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Pride 2020 Was the Protest It Was Always Meant to Be

With a collective purpose and love that superseded profit margins, this summer’s queer protests felt spiritually (and erotically) powerful

Months of fantasizing, speculating, stretching led me to this — a mass of queer people crowded in front of a gay bar, dripping sweat and ready for action. We were tight and still but dedicated to wearing masks and minding as much personal space as we could. Eyes glanced toward each other in every direction, looking for familiar faces while taking note of less familiar ones. Radiating out from a central group of Black trans speakers, the crowd of many genders and many shades felt tense and braced for action. Not to pounce, to protect. I looked around and marveled at an uncanny quality to the scene. Hundreds of gay men managed to gather in one place without worrying about fucking each other.

That day, I went to the Stonewall Inn to mourn the murders of Black trans people including Nina Pop and Tony McDade. This protest converged both conceptually and physically with the momentous movement against racist police violence reignited by the slaying of George Floyd. A week or so later, I went to the transcendent Brooklyn Liberation action on behalf of Black trans lives. Fifteen thousand people gathered in a sea of white fabric and thunderously repeated the words of writer and activist Raquel Willis speaking atop the crowd: “I believe in Black Trans Power.”

Gatherings like these weren’t what most of us fantasized about during our most isolated moments of quarantine. June 2020 produced a potent intersection of events for the activist-oriented American — enduring an ongoing pandemic, protesting police violence in defense of Black lives and honoring the annual tradition of Pride Month. In this vacuum of unemployment and venue closures, organizers carved out spaces for bemasked queer people to rise up for Black people and return to the historical roots of Pride, a grassroots demonstration against the police led by our most marginalized.

Where New York City was once the most dangerous place to be in America in March and April, cases of COVID-19 were finally declining to the extent that compromises around social gatherings seemed reasonable, as long as we limited the body count, stayed outdoors and adhered to wearing face coverings.

Inadvertently, mass protests tested the effectiveness of these last two measures. While cases didn’t surge, City Council members failed to meet demands to meaningfully defund the NYPD. Now, the facades of New York belong to a brave new world — from the tags and banners of solidarity on each block to the signs on every business dictating a policy of “No Mask, No Service.”

I’ve learned a lot these past few months as a non-Black person taking the call to show up and support Black lives. I’ve learned new ways in which my body is strong and privileged but also has limits to staying useful long-term. I’ve learned to distinguish maneuvers that help protect Black and trans people in the heat of police confrontations from actions that simply satisfy a desire to be part of something. I’ve learned how linking arms with other protestors in a police confrontation is trickier than it sounds and how rainwater reactivates pepper spray hours after it’s been rinsed off.

One of the most valuable lessons to me has been how the “army of lovers” cited by lesbian separatist writer Rita Mae Brown doesn’t mean an orgiastic network of literal sex partners but a mass of people harnessing an erotic force to protect, support and build with each other. I don’t feel that we’re nymphomaniacal to the point of our undoing as many jaded gay curmudgeons would have you believe. Sexual dissidence unifies us. It’s just that we often get lazy or narrow-minded about what that unity can look like.

Later in June, I went to Brooklyn’s McCarren Park to be an audience to Black queer speakers and performers. When the sun set, we had a dance party in wigs and masks for a solid hour before the police shut us down. I went to the Queer Liberation March on what would otherwise be a corporatized Pride Sunday and dance-marched with other queer people of color between Stonewall and Washington Square just before being pushed and pepper-sprayed by NYPD officers who must’ve been eager for their own reenactment of the Stonewall Riots.

In between, I recuperated at Jacob Riis Beach (aka The People’s Beach). It’s the only place in New York City where queer people of every race, gender, age, class and borough consistently come together to share space and feel good.

I’m tallying up these experiences because they’re proof to me that we as queer people are capable of generating supportive, loving spaces for all of us — especially those of us most vulnerable to harm. In these glimpses at some kind of revolution, I see something radically different from the thinly-veiled sex tourism campaign of World Pride 2019. I see us capable of providing opportunities for generosity and tenderness that aren’t conditioned upon how desirable somebody is for sex. We’re an “army of lovers” not because we’re all fucking each other. We share an expansive vision of sexual freedom and love.

I don’t feel that gay men are inordinately obsessed with sex or that sex necessarily undermines our pursuits of justice. Much ado has been made about the queer community’s overabundance of “sexual spaces.” This is a critique I find bizarre given how much effort the state has dedicated for decades to gentrifying, policing and shuttering spaces that queer people used to fuck (and, more specifically, exchange money for sex). As gay life has been sanitized down to the whitest picket fence in South Bend and as legitimate sex has increasingly been confined to one singular space — the private bedroom — I’m wary of any effort to eliminate “sexual spaces” much further.

I get it, though. I think most of us get frustrated with navigating sexual dynamics. But these frustrations aren’t so much about the presence of sexual desire in a space but the absence of much else to structure how queer people gather and support each other. I think a lot of people are fed up with being unprotected and unacknowledged in gay bars and parties just because men are bad at forging intimacy with people we don’t see as sexually eligible.

It doesn’t help that most queer spaces are commercial. When spaces are structured foremost to maximize sales — or in the case of corporate-sponsored Pride events of summers past, brand identity — they intrinsically reinforce hierarchies of gender, race and class. Besides buying shit, most of our queer spaces reduce to a lot of looking around. Looking for people we already know or looking for eye contact from people we desire. Dance floors often manage to transcend these dynamics. But it’s not enough to just dance together. We need occasions for coming together that supersede both profit margins and sex, gatherings that might be playful or solemn or enraged but which fundamentally generate a sense of collective purpose.

To those yearning for occasions like these, we already have them: protest. And as it turns out, protest isn’t some kind of puritanical space void of pleasure and connection. Many of us have cultivated unexpected bonds with friends who have had our back in these fearful confrontations with police. Many of us have found ourselves instinctively attached to strangers when we see them chased, arrested or just dehydrated. These connections aren’t cruise-y or carnal, but to call them “non-sexual” feels not entirely true. These queer protests have felt spiritually powerful, and at the center of that spirituality is something brilliantly erotic.