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Pride 2020 marks new era for LGBTQ movement, artist Alok Vaid-Menon says

The gender-nonconforming writer and performer says palatability and easily digestible narratives have for too long dominated the community’s priorities.

There’s a phoenix-like energy around Pride Month ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first pride march that for many comes as a welcome shift from the status quo. Reinvigorated by a plank centered around racial justice, this shift has been especially embraced by LGBTQ people of color, who say they’ve long jostled for space at the forefront of the movement.

“There’s been a lot of institutional gatekeeping in terms of our formal organizations,” said Alok Vaid-Menon, 28, a nonbinary writer and performance artist who spoke to NBC News before Pride weekend.

Palatability and easily digestible narratives have for too long dominated the movement’s priorities, according to Vaid-Menon, who said the queer community has historically privileged people who are white and cisgender.

“Those of us who are people of color, Indigenous, Black, people who are trans and gender-nonconforming are seen as too complicated and too intersectional,” said Vaid-Menon, who is of South Asian heritage and uses nonbinary they/them pronouns.

Yet the momentum spilling over from the Black Lives Matter movement — notably the countrywide anti-racism marches sparked by the killing of George Floyd last month — is upending the internal system of privilege that Vaid-Menon and other queer advocates say has underpinned the LGBTQ movement for decades.

Reclaim Pride, the coalition behind last year’s inaugural Queer Liberation March in New York City, has dedicated its protest this Sunday to Black solidarity and recent victims of police violence. And the virtual Global Pride event, which is on Saturday in lieu of many cities’ in-person Pride marches because of the coronavirus pandemic, announced this month that the 24-hour online LGBTQ celebration will center around Black Lives Matter and work to “amplify Black voices.”

“Just like in the ‘70s when the gay liberation movement was interconnected to all of these other struggles, what we’re actually seeing now is a return to that kind of sense of alignment,” Vaid-Menon said. “We have to have unified solidarity across movements, and we have to have leaders who are speaking about the intersections.”

The Black Liberation rally, which drew an estimated 15,000 people to Brooklyn, New York, on June 14 to shine a light on violence against Black transgender women, is an example of the shift to a more intersectional movement that Vaid-Menon and many other LGBTQ advocates are calling for.

This pivot back to intersectionality — something of a hallmark in the early years of the movement, when transgender women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were prominent figures in the fight for queer rights — seems all the more urgent now.

The Brooklyn rally for Black trans lives was sparked by the killings of two Black trans women, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, whose bodies were found a day apart in early June. The month before, Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida, and Nina Pop, a Black trans woman, was stabbed to death in her Missouri apartment.

While the Supreme Court ruled last week that federal civil rights law bans employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Vaid-Menon says that “win” is an anomaly given the current political climate, namely efforts by state lawmakers and the Trump administration to roll back LGBTQ rights.

“In 2020, we’re seeing some of the most sophisticated pushbacks against trans rights that we’ve seen in years,” said Vaid-Menon, whose artistic work explores the complexities of gender, sexuality, race and mental health.

A record number of anti-trans bills have been introduced across the U.S. this year, according to the ACLU — whether it be restricting transgender people’s access to health care, excluding trans youth from athletics or banning gender marker changes on birth certificates.

Vaid-Menon, however, is hopeful that the current vigor being felt across the LGBTQ movement is pushing toward a radical acceptance of people whose expressions of gender and sexuality defy rigid norms.

“So often, acceptance has been conditional,” they said. “I think we need a push to actually make it that our acceptance is unconditional, that LGBTQ people are just understood as a fundamental, integrated part of society.”

And that acceptance has to extend, too, within the movement itself, according to Vaid-Menon. While there’s been an assumption outside the LGBTQ community that everyone within it is inherently progressive and inclusive due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, Vaid-Menon argues that the issues trans and gender-nonconforming people are calling attention to don’t just threaten the cisgender, binary ecosystem, but the LGBTQ establishment as well.

“The issues that so many of us are bringing up are not just mainstream LGBTQ issues, like marriage equality or workplace protections,” they explained. “How are you supposed to take advantage of workplace protection if people aren’t even hiring you because they already read your appearance as unprofessional or uncouth?”

But as grassroots organizations that have been working with trans communities of color for years gain greater mainstream visibility, and voices like Raquel Willis and Shea Diamond are being amplified, Vaid-Menon is optimistic that an inclusive movement will flesh out beyond a transient show of solidarity.

“I feel extremely hopeful,” they added, “and I feel really great about saying that, because it’s very rare during Pride where I’m like, ‘I’m hopeful!’ I think we’re going to see major paradigm shifts in the next few years, and I’m excited.”

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