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The Pride of Juneteenth

Pride flag and Juneteenth flag blowing in the wind in front of buildings
ChicagoPhotographer/Shutterstock

"Today is an embodiment of the principle that none of us are free until we all are free," writes NCLR's Imani Rupert-Gordon.

“What are you doing for Juneteenth?”

It’s a little surprising to hear a familiar question in a still unfamiliar setting. And as I walk through an airport and notice two women having a conversation about their Juneteenth plans, I’m surprised.

I’m still not used to hearing Juneteenth discussed and planned so casually in non-Black spaces.

Until recently, Juneteenth was a celebration that was only celebrated in Black communities. Then in June 2020, when millions of people across the country participated in the biggest and one of the most significant protests for racial justice in our nation’s history, many employers took the step of honoring Juneteenth. In 2021, it was declared a federal holiday.

That represented an acknowledgment of perhaps the oldest celebration of Black people in this country. But it also transformed Juneteenth into a mainstream holiday weekend; and now the same people who had never heard of it four years ago can celebrate it without any understanding of what it really means.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, it took nearly 3 years and a federal military intervention for the slave owners in Galveston, Texas to honor the freedom of the enslaved people there. This is symbolic: we don’t celebrate the day of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. We celebrate the day the last of us heard the news. It’s a reminder that in order for liberation to be meaningful, it has to include all of us.

Today is an embodiment of the principle that none of us are free until we all are free.

By its nature, Juneteenth has always been meant to be celebrated by everyone. Embedded in the day is a spirit of collective action, education, and joy. I love that more people count Juneteenth as a day of celebration with the people they care about. But I’m also concerned about what that could mean.

This feeling isn't a new one to me. As a Black queer woman, I have seen cultural celebrations and symbols go mainstream and lose some of what made them so special. Pride parades all over the world exist with many people never knowing what sparked the first Pride parade in the first place, or the reasons they are still so relevant today.

What happens when the celebration is more well-known than the purpose of the celebration?

I want these celebrations to get the widespread attention they deserve. And the richness, history, struggle, and promise are part of that. The celebrations come with moments of reflection, calls to action, and genuine joy.

It’s necessary. We live in a time where book bans rob impressionable students of some of their earliest opportunities to think critically about why the world works the way that it does, and in its place, leaves an often-unchallenged picture about whose stories, histories, and lives are important. These core understandings are hard to unlearn.

Right now, Don’t Say Gay and Trans laws force LGBTQ students and teachers to hide who they are, and to be ashamed of their LGBTQ families. We are living through one of the most terrifyingly pointed campaigns to erase our history. And my fear is that in a moment like this, allowing the cultural celebrations that attempt to preserve pieces of that history to lose their impact is being complicit in our own erasure.

In a time where our communities are under dangerous attacks - and an increasingly rogue Supreme Court means we may lose some of these fights, it is important that our celebrations embody as much of their true meaning as possible. They should provide us with moments of reflection, opportunities for celebration, and robust calls to action for where we must go next.

So, this Juneteenth, I will take a moment to reflect on the pride I feel that so many of us are celebrating Juneteenth together, and what this can mean for our collective future. And I’ll spend at least a little bit of time making sure that someone new to celebrating understands why we’re doing it. And then ask them to do the same for someone else next year.

As things change, holidays and celebrations once reserved for a few will become mainstream and celebrated widely. That’s what progress looks like. And we can make sure that as those celebrations get wider, they stay meaningful, and they not just retain but spread their historical and cultural relevance.

Imani Rupert-Gordon is the Executive Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights(NCLR). NCLR is a national legal organization committed to achieving and advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and their families through litigation, legislation, policy, and public education.

Voices is dedicated to featuring a wide range of inspiring personal stories and impactful opinions from the LGBTQ+ and Allied community. Visit Advocate.com/submit to learn more about submission guidelines. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on any of our stories. Email us at voices@equalpride.com. Views expressed in Voices stories are those of the guest writers, columnists and editors, and do not directly represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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