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Students and experts reflect on 2020’s historic Pride month

Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman who was an activist for LGBTQ+ rights and was among the first to fight back against the raid of the Stonewall Inn. // Illustration by Julia Vreeman

By Shannon Steffens

Theo Weinert, a fourth-year student and biology major, was looking forward to attending San Francisco Pride, as he’s done every year since he came out as a trans man, to celebrate being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. But this year, the majority of Pride events were cancelled.

June is recognized as Pride month, an annual celebration of the LGBTQ+ community and their history of fighting for equal rights. This year, a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement coincided with Pride parades and events being canceled due to COVID-19 and social-distancing guidelines. 

The banning of large gatherings and the increased conversation about the violence and discrimination Black people face have inspired a new way of looking at and discussing the annual celebration.

“Pride to me means resistance and joy in oneself and in one’s acts of daily resistance,” said L. K. Langley, director of LGBTQ+ WWU. “And it means being in community and being in community with people who might share similar experiences and also people who have really, really different experiences, so being in solidarity together.”

Pride month is celebrated in June to commemorate the Stonewall riots that began on June 28, 1969. Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson and Latinx trans woman Sylvia Rivera were performing in drag at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the West Village of New York City where LGBTQ+ people often gathered.

“Like many of the gay bars during that era, it was subject to periodic raids by the police,” said Peter Boag, a history professor at Washington State University who has written extensively about queer culture. “Some places in the U.S. had laws against gay people congregating, or if they were allowed to congregate, they had to conform to certain rules — such as in the sorts of clothing they wore and also not engaging in intimate behaviors, even such as kissing.”

In the late 1960s, there were very few protections for LGBTQ+ people. Often, Boag said, police would extort bar owners in exchange for leaving them and their customers alone.

On June 28, a raid of the inn led to Johnson, Rivera and others fighting back against the police, drawing national attention. Two years later, in 1970, bisexual activist Brenda Howard organized the first nationwide marches to commemorate the riots.

Fifty-one years after Stonewall, social-distancing guidelines recommend staying 6 feet apart from others and limiting time in public spaces. Many Pride events were canceled.

Last year, LGBTQ+ WWU held a campuswide Pride celebration. Students from LGBTQ+ clubs flew the Pride flag on the campus’s flagpole, the university honored graduating LGBTQ+ students, and a party was held in the gym.

With classes going completely online spring quarter, on-campus events were canceled.

“We created a few different ways to connect regularly with students,” Langley said. “We had queer yoga and we had mindful self-compassion practice for LGBTQ+ people and then a weekly queer art and culture conversation, which was really wonderful.”

Weinert reflected on how he had been affected by the Pride cancellations.

“I haven’t celebrated Pride month openly for very long, so to me it is a celebration of liberation and community,” Weinert said. “This year, I haven’t been out to see anyone except my girlfriend. We have had a few picnics but nothing directly in celebration of Pride.”

Late May also saw a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement focusing on systemic injustice and police violence toward Black people. Marches and protests for the movement continued through June and caused many to remember the Black leaders at the heart of LGBTQ+ history.

“[June] was a really important month of reflection and remembering that the first Pride was a riot and it was started by Black trans women,” said Aleah Nelson, a fourth-year student and political science major. “I think it would’ve been incredibly hypocritical of me to be parading or partying when you have both the Black Lives Matter movement, which needs all of our support, and also the COVID crisis, which disproportionately affects Black people.”

Nelson is a lesbian, and Pride is important to her because it honors the sacrifices past generations made for the community to make the world a more open and loving place, she said.

“There has been such a necessary and important shift in Pride celebrations and writing about Pride this year,” Langley said. “Pride is absolutely celebratory and joyous and is also built on the leadership of people of color largely resisting violence by police and violence by other systems that would physically and emotionally harm people's full selves.”


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