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LGBTQ activists join forces to reimagine Pride amid coronavirus pandemic

With hundreds of gay pride celebrations around the world canceled or postponed due to COVID-19, event organizers are teaming up for a virtual alternative.
LA Pride 2019
A parade participant is seen at the LA Pride Parade on June 9, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.Sarah Morris / Getty Images file

Facing a wave of cancellations amid the global pandemic, LGBTQ activists are scrambling to reimagine gay pride events, some of which are among the biggest in-person gatherings in the world.

The latest major city to announce a cancellation was New York, the birthplace of the original pride march and the site of last year’s blockbuster Stonewall 50 pride celebration, which drew 5 million people to the city’s streets to celebrate the half-century anniversary of the historic 1969 Stonewall uprising.

New York’s announcement, made Monday by Mayor Bill de Blasio, came after most other major U.S. cities — including Los Angeles, Dallas, D.C., Boston, San Francisco and Seattle — had already called off or postponed their June pride events. As of Thursday, nearly 400 pride events around the globe, about 140 of them in the U.S., have been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis, according to an open source count maintained by the European Pride Organisers Association.

With more and more in-person pride events being canceled and postponed daily, organizers are exploring other options. Several groups behind the world’s largest pride celebrations are throwing their organizational weight behind plans for a 24-hour, online “Global Pride” event on June 27 that will take place virtually in cities around the world. The effort is being spearheaded by InterPride, an international cohort of pride organizers.

‘Global Pride’

Ron deHarte, co-president of the United States Association of Prides and a member of the InterPride organizing committee, said he and more than a dozen national and regional pride event representatives have been hosting regular organizing committee meetings to plan the event.

The current working plan is to host a streaming online event that “will peak in time zones around the world, and in each of those time zones, those regional pride organizations and those local pride organizations will be directly involved in that programming component," deHarte explained.

“Global Pride will show the LGBTQIA+ movement for the very best it can be, showing solidarity at a time when so many of us are mourning, and strength when so many of us are feeling isolated and lonely."

Kristine Garina, European Pride Organisers Association

Full details for “Global Pride” will likely be announced later this month, and organizers are focused on ensuring the event connects “the local community and the worldwide global pride movement together through this digital platform,” deHarte added.

“Global Pride will show the LGBTQIA+ movement for the very best it can be, showing solidarity at a time when so many of us are mourning, and strength when so many of us are feeling isolated and lonely,” Kristine Garina, president of the European Pride Organisers Association, said in an InterPride statement. “Above all, we will show our resilience and determination that Pride will be back bigger and stronger than ever before.”

DeHarte said that no final decisions have been made about Global Pride’s fundraising details or which digital platforms will stream the event, but he said the event will likely be available across several platforms to increase accessibility and would combine social media and traditional media.

He added that the planning committee is focused on a strong fundraising component to help “financially struggling” LGBTQ organizations to “survive so they can keep helping” others in the community.

Longtime gay activist Cleve Jones, who is based in Northern California, said he is assisting with the Global Pride effort because he hopes it can serve as a fundraising vehicle for the community groups that rely on spring and summer to fund their year-round operations.

“The agencies that serve the most vulnerable members of our community — the elderly and the young, the HIV positive and the transgender — are really being devastated in this,” Jones told NBC News.

A virtual Queer Liberation March?

Longtime LGBTQ and AIDS activist Ann Northrop said she and many other veteran activists want there to be something different this year, too — but she’s not on board with Global Pride.

An activist with ACT UP New York and most recently the Reclaim Pride Coalition, Northrop helped organize last year’s inaugural Queer Liberation March, an alternative to the massive and mainstream NYC Pride March that she and other activists criticized as too friendly to police and corporations.

Northrop said she and the Reclaim Pride Coalition had been organizing a repeat protest march this year — scheduled for June 28, the same date as the main march — but are now exploring an alternative to an in-person gathering.

“It certainly will not be integrated with the regular digital pride, because that’s the same old corporatized crowd doing what I'm sure will be a very corporatized 24-hour broadcast,” Northrop said of the Global Pride efforts.

Amid the public health crisis, the Reclaim Pride Coalition has shifted to working on coronavirus-related projects, Northrop said, like assisting LGBTQ people who are released from jails as cities let out detainees over COVID-19 concerns.

Recently, Reclaim Pride activists made a rare journey outdoors to the Central Park field hospital run by Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical aid organization founded by Franklin Graham, who has a history of making bigoted remarks toward LGBTQ people and religious minorities.

“We were very, very happy with being able to shine the spotlight on the horror of the city and Mount Sinai thoughtlessly hooking up with Franklin Graham,” Northrtop said. “Our line was: If you don’t care about the values of the people you bring in to do this stuff, why don’t you bring in the Klan? They already have the gowns and the masks.”

City officials said the field hospital would abide by Mount Sinai’s nondiscrimination policy, and Graham told NBC News in an emailed statement that the group does not discriminate.

‘We need to have some sort of celebration’

In the United States, pride events draw 20 million people onto the streets annually, according to an estimate by InterPride. Most LGBTQ pride events take place during summer months, with many scheduled on the last weekend of June to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Pride marches and celebrations have been held since June 1970, when New York City Gay Liberation activists held a march to mark the one year anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Now held in cities and towns around the world, these symbolize the growing public acceptance and legal recognition of LGBTQ people.

“For me, pride is a mood and a feeling,” said Brian Silva, founder of the National Equality Action Team (NEAT) and former executive director of Marriage Equality USA.

Silva said that while in-person pride events have played an important role in raising awareness for LGBTQ rights, like same-sex marriage, the spirit of gay pride can’t just be confined to big parades.

“We have been the beneficiaries of fundraising from pride, we have led pride parades, especially when marriage passed,” Silva said. “It’s great we can do that together in person, but pride can never be only something that we can do in person.”

While June is officially LGBTQ Pride Month in the U.S., pride celebrations happen throughout the year. Jarrett Lucas, CEO of the Stonewall Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that provides funding to small LGBTQ community groups, said he’s worried about the “cumulative toll” the pandemic will have by canceling the many events in April and May that “build toward June.”

But perhaps even more dramatic is the drop in visibility that cancelling these in-person events could have on the LGBTQ movement overall, Lucas said, since so many use their LGBTQ Pride Month events “to lift up their mission and find new audiences, find allies — institutional and individual.”

In New York during Pride season, there are so many events that Lucas said he sometimes attends three to four separate fundraisers per day. “That’s not some exaggeration,” he said.

Already, some of these groups are in dire straits, according to Lucas. He said inquiries into his nonprofit’s emergency response fund shot up from one to two per day before the pandemic to about a dozen daily. “Organizations are saying, ‘We need support, we are on the precipice of closing.’”

Cleve Jones, a close former associate of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, said the pandemic has already had a “profound effect” on nonprofit groups serving the LGBTQ community. He said he hopes the Global Pride event and other virtual LGBTQ events in the works will be able to step in to make up for missed fundraising opportunities, like the recently canceled AIDS LifeCycle, a huge California charity event.

“We need to have some sort of celebration,” he said, "but it also needs to be one about getting to work and protecting people's lives and protecting these advances we have made as a community.”

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