Black + Pride = A Movement
This week, we felt that it was important to continue the conversation we have been having for the past few weeks by exploring the intersection of being Black and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. In pre-pandemic times, during the month of June, LGBTQ+ people would come from all over our region to gather at the South Waterfront for the annual Pride Parade and Festival. The city would find itself wrapped in rainbows and glitter and the joyous sounds of music from the Gay Men’s Chorus, drumbeats from marchers, and DJ’s upbeat dance rhythms filled the air. Families of all stripes lined the streets, waving and cheering as the parade rolled by. The city’s waterfront was alive with activity at the booths of LGBTQ+-centered vendors and the nonprofits who were there to share their organizational missions.
Like many other Oregon traditions, the Pride Festival found itself quickly shifting as the coronavirus took hold and made it impossible for large events to occur. For the first time in decades, the streets had no rainbows, no music, and no booths dedicated to the work of LGBTQ+ nonprofits. Quickly on its heels, we all witnessed the murder of George Floyd and we focused our attention on injustice and protest. While it would be easy to brush Pride off as a glittery dash of fun on the June calendar, the very notion of Pride is more than just a party. For the LGBTQ+ community, Pride is the living, breathing manifestation of people taking to the streets to demand their right to live, to love, and to be safe and happy in their communities.
It is also a movement that was started by Black people.
The annual celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride emerged from the blistering anger that fueled the Stonewall Riots in New York. Early Saturday morning in June of 1969, the NYC police burst through the doors and raided the Stonewall Inn, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans bar on Christopher Street. Billy clubs swung through the air, tearing through skin and cracking the bones of people who had simply come to their place to dance, laugh, and socialize with their friends.
Soon after the police raided the Stonewall Inn and arrested people for the illegal act of “homosexuality”, people poured out of the bar, their voices and screams for justice rising up through the humid summer air. Led by Marsha P. Johnson, a self-described Black drag queen and Latinx Trans leader Sylvia Rivera, BIPOC drag queens, lesbians, gay men, and homeless youth took to the streets in protest of the raid. The layering of Blackness on top of queerness made this call for justice even more critical for those who were already prone to the searing swing of the billy club by police. The Stonewall Uprising, as it came to be known, was the breaking point that pushed BIPOC LGBTQ+ people over the edge. Refusing to bear the weight of oppression that generations of their ancestors had lived and died through, this moment at the Stonewall Inn was an unvarnished public display of the intersection of Blackness and Queerness.
As a young person, I was raised in a Black household where civic responsibility was not only a mantra, it was a mandate. Civic engagement was what we talked about at the dinner table, and it was what enticed me to regularly press my ear to the wall and listen to the conversations of “grown folk” as they talked late into the night about Black Power and Black Pride. For me, Pride was that sense of self that says that no matter what anyone says about or to you, you are Black and you are proud. It was something that Black people fought for, shed blood for, and in many cases, died for. In honor of the ghosts of long-passed Black ancestors, advocates, leaders and friends, I was taught to live outwardly and openly within my Blackness, facing forward, and bathed in Pride.
As I got older and began to form my own identity, it became obvious to me that the marriage of Blackness and Pride wasn’t always so inclusive, concise or celebratory. Personal and professional identity decisions were thrust upon those of us who lived in this pluralized space and, for many Black LGBTQ+ people living in this era, the question of who you were was rooted in a confining choice: were you Black OR were you LGBTQ+?
You were not allowed to be both. It was too confusing and frankly, it was confrontational when the very idea of being gay was perceived to be an affront to Blackness. We were, after all, the surviving descendants of those who were enslaved and brutalized in a country that still held onto those principles and practices. Why would you choose a way of life that put you at risk for more disdain, the loss of family, friends and jobs, or worse yet, the loss of your life? The choice itself was an illusion that Black LGBTQ+ people could not uphold if we were being our true and authentic selves. The choice was not a choice because it was simply who we were. We were Black. We were LGBTQ+. And we were good people leading movements that changed the lives of all Black people…just as we are today.
We follow in the footsteps of Bayard Rustin who was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most trusted advisors during the Civil Rights Movement and was responsible for the design and implementation of the historic March on Washington. We model our social justice blueprints like those of Ernestine Eckstein, a leader in the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. We are in service to our community like Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the U.S. and one of two openly trans people to win a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. We fight power and corruption like Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor who swept all 50 of Chicago’s wards and became both the city’s first-ever Black female mayor and its first LGBTQ+ mayor. And we challenge the imaginations of students and scholars like Alain Leroy Locke, an American writer, philosopher, educator, the first Black Rhodes Scholar and the acknowledged “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance”.
From the beginnings of Pride at the hands of Marsha P. Johnson to the stalwart vision of the co-founders of the current Black Lives Matter movement, Black LGBTQ+ people have pushed back on the pressure to choose which foot they lead with, and have instead, opted to simply march forward, strong and steady on both feet. And as the final days of June subside, we invite you to celebrate the intersection of Blackness and queerness by hearing about the experiences of Black LGBTQ+ people in our community.
Thank you to Darion Jones, Steve Lee, Sabra Purifoy, and Jeremiah Allen for their bravery and for sharing their stories.