Going Back to Pride
I pitched this article before the recent police violence against Black people and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. The COVID-19 pandemic had already changed the way Pride 2020 would be held. Then this June, anti-racism protests replaced any formal Pride celebration. It was the first time in five years I wanted to go.
I got sober on August 1, 2015. That summer was the last time I went to Pride. Before that, I had been attending the festival for a decade. I’d gone in Baltimore, New York, Philly, DC. I was always against a police presence at Pride—and the corporations donning rainbow flags didn’t excite me—but I loved an excuse to party. I loved it even more that, by the end of the night, most people were as wasted I was every other night of the year.
The first time Pride rolled around when I was sober, I was coming up on the one-year mark. I clicked “going” to several friends’ pre- and post-Pride Facebook events. But the click of that button was more final than I felt about the decision. It didn’t help that—in the grand tradition of insular queer circles—at least two of those parties had an ex on the invite list. Romantic relationships didn’t end well for me when I was drinking.
Without being able to articulate why, I ended up not going to Pride at all that year. And then I ended up not going again, for five years.
It’s often repeated that Pride began as a riot. But it’s worth repeating, because it’s true. Specifically, it was a riot started by Black trans women and trans women of color like Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. So many queer people of color have pointed out that this has been an apt moment to reclaim that history. Activists at Stonewall were fighting police raids at the only queer spaces they had. They were fighting police brutality, the same reason there are worldwide protests today.
I could say the whitewashing of Pride is why I’ve been so hesitant to go. It took getting sober—and becoming more cognizant in general of other people’s experiences—to grow my anti-racist consciousness as a white, Jewish, non-binary, and lesbian-identified person. But claiming that’s my reason for leaving might be giving myself too much credit.
I could say I left Pride because of the alcohol—on billboards, advertised prominently on floats, overflowing into SOLO® cups. But that doesn’t feel true either. I am around alcohol all the time. I’ve been to countless parties where I’m the only one not drinking. My partner always asks if it’s okay before she drinks, but I kiss her when she has alcohol on her breath.
I could say I left Pride because it has come to symbolize a drinking culture of which I’ve grown more and more critical—where everything worth celebrating is only worth celebrating with a bottle. But I don’t want to position myself as above it. I participated until I couldn’t anymore. I might still participate if I didn’t think drinking would kill me.
All I can say with certainty is that for the first time in five years, I’ve been energized by talk of Pride, not ambivalent. I’ve been energized by the posts on social media from trans and queer people of color about reclaiming Pride’s roots. It took worldwide protests for me to truly understand at a gut level what’s missing at Pride: a real sense of what we are fighting for, a real acknowledgement that there is still so much work to be done.
Once again, Black trans women and other queer people of color are leading the way. Here in Baltimore this June, there was a Black Trans Lives Matter protest led by Iya Dammons. She is the executive director of Baltimore Safe Haven, an organization improving the quality of life for transgender people in Baltimore, largely Black trans women like Dammons herself.
Hundreds of people attended. On the June 22/ June 29 cover of Time magazine there is a photo of this protest by Devin Allen—a Baltimore photographer who got national attention for his photographs of the Freddie Gray protests here. It makes me fall in love with Baltimore again. If I feel pride for anything, it’s my chosen city of 16 years, where people work hard to make things better.
In a way, protests are the opposite of celebration. They are about bringing awareness to violence, brutality, tragedy. But watching people show up, again and again, is its own kind of celebratory. Our Black and brown queer elders showed up at the Stonewall Riots so that more of us had things to celebrate. White queer people like myself have a lot more work to do until we are all free.##
Tyler Mendelsohn's writing has been featured in publications such as the Establishment, NAILED Magazine, 3AM Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, JMWW, BmoreArt, Baltimore Fishbowl, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. Their book, Laurel, was published by Ink Press Productions in August 2019.