Small-Town Gays Need Pride More Than Ever

Who is really hurt when Pride events are canceled? Not the corporations. It’s a loss for the teens and queer folks in rural communities who need a physical space so they can be themselves

For the first time in its half-century history, NYC Pride will not strut through Manhattan’s West Village. Across the globe, nearly 400 pride parades were postponed or canceled entirely — including Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Boston — to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Every year, questions arise about the ethics and integrity of major-city Pride parades accepting corporate sponsors and courting a police presence. But the cancellation still comes as solemn news, especially for the many queer people who look forward to the year’s singular event when they can be fully, unabashedly themselves.

Leo Borluca, 20, is a transmasc nonbinary person from the Bay Area. He first attended Pride in San Francisco two years ago with a childhood friend just weeks after graduating from high school. Borluca was out to a few close friends. “My best friend took me as a going-away day trip. She thought it might make me feel like I was allowed to be queer,” Borluca says.

Walking around the Castro District, Borluca felt like he temporarily transcended his “hush-hush” religious community to explore a burgeoning queer identity. “It made me feel like me, and it was okay to be me,” he says.

The Challenge of Queer Visibility in a Pandemic

Whether it takes the shape of a rainbow-colored crop top, a drag queen shouting into a megaphone that Pride is a protest, or a condom wrapper under your feet, Pride flourishes through visibility. Without a physical gathering, certain queer communities go unseen — especially in rural parts of the country.

“The LGBTWIA+ community is like a quilt. Each patch is so important to the finished product,” Dustin Havens, the director of operations for the Paducah LGBT Welcome Center in Paducah, Kentucky, tells me. “While Chicago, L.A. and New York are huge patches, it takes all of the patches to make the quilt work.”

The Paducah LGBT Welcome Center indefinitely postponed its second annual Western Kentucky Pride Festival, which was set for the weekend of May 29th. “It was absolutely devastating to have to cancel something that the livelihood of our organization depends on to get through the year,” Havens says.

They anticipated $8,000 in revenue from approximately 11,000 expected attendees. Fortunately, the money would have gone back into planning future Pride events and does not affect services like queer support groups, a food pantry and an on-site clothing room. Havens says the center will now fundraise and push for outside donations to make up for lost revenue.

Other small-town Prides work in conjunction with local government and bigger sibling events. Anthony Cortez is the executive director for Henderson Pride in Henderson, Nevada. He says the International Cultural Movement for Equality, which puts on Henderson Pride, worked with city officials and organizers for the larger Las Vegas Pride to create a more family-friendly event.

ICME postponed its inaugural Henderson Pride until the last weekend in August. If the pandemic continues into August, Henderson says, they’ll move the date again. They don’t plan on canceling the event. “Pride is our culture. It’s part of our community, and we want to be able to celebrate, be free and be able to be with our friends and family,” he says.

Why a Physical Space Matters

Some of the biggest celebrations are going digital. European Pride Organisers Association and InterPride will host a digital Global Pride event on June 27th, connecting national LGBT organizations throughout the world. LGBTQ Nation reports the 24-hour livestream will feature performances and activist speeches.

Queer people, especially teens, already live online, forming digital communities on social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter. Drag queens who’ve lost revenue from canceled events are turning to Instagram livestreams and Venmo donations. Queer communities now intrinsically includes online gatherings.

But many attendees insist there’s a visceral need for physical Pride events. “Seeing the community so alive and vibrant just makes me feel happy and safe and that my identity is seen, even when it wasn’t at home before now,” Borluca says.

Annual Prides can become a barometer for one’s self-identity. Borluca came out to his family last year, and he looked forward to attending his first Pride as an openly transmasc, nonbinary dude. “I was so excited to not have to hide when I go to Pride,” he says. “I can really be me as I leave the house and go live my life to the fullest as an out person.”