Pride parades, especially in conservative USA, are important demonstrations of LGBT activism.
Dozens of cars crawl through the street, festooned with huge balloons and banners, as people pop their heads out of the windows and sunroofs to wave at the spectators flooding the sidewalks. Handmade signs that read “Equal Rights for All” and “I Support Equality” decorate the crowd. And a rainbow theme permeates the area, as people sporting rainbow clothes hold up their rainbow banners and wildly wave their rainbow flags.
It’s the Pride Parade coming down the street, and, since June is National LGBT Pride Month, there’s probably one coming to a city near you.
Gay pride parades have gotten something of a bad reputation in the past few years. In larger cities, the parades have escalated to enormous sizes, and huge floats, large-scale dance performances, and overwhelming crowds of people are commonplace. Partly as a way to attract media attention and partly because of the marchers’ own desires, costumes have become increasingly flamboyant and, in some cases, significantly sexualized. Conservative groups have taken to referring to pride parades as “sex parades,” condemning the morality of those who participate.
But pride parades aren’t designed as in-your-face, hypersexual demonstrations. They’re far more important than that. As one of the most visual strategies for activism from the LGBT community, they continue to work toward their original intention. After all, the first parade was held in June of 1970 in New York City to celebrate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are often credited with galvanizing the gay rights movement. That’s partly why so many Pride parades throughout the country are held in June.
But despite the controversies about the scandalous costumes, many pride parades have shifted in the past few years to become more inclusive and consciously family-friendly. The mission, according to some organizers of Pride events throughout the country, is to build alliances between heterosexual and non-straight communities while also allowing participants to express themselves, have fun, and stand up for what they believe in.
Joney Harper is the president of NWA Pride, an organization in Northwest Arkansas that hosts an annual pride parade and rally in Fayetteville. Harper said the purpose of the event is simple.
“It brings awareness that there is a community in Northwest Arkansas,” she said. “This is basically saying that we’re here. It’s breaking the myth of what people think GLBT people are like—we break a lot of myths in Northwest Arkansas. Right now, we deal with the radical right vision of what GLBT people are like, and we actually show them the real deal.”
Other Pride festivals throughout the country have similar missions. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there’s no parade, but there’s a festival that serves the same purpose. It functions as a “resource fair,” and dozens of organizations, LGBT or otherwise, have a presence at the fair to share information about their organizations, encourage volunteers, and publicize their causes. The festival also includes free HIV testing and the more typical trappings of a celebration, like food and drinks and music.
Thomas Merrill is the chair of the Baton Rouge Pride Festival. He stressed how normal and inclusive the event is for the Baton Rouge community.
“Over the years we have decided to, for lack of a better way to put it, ‘come out’ for equality,” he said. “We have moved to more and more public venues, and it’s not really any different from any other festival in town. We’d like for people to see that. We certainly want to celebrate who we are, but we try to welcome everyone and bring an atmosphere where everyone can celebrate themselves and where everyone can feel comfortable.
Merrill and his committee work hard to ensure a safe, family-friendly environment for the resource fair. He said that while BR Pride Fest doesn’t limit people’s right to self expression, the celebration has a less flamboyant vibe—that is, a large group of drag queens are present at the event, but few participants wear unapologetically skin-baring outfits.
“Anyone can come,” Merrill said. “It’s not an outrageous type of thing that you would not want to bring your friends or family or parents to. Anyone can come and have a good time.”
Pride parades are also often pigeonholed as intended exclusively for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. But Harper and Merrill said that straight allies are also incredibly important to the success of these events. A few years ago, Harper said, the NWA Pride Parade was called the NWA Gay Pride Parade, but in an effort to be more inclusive to the rest of the LGBT community and to straight allies, “gay” was dropped.
NWA Pride and BR Pride Fest are held in southern cities that are traditionally not characterized by their acceptance of the LGBT community. Harper and Merrill both admit that they’ve faced some opposition to their events in the past.
Harper said she has needed to make a concerted effort to work with police officers in Fayetteville to ensure the success of the parade. In the first few years of the event, she said, some roadblocks were arranged to disrupt the flow of the parade. And last year, someone threatened to sue NWA Pride for honoring Will Phillips, the 10-year-old boy who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in a country that discriminates against gays. NWA Pride, the person who threatened to sue claimed, had hired a minor to work at a sex parade.
Merrill said opposition is a fact of life in the LGBT community, especially in conservative areas.
“We laugh and say that every year where the protestors show up, that’s obviously a sign that we’re doing something right,” he said. “It means we are out there, and we are trying to have the community be noticed.”
In spite of the opposition, NWA Pride and the BR Pride Fest have seen growth every single year.
When the Baton Rouge festival began five years ago, 300 people attended the resource fair. The next year, that number doubled, and by the third year, 1,000 people came. Last year, the number of attendees doubled again, and this year, Merrill anticipates closer to 2,500.
In Northwest Arkansas, the situation is similar—five years ago, only 150 people showed up for the parade. But this year, Harper expects 1,000 parade participants and 3,000 spectators, who will all join together for the rally that culminates the festivities.
Dozens of pride parades will take place around the country this month, but the celebrations hosted in conservative parts of the country, like NWA Pride and the BR Pride Fest, are more essential than ever in communicating messages of acceptance. They are fundamental because they show the broader community that LGBT people exist in these cities and that they won’t continue being treated unfairly. But they also show other members of the LGBT community—people who may not be out or refuse to come out because they feel they are alone in their local struggle—that a large, welcoming support structure exists.
Harper said that this self-acceptance and confidence from members of the LGBT community is one of the most important successes of NWA Pride. She said: “There’s nothing more gratifying than to see couples holding hands walking down the street of the parade, not afraid to show their affection for each other.”