2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march, in recognition of the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Since then, Pride has evolved: from that small commemoration to community gatherings in progressive enclaves like New York and San Francisco to corporate-sponsored parades and ticketed events across all 50 states; from a space where people on the margins created fragile alliances to a mainstream festivity.
Music has always played a crucial role in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, as gay clubs and dancefloors provided space for queer people to come alive through movement and artists pushed social boundaries with the power of performance (through camp and showmanship or simply by writing a damn good song). But Pride looks different this year under the constraints of quarantine, even as it feels more informative than ever for a community that suffered through the AIDS pandemic and as the echo of Stonewall rings through today's protests in support of Black lives.
To help us unpack Pride 2020, we've gathered a collection of testimonies from music critics and scholars from the LGBTQ+ community. Each writer will discuss their relationship to Pride in this current moment and the role music plays in it, which will be gathered in a playlist at the end of the week. In today's entry, writer Sasha Geffen reflects on the power of queer wrath in a year that feels "fed up with symbolism."
First I saw the red rainbow, a bloodied arc slicing the clouds over Michigan. Then, two days later, I watched as photos of the march poured in: thousands of people, maybe ten thousand, filling the streets of Brooklyn, chanting and dancing for Black trans lives. Where I live, and throughout the country, the corporate rainbow processions have been canceled due to plague. There will be no Coors Light Pride Parade in Denver this year, and just as well, because pageants like that had begun to feel like hollow victory laps, and we are far from anything like victory.
A writer I like and respect tweeted recently, "Stonewall was a riot, and it worked." I agree that riots are effective where speeches, petitions and other polite requests fail. But I couldn't help but think: For whom did it work? Not for Tony McDade, the trans man killed by police in Tallahassee last month, and not for Layleen Cubilette-Polanco Xtravaganza, daughter of the House of Xtravaganza, who died on Rikers Island after failing to post $500 bail. The motions of sanitized pride conceal the deep and urgent need for further riots. None of us is free until our Black trans siblings can move without fear, until the violent carceral system webbing this country is burnt entirely to the ground.
An untrue fact about Stonewall has been repeated almost to the point of becoming a meme: that Marsha P. Johnson, the Black drag queen who has posthumously become the face of the mid-century gay rights movement, threw the first brick. By her own account, Johnson arrived late to the function. We don't exactly know who threw the first brick, whether it was the iconic butch Stormé DeLarverie or another queer person whose name has sifted from memory. I suspect that the focus on the riot-instigating projectile — hilariously featured on EW's pride cover this year, nestled between the feet of queer celebrities — is a red herring meant to defuse the history. It serves the white, straight historicization of Stonewall to imagine a person who is now dead leading the charge against her oppressors. It serves a neutered retelling of gay rights to deny the likelihood that the riot at Stonewall was a collective action, that the whole crowd raged with no need for leaders, acting on incandescent instinct, having simply had enough of the police.
Stonewall was a riot, and it didn't work for Marsha P. Johnson, the person whose face is now most commonly used as its illustration. If it did, she might still be with us, marching in the streets alongside a new generation of queers who have taken up her mantle. I understand the impulse to make a queen into an icon: We need evidence that our roots run deeper than our enemies say. But I am more interested in the work Johnson did after Stonewall, her legacy with the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries housing and feeding other trans girls, many of whom were homeless and doing sex work to survive. This was long, collective work, done in tandem with women like Sylvia Rivera, and harder to snapshot than a queen breaking a window with a brick.
This Pride feels special because — bloody rainbows aside — it is so fed up with symbolism. What's the use of flying a pink-and-blue flag if those under its colors are unhoused, imprisoned, hungry? In Paris is Burning, the seminal documentary about the Harlem drag ball community, Pepper LaBeija, mother of the House of LaBeija, talks about her children coming to balls starving. Balls were and are a place for Black and brown, trans and gay New Yorkers to move the way they couldn't safely on the streets. Their sanctuary was physical as well as spiritual. Mothers fed their children.
I am heartened seeing thousands congregate in the streets to demand justice for our Black siblings. I am thrilled seeing the funds that organizations like G.L.I.T.S. and The Okra Project have raised to house and feed Black trans people. G.L.I.T.S. — Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society — has raised over a million dollars for Black trans housing, and intends to buy property with that money so that their offerings may be permanent. I believe that trans liberation is bound up with the abolition of property, alongside the abolition of police, prisons and the state, but until then, housing our siblings free of the whims of landlords marks a vital and exhilarating step forward.
This year, mass protests have taken the place of mass parades, and the music I've heard rising up alongside our chants has emboldened and enlivened the crowds. I've heard Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" and a brass band cover of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" ringing out against the crowds protesting police violence here in Colorado. As I watch movements erupt all over the country on Twitter, I've been listening to music made by other trans people: the elegant, playful synthwork of Arca; Backxwash's paranoid horrorcore; the soothing, layered vocals of YATTA. For my contribution to this playlist, I chose songs that reflected the anxiety and urgency of this moment, as well as its facets of celebratory beauty.
Riots work. Wrath works. I am furious at the system that killed McDade and Polanco, that continues to oppress, degrade and murder Black trans people throughout the country. If I am proud this year, it is not of my own fixtures of identity, pointless in the vacuum in which capitalism hopes to stall them. It is of the revolutionaries on the ground doing the work, building safety for those who need it most, funneling money and resources toward getting people free. It isn't enough until it's enough for all of us. Until then, keep your anger lit.
Backxwash, "Into the Void (feat. Malldate)"
YATTA, "A Lie"
Shamir, "On My Own"
This is the fifth entry in a week-long series of letters by music writers in the LGBTQ+ community. The next letter will publish tomorrow, June 27.