Pride Pandemic and Protest

LGBT Heritage Month, Pride

Every June we celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month, and this year was to have been perhaps the biggest celebration we’ve ever organized in Los Angeles: commemorating the 50th anniversary of the world’s first legally-permitted “Gay Pride” parade. The historic event that took place on June 28, 1970 began at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and McCadden Place, a site located in the 13th District.

For nearly a year, we prepared for a month-long series of carefully curated events to celebrate decades of history, struggle, and triumph. Then, toward the end of March, the magnitude of the COVID-19 global pandemic became apparent. My team and I pivoted to celebrate Pride virtually and, through a series of essays, incorporate a theme intimately familiar to this community: perseverance in the face of a pandemic.

I was a young man when I moved to Hollywood in January of 1982, and it is difficult for me to adequately describe the thrill and excitement I felt realizing my dream of pursuing a life here in Los Angeles. Growing up gay in Oklahoma wasn’t easy: although I come from a very loving family, I knew from an early age I was fundamentally different. One of the first feelings I ever had was shame. Not shame for something I had done, but shame for who I was. By my teenage years, I had developed coping skills and I endeavored simply to survive. That evolved into a determination to have a fulfilling life no matter what, and I began setting goals and worked hard to pursue them.

In November of 1981, just before I came to Los Angeles, the mainstream media first reported on a strange new “Gay cancer.” By then, young gay men were growing sick and dying of opportunistic infections, pneumonia, and strange forms of cancer usually associated with advanced age. At that time, these were considered isolated incidents, with a few cases reported out of New York and San Francisco. Doctors began to suspect that the disease was caused by a virus with a high mortality rate. Then it began to spread. It was a mystery, it killed randomly, and in the years before a diagnosis was identified, none of us knew who might be next.

I spent most of my twenties believing I would die before the age of thirty.

It would be years before HIV was determined to be the cause of AIDS. Thousands of young men, at the height of their youth and promise, were dead by the mid-1980’s. Over the years, that number grew to be millions. That is my generation, and easily half of us are gone. In the early days of COVID-19 the sense of dread and uncertainty that swept the world was very familiar to us.

For my generation, the AIDS epidemic - cruel and harrowing all on its own - came just as the LGBTQ community was hitting its stride, making inroads against oppression.

Our movement was built on uprisings against police brutality in the 1960’s, including one such incident here in Los Angeles, also in the 13th District: the Black Cat protests in Silver Lake. As 1966 turned to 1967, and members of the same sex dared to kiss at the stroke of midnight, people were beaten by undercover police officers and taken to jail. On February 11, 1967, around 600 brave people gathered openly for a planned protest, and the gay rights movement took a giant leap forward in Los Angeles.

Then, in June of 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City, the LGBTQ community was targeted yet again, this time by the NYPD. Bar patrons refused arrest and barricaded themselves inside, then took to the streets. One of the leaders was Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman who gathered hundreds more outside to join in the resistance.

The rioting went on for six days. The closet door was torn from its hinges. People were tired of having to hide. This galvanizing event brought national attention and the LGBTQ movement in the United States was born. Since then, Pride has been celebrated in June around the world.

Fast forward all the way to our time: May 25, 2020, and the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis while three other officers held him down or stood by, accomplices to the crime. Video of George’s slow, agonizing death by an expressionless, armed perpetrator wearing a badge has been seen around the world. Another death in a long, tragic list of unarmed black men and women killed by a police officer. But this latest incident has brought us to a tipping point. Protests erupted in Los Angeles, around the country, and around the world, as centuries of institutionalized racism, injustice, and discrimination finally reached a flash point.

The LGBTQ movement began not just as a protest against police brutality; it was born out of diversity and led by youthful, angry women and men who had been marginalized by an oppressive society. The entire spectrum of humanity is reflected in who we are. Sexual orientation in and of itself has no distinction in regard to race, religion, or gender, and until the last few decades, we lived in a world where our very existence was criminalized. So we fought, and fought, and fought - changing minds, changing laws, and changing the world.

Ours is a journey of resistance, survival, and transcendence. The LGBTQ movement was born from protest, survived through pandemic, and is celebrated today with Pride. We have stories to tell and a role to play. But these times demand more of us. It is the duty of LGBTQ people to fight against the soul destroying scourge of racism, and to stand in solidarity with the movement for justice and equity for the Black community. 

The only constant in the world is change, and we are in the midst of a clarion call for change, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960’s. The LGBTQ community must be allies in any struggle against injustice anywhere, and this moment requires us to reflect, to act, and to bring change. The journey continues.