The Smaller, Scrappier Queer Liberation March is Happening Sunday in NYC

What’s so bad about a rainbow burrito? If you’ve been following the rift in the L.G.B.T.Q. movement over the corporate embrace of Pride, the question may have crossed your mind. Last June, the West Village was a labyrinth of rainbows, with every bank branch and Shake Shack festooned with messaging for Pride Month. Chipotle sold limited-edition Pride merch, including tank tops with a rainbow burrito and the slogan “¿Homo Estas?” The hoopla—always big, but this time bigger—marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and culminated in the annual NYC Pride March, which drew some five million revellers and boasted sponsors including MasterCard, Macy’s, Uber, and Diet Coke.

Amid the festivities, a group of activists staged an alternative: the inaugural Queer Liberation March—a smaller, rawer, more radical cousin to the established parade. In spirit it was closer to the roots of the Pride March, which was originally called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, and began, in 1970, to mark the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The new march even re-created the original route, from Greenwich Village up to Central Park. There were no branded floats, no police contingent, no corporate funding. “One of our mottoes was ‘We’re here for queer liberation, not rainbow capitalism,’ ” one of the organizers, Natalie James, said recently. The group is now planning a second annual march, which will take place Sunday, while the main Pride March has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic—meaning that, by happenstance, the upstart march has usurped the Goliath in the space of a year, just in time to draw on a renewed spirit of spontaneous protest.

The critique that Pride marches have become corporatized and depoliticized has been building for years, part of a perennial tension in the L.G.B.T.Q. movement between assimilation and radicalism. “A lot of longtime activists had just stopped going to Pride,” another organizer, Jay W. Walker, said. “They were kind of sickened by it.” He brought up the concept of pinkwashing, in which “corporate bad actors” use a show of acceptance to buy good will while distracting from less savory practices. For instance, Walker mentioned Wells Fargo, which has had floats in Pride marches for years while maintaining (until recently) financial ties with the National Rifle Association, which opposed gun-control measures after the Pulse night-club shooting, in 2016. “A big part of our issue with the corporations is they’re not consistent in their support for us throughout the year,” Francesca Barjon, the group’s twenty-four-year-old social-media organizer, said. “It’s about being able to profit off of us in June.”

Cathy Renna, a NYC Pride spokesperson, countered, “We’re so far past that with these corporations. They know they gotta do better than that. This is not about waving a rainbow flag in June in your window.” The Chipotle merch, for example, benefitted the Trevor Project, which provides services to queer youth. “It’s really easy for Pride to be a target, because Pride is something that everybody has some sense of ownership in,” Renna said, adding, of the breakout march, “If we’re going to continue to make the kind of progress that we want to make, I think it’s important that we not—I’m trying to think of a way to say this that’s family-friendly—crap on each other, because some people like to do things differently.”

The Queer Liberation March had its roots in the 2017 Pride March, which featured the disruptive début of the Resistance Contingent, a consortium of activist groups that formed in response to the Trump Administration. It included groups such as Gays Against Guns, which staged a die-in, and Hoods4Justice, which formed a blockade to prevent the N.Y.P.D. marching band from joining the parade, with banners reading “There are no queer friendly cops” and “Decolonize pride.” A dozen people were arrested. During the planning for the Pride March in 2018, Heritage of Pride, the organization that produces New York’s Pride events, tried “dissolving” the Resistance Contingent, James said. It was eventually reinstated, but the activists were disillusioned with what the march had become. “We realized we all were very dissatisfied with the event itself, the degree of corporate floats, the corporatization, the bank sponsorship, as well as having a fully uniformed police contingent given a place of honor right at the front of the march,” James said. The N.Y.P.D. presence struck the activists as particularly ironic, since the Stonewall riots had been provoked by a police raid. After delivering a set of demands to H.O.P., the mayor, and the police commissioner and getting brushed off, the group, calling itself the Reclaim Pride Coalition, took on the “colossal task” of organizing its own march.

James, who is an organizer for the queer caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America, helped arrange the first meetings at the caucus’s space at the L.G.B.T. Center, in the West Village. One point of contention was whether to allow the Gay Officers Action League, or goal, to participate. “Eventually we came out on the side of the fact that the N.Y.P.D. as an institution, as a whole, is a racist one, and therefore having any representation of it wasn’t proper,” James said, though police officers were welcome to march as individuals, out of uniform. (Renna defended the presence of goal at the main march, saying, “It’s a free-speech march. If you’re going to let the Communists march, you’re going to let the police who are queer.”) “We wanted to get rid of the barricades, and we wanted certain police-free zones within the area,” James said. A subgroup negotiated with the N.Y.P.D. “We didn’t get a formal permit,” she said. “But we did get an assurance that they would not interfere with our march.”

The start time was set for 9:30 a.m. That morning, things did not start off promisingly. “We were there at the intersection, and there was just us,” Jon Carter, one of the marshals, recalled. “We looked around and we could see empty streets, and there was a real question about what the day would look like.” Then, after thirty-five minutes, there was an “If you build it, they will come” moment, as marchers materialized. (The group estimates that forty-five thousand people attended.) “We were very intentional about having trans people in the front,” Barjon said. It ended with a rally on the Great Lawn, with speakers who included the act up veteran Larry Kramer. Walker recalled, “Larry did his normal thing that he always does, which is to scream at queer people and go, ‘You’re not doing enough!’ ”

The group was busy planning a 2020 edition of the march when covid-19 struck. After New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, temporarily banned large gatherings, the Pride March and its rambunctious challenger both cancelled. The Reclaim Pride Coalition decided to hold a virtual event, called Livestream for Queer Liberation. (The group also protested the controversial field hospital that was set up in Central Park by Franklin Graham’s organization Samaritan’s Purse, which asked volunteers to sign a statement opposing same-sex marriage.) But the calculation changed in early June, after the killings of George Floyd and other black Americans by the police sparked a wave of mass protests. “There was unanimity that we needed to have a march,” Walker said. “And we needed to have it centered on the movement for black lives.”

With only weeks to plan, the march’s scrappy, D.I.Y. quality worked in its favor. “The simplicity of our approach to organizing marches and actions makes things very fluid and flexible, and we’re able to pivot in a way that a more complex plan wouldn’t allow us to,” Carter said. The main Pride March, which Carter called a “polished spectacle,” is still not happening this year. It’s as if the covid-19 meteor killed off a twelve-million-dollar dinosaur, and a smaller, more resourceful organism survived to fill the parade-size void. Nevertheless, the group has adapted to the new circumstances: it’s gathering masks and hand sanitizer and will still put material online for people who can’t take the health risk of attending in person. It isn’t seeking any type of police blessing, advertising only the starting point (Foley Square). Also, James said, “We have voted on a start time, 1 p.m., so for the queers that utterly took umbrage at our 9:30 start time last year, I’m sure they’ll be relieved.”

The group’s timing is apt. Outside Stonewall, there’s now a sign reading “pride is a riot!