The concepts of Black Pride and Gay Pride developed almost concurrently in the United States. In 1968, James Brown released “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the same year Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in defiance on the medal podium at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. In 1969, young street kids, many of them black and Latino, fought to be seen, heard, and respected at New York’s Stonewall Inn.
The following decade saw the rise of black consciousness and gay liberation — the “black is beautiful” movement; the Black Panthers; the premiere of and subsequent national obsession with Roots in 1977; the first Pride marches in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles in 1970; the American Psychiatric Association declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973; the election of Harvey Milk to office in 1977.
Black Pride and LGBT Pride — what Gay Pride has evolved to become — are essentially the same thing: a rejection of that which America’s dominant culture has said is right, is beautiful, is normal. Yet, for a queer person of color, the two prides can seem at odds. Blacks are often stereotyped as being more homophobic than whites, usually by white people, while the public face of the LGBT community is overwhelmingly white — even though black people are more likely to identify as LGBT (4.6 percent) than white people (3.2 percent). Black LGBT Pride celebrations started as a way to reconcile these two identities, providing a safe space for queer people of color to build community and find a sense of self.
“Black Prides allow people of color the chance to celebrate our culture and orientation without explanation,” says LaToya Hankins, of North Carolina’s Shades of Pride. “We can feel free to attend an hour workshop, take in a drag gospel show, or hang out in the park basking in the company of our fellow black gay/queer/same-gender-loving folks without having to shape our existence to fit someone else’s comfort level.”
Leaders and organizers of Black Prides are quick to point out that the celebrations are not meant to divide or further ghettoize the LGBT community. However, being a minority within that community carries a certain extra burden, as does identifying as queer within the black community. But just as homophobia has no race, racism has no sexual or gender identity.
“Many queer people of color do not feel comfortable or welcomed at most mainstream LGBT Pride events,” says Earl Fowlkes Jr., president and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, which organizes D.C. Pride. “There is still a racial divide within the LGBT mainstream, with many black LGBT folks feeling as though they have to step away from their racial identity when going to community Prides.”
“There is no question that everyone within the LGBT movement deserves to celebrate and gather for Pride festivities,” says Gabby Santos, who coordinates Albany’s Black and Latino Gay Pride. “But as LGBT people of color, we face some particularly difficult issues that require tailored Black Pride activities. We face myths of negative stereotypes, such as, we are more violent than others. We face realities such as racism within programs and the criminal system that leave people of color with fewer options, greater obstacles to participate, and fewer protections. These myths and realities are painful. LGBT people of color who experience them need support from their peers who understand the impact.
“Black Prides strengthen our collective power by providing a culturally specific celebration for communities that live at the intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and/or sexism.”
Los Angeles held the first Black Pride event with At the Beach in 1988, and New York City’s Black Pride has been going strong since 1997, but the roots of Washington, D.C.’s Black Pride may very well predate both. Though D.C. held its first official Black Pride event in 1991, it was born of an informal 15-year tradition called the Children’s Hour.
From 1975 to 1990, the Club House was the epicenter of social life in D.C. for the black gay community. Each Memorial Day weekend, it played host to the Children’s Hour, an elaborately themed and decorated party with guest performers and DJs. Initially, it was a small gathering meant for the Club House staff and members, but through word of mouth it began drawing queer people of color from across the country.
With the emergence of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, the popularity of the Children’s Hour waned, and following the final Memorial Day weekend party, the Club House closed its doors in 1990. Fearing the loss of the annual tradition, as well as the impact the epidemic was having on the community, Welmore Cook, Theodore Kirkland, and Ernest Hopkins organized the first Black Gay and Lesbian Pride on May 25, 1991, to raise funds for the HIV and AIDS organizations serving the African-American community in D.C. and surrounding areas.
More than 800 people attended that first event. But today, according to Fowlkes, “there are 33 domestic and seven international Black LGBT Prides, with over 325,000 attending Black Pride events around the United States.”
Despite their increased popularity, Black Pride events face the one problem that “mainstream” prides are all but immune to: attracting sponsorship.
