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Are Pride Parade’s Corporate Ties Undermining Its Original Queer Activist Message?

The 2015 Boston Dyke March. (Greg Cook)closemore
The 2015 Boston Dyke March. (Greg Cook)

This Saturday, June 11, downtown Boston will erupt in rainbow splendor as the gay Pride Parade cavorts through its streets. Drag queens will march alongside high school students, librarians shoulder-to-shoulder with leather slaves. Also in attendance will be lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer (LGBTQ) representatives of businesses large and small, from local banks to Microsoft. There will be evidence, too, of the event’s numerous corporate sponsors, among them TD Bank, Bud Light and Walmart.

For some LGBTQ Bostonians, the corporate presence at Pride is unwelcome, even unethical. Many also feel that the event marginalizes the LGBTQ community’s most vulnerable populations by not prioritizing the needs and visibility of LGBTQ people of color and trans individuals. As a result, numerous alternative pride events have sprung up throughout the month of June. A few, like the upcoming Boston Dyke March on June 10, BASK: An LGBTQ People of Color Pride Picnic on June 18, and the recent Radical Pride Kick-Off Party by Break the Chains on June 3, have made it a point to steer clear of the corporate involvement that has become standard in Pride parades around the country.

“It's really important for us to stay noncommercial, because we try to be very focused on the issues and people,” says Amber Clifton, who helps organize Boston Dyke March. “I think that sometimes when you bring in a lot of the commercialization, the focus is a little bit more split." In the past, Dyke March has accepted raffle donations from local businesses and allowed like-minded organizations to hold fundraisers on their behalf. Christine M. Hurley, another Dyke March organizer, says that Dyke March always turns down offers for advertising.

The origins of Pride can be traced to Christopher Street Liberation Day, a gay rights demonstration that took place in New York City in 1970 to commemorate the clash between police and LGBTQ patrons of the Stonewall Inn a year prior. Over the next several decades, as gay rights activists turned their attention to fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis, achieving legal protections for gays and lesbians and campaigning for same-sex marriage, Pride parades around the country saw a similar shift away from Pride’s protest origins and towards mainstream acceptance.

For many businesses, Boston Pride presents an opportunity to reach potential LGBTQ customers. Companies can purchase advertising space on the website, sponsored social media posts, the parade spot of their choice, VIP passes to Pride Week, and many other perks.

“It is true that there are a lot of corporate sponsors, and a lot of corporate involvement in Pride,” says Sylvain Bruni, the president of Boston Pride’s Board of Directors. “But we believe that this is a good thing. It is good to have corporate America backing gay rights and being supportive of the LGBT community. We think that it is important to have companies that show their support both for the community in general, and for their employees.” Besides, he says, “We need corporate sponsors, because Pride isn't cheap.”

Alternatives Take Hold
Boston Dyke March was founded in 1995, part of a lesbian-led movement begun in Washington, D.C., in 1993 to protest the male-centricity of so many gay rights parades. Boston Dyke March has since expanded its focus beyond the lesbian community. “Dyke March was started to create a space that was much more radical, political and grassroots,” says Clifton. “We’re really focused on providing space for the people, even within our own community, who are pretty marginalized. And today what that means is that we put a lot of focus on making sure we have space for people that are trans or nonbinary people of color, and we are absolutely always accessible to folks with disabilities.”

Dyke March also strives for a more political ethos. “It's a march, not a parade,” says Hurley. Adds Clifton, “It's an event that has picket signs. It's an event that has calls to action to change society.” At the same time, Dyke March does not posit itself explicitly against Boston Pride, preferring to view itself simply as an alternative.

Some organizations, like the femme-visibility meetup group Mad Femme Pride, host alternative events in addition to marching in the Pride parade. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” says Madeleine Unstraight, a Mad Femme Pride organizer and musician who hosted a concert of local LGBTQ bands called Big Queer Show on June 3. “I think [Pride is] too corporate and not activist enough, but at the same time I’m happy that the corporations want to show that they are with [LGBTQ] people.”

But for those who see LGBTQ and workers’ rights as intrinsically connected, Pride’s corporate ties are a dealbreaker. “Any entity can just slap a rainbow and be like, yeah, I support LGBTQ people—but still exploit them. I think it's really important to be very critical of that.” says Mala Maya, who organizes the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition’s BASK: An LGBTQ People of Color Picnic and is the program director of HUES Boston, the coalition’s women’s program. For many LGBTQ activists, an association with a company like Walmart—which has been criticized for low wages and poor working conditions—is antithetical to their goals and beliefs.

Eli Vivas, the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition’s interim director, says that the cost of participation in Pride can be prohibitive. Everyone who wants to march in the parade must pay a fee, even nonprofits like the coalition. The fees for parade participation are determined by a sliding scale that is cheapest for student and military groups; if a nonprofit registers early, the cost is between $200 and $500, while last-minute fees reach into the thousands. There is a slightly lower fee if a group wishes to host a table with informational materials at the Pride Festival. Even if the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition wanted to, says Vivas, “definitely we can't afford both.”

Last year, both Vivas and Maya were part of a group of about a dozen protesters who halted the parade for several minutes to bring attention to violence against trans women of color. Their list of demands included “fair and equitable Pride fees;” “more diversity in the board of directors for Boston Pride;” “that corporate sponsors be approved not only based on how they treat their LGBTQ employees, but how they treat their customers and the communities in which they operate;” and “a Pride parade route that marches through a community of color.”

Bruni says that Boston Pride is working to become more inclusive. “Out of a board of five people, we do have two people of color on our board. We are trying very hard to recruit some more and to expand our board."

“This year, yes, Pride has started to add additional members of color to their organizing committee and to their board,” says Vivas. "When I see those things happening, it's a work in progress.” The needs of LGBTQ people of color, he says, are both specific and dire, since HIV disproportionately affects gay and bisexual Black and Latino men, and the risk of suicide is greater for certain groups of LGBTQ youth of color.

Boston Pride does include two programs aimed at LGBTQ people of color, Black Pride and Latin@ Pride. And the theme of this year’s festival, “Solidarity Through Pride,” is a clear effort to acknowledge intersectionality, the idea that overlapping identities—like race, class, gender, culture and sexual orientation—cause people to experience disadvantage and discrimination in different ways. It cuts to the heart of what many activists are trying to accomplish by agitating for the rights of trans women of color: Of an already marginalized group of people, they may be the most marginalized of all.

Vivas has hope that activists like himself may yet find common ground with Boston Pride; Maya, his Hispanic Black Gay Coalition colleague, does not. But for now they are focused on BASK, the coalition’s upcoming LGBTQ People of Color Pride Picnic, which takes place on June 18 in Roxbury. The event was founded four years ago by a group of “mostly black queer women,” says Maya, and it features exclusively performers of color, from bands to DJs to yoga instructors.

"The goal,” says Maya, “is to create a space that centers and celebrates LGBTQ people of color that's made by them, for them.”

Amelia Mason Music Reporter/Critic, The ARTery
Amelia Mason is a music critic and reporter for WBUR’s The ARTery, where she covers everything from indie rock to avant-garde to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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