FY2022.

Deerinwater, who stopped working to reform Capital Pride following the 2017 protests after a member of CPA referred to the protesters as “terrorists,” remains unconvinced that CPA has changed. Before we spoke, Deerinwater looked up CPA’s partners and sponsors, noting that “a lot can change within four to five years.” 

“But they’re still working with a lot of the same people that those of us in NJNP [who took] part in those protests back in 2017 took issue with,” Deerinwater continues.

Weapon manufacturers Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman continue to sponsor Capital Pride, as does Live Casino, which has ties to the Trump administration. When asked why CPA has continued to work with these entities specifically, CPA responded, “we take various factors into consideration,” including the organization’s guidelines to vet corporate involvement and “the many LGBTQ+ employees who work hard every day [sic] to encourage a welcoming, supportive, and safe environment.”  

During a 2019 CPA focus group regarding the Pride Parade’s future location, Bos says CPA had conversations with workers regarding corporate engagement at Pride: “They were able to share some really good feedback, for them, why it’s important for them to march in support of their business.” Bos says it can foster growth and celebrate progress within the business environment, while also noting CPA’s intention to “hold institutions accountable for where they fall short.” He also noted that this debate has been happening for decades. Years ago, Bos says, “people were complaining [that] corporations weren’t stepping up to the plate and supporting our community.”

Under CPA’s vetting guidelines, updated in September 2018, groups identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center are not allowed to sponsor or participate in Capital Pride. Donations from any entity are still generally accepted. CPA says, “Sponsors will demonstrate a commitment to the LGBTQ+ community through tangible measures, such as strong or continually improving Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index scores.” CPA adds that the board can make decisions regarding individual sponsors based on their mission, actions, and community feedback.

Addressing the evolving needs of D.C.’s LGBTQ+ community and the ongoing pandemic, CPA unveiled six commitments on Jan. 28. Bos says they’re “not necessarily just commitments that we make as an organization, but commitments as a community we need to make.”

CPA has collectively committed to:

  • supporting local LGBTQ+ organizations and businesses; 
  • working together to strive for unity within the community; 
  • ensuring inclusivity and accessibility are expected and nurtured values to promote equitable and welcoming communities, organizations, and resources throughout the U.S. 

As an organization, CPA will continue to:

  • organize and support Pride events; 
  • develop new programs to increase LGBTQ+ visibility; 
  • build upon new and existing partnerships to “make the necessary improvements to the way that we operate, in addition to exploring the potential consolidation of local services and programming with other groups to maximize resources available and expand access to services.” 

(As an example of the last commitment, CPA pointed to the work it’s doing with the budget coalition and its parent coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations.)

Still, walsh is skeptical. They noted NJNP’s 2017 demands offered clear steps to achieving each recommendation, while CPA’s new promises sound vague. “I hear that and I’m still like: But how? […] What is unity for such an incredibly varied and beautifully, eccentrically diverse community?”

When all is said and done, two years will likely pass before a typical Pride celebration returns to D.C. And, in light of the pandemic, concerns regarding Capital Pride have fallen by the wayside. 

Aside from walsh, NJNP was unable to speak with City Paper for this story due to an ongoing housing issue, following a landlord’s attempt to sell one of NJNP’s safe houses without notice. (NJNP is currently trying to purchase the house.) Deerinwater notes Native communities are “just fighting to stay alive” with disproportionately higher rates of both contracting and dying from COVID-19, among other systemic issues. “Going in to tackle Capital Pride—that is at the very bottom of my list of priorities,” Deerinwater says. 

What the pandemic means for the future of Pride remains uncertain. CPA is already planning for 2022 events, which are expected to be in-person, as well as D.C. Pride’s 50th anniversary in 2025.  

Though everyone agrees Pride should continue to evolve, the debate over what Pride is and should be is ongoing. In Bos’ opinion, evolving isn’t an “either/or”’ but an “in addition to,” because there’s no singular Pride event that will meet the entire LGBTQ+ community’s needs. “I think, for me, the evolution of pride is finding how to bring those intersections together and then also, just providing more opportunities and more options,” he says. 

Deerinwater counters: “Pride originally, it wasn’t a party, it wasn’t a parade. It was a revolution. I think we need to go back to those days. I’m not against celebrating who we are and having a good time. We need those fun times. But when people are dying out here, how is our priority a big party?”