It must have been 2005 — my first New York City Pride. Not yet 21, but out on my own after having finished my sophomore year in college, I didn’t know what to expect. If anything, I hoped to find the promise of freedom I had followed into the city, the expression of the long-held desires I didn’t otherwise know how to articulate.
Instead, I found something that resembled what would happen if Disneyland and Times Square had a ’roided-out baby: lumbering, ostentatious floats boasting logos from corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and Macy’s, seeking the coveted pink dollar, ridden by Greek statues, tanned and oiled, come to a semblance of life. I realized then that Pride was — and still is, now more than ever — big business. Big, muscular, sweaty business.
“Mainstream pride is no longer about ‘affirming and increasing visibility for LGBT people’ yet more about leveraging the visibility of companies wanting access to the community for brand endorsement,” says Philadelphia Black Pride’s D. D’Ontace Keyes. “So how is that carried out? Half-naked men, overpaid celebrities, lots and lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Blacks are nonexistent unless targeted for an HIV test or to be a go-go boy or girl.”
Prides have long been accused of being over-corporatized, even before they started attracting Fortune 500 companies, but this is simply a reflection of the increased value corporations place on LGBT consumerism. While eager to tap into the LGBT market, which has an estimated purchasing power of $884 billion, corporate America is more hesitant when it comes to queer people of color. By comparison, African Americans will have an estimated purchasing power of $1.3 trillion by 2017. Within those lofty figures sits a market — one that is acutely aware of fashion, culture, and all things fierce — that continues to be ignored, as evidenced by the same challenge many, if not all, Black Pride organizers face across the country.
“New York City, being the birthplace of Pride, has more Pride organizations and celebrations than any other city in the country,” says Lee Soulja-Simmons, executive director of NYC Black Pride. “Therefore, it has become increasingly more difficult in this economy to get corporate sponsorships, contributions, and participation when we are in competition with all these organizations for funding.
“Although tens of thousands of people attend, participate, and are impacted by Black Pride, we don’t receive adequate funding to support the events as we really should.”
“I cannot tell you how many times that I have been told by a potential sponsor that they have already given to mainstream Pride and suggest that I go to the person handling black market within the company,” Fowlkes says. “One would think that businesses would want to reach out to 300,000-plus consumers.”
Keyes further explains:
“Most Black Pride celebrations operate through a 70/30 model — 70 percent social, 30 percent education — which is often stigmatized as a big party, blocking our access to a lot of venues, resources, and sponsorship. Yes, we celebrate in a big way, but there are meetings, socials, and events crafted to reach and communicate to several different consumer markets rather than one.”
Identity is in flux. As a nation, whether we like it or not, we’re having a conversation on what it means to be black and what it means to be queer. At this intersection, the black queer identity has a unique perspective and a unique voice but also a unique set of problems. As this identity has evolved, so have the needs of the community.
For years, marriage equality has been the cause célèbre of the LGBT public consciousness, but queer people of color face myriad other obstacles, from disparities in income and access to health care to racism within the LGBT community, and racism as the great national pastime, not to mention higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and HIV infection. These factors not only disproportionately affect queer people of color but also take an unfair toll on the next generation.
Queer youth are about three times as likely as non-LGBT youth to end up in the juvenile justice system, and eight times as likely to experience homelessness. Among this vulnerable age group, the majority (about 60 percent) are black or Latino. In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that HIV rates among black queer men ages 13 through 24 increased 87 percent over the past decade. Black Pride addresses these needs because mainstream Pride either does not, cannot, or will not. Thus, what began as a concept has grown into a movement to save bodies, educate minds, and uplift the spirits of a marginalized population that is tired of being marginalized.
“Black Prides celebrate the history of the fact that the Stonewall rebellion and the gay rights movement were ignited by LGBT people of color,” Soulja-Simmons says, “in particular, trans people of color, immediately following on the heels of the civil rights movement, in which LGBT people of color also played a key role. Therefore it became increasingly important to not let people like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie be written out of the history of the Pride and gay rights movements they had a significant role in starting.”
Black Pride is more important than ever because the collective voice of queer people of color has never been more clear or more urgent. After being silenced and ignored, these voices deserve to be heard, if only to recount how one pulls off the hat trick of being black, gay, and proud in America — say it loud.