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'Queer Liberation March' sets stage for dueling NYC gay pride events

After years of complaints about the official NYC Pride March being too corporate, activists have created an alternative event scheduled for the same day.
The Reclaim Pride Coalition announced the Queer liberation march, a parallel pride march, in Sheridan Square, New York City on May 14, 2019.
The Reclaim Pride Coalition announced the Queer liberation march, a parallel pride march, in Sheridan Square, New York City on May 14, 2019.Tim Fitzsimons / NBC News

The Reclaim Pride Coalition on Tuesday announced the route of the Queer Liberation March, a protest that will take place on June 30 — just hours before the official, city-sanctioned NYC Pride March.

According to activists, the Queer Liberation March will step off in the West Village outside the Stonewall Inn at 9:30 a.m. on the last Sunday in June. From there, the march will proceed briefly northeast along West 10th Street, before turning north and marching up Sixth Avenue into Central Park, ending at the Great Lawn.

As a pointed alternative to the city’s official parade, organizers said the Queer Liberation March will not contain any corporate floats or police, and “literally anyone” can join since there will be no tickets, bracelets, police or barricades blocking entry to the march. Organizers said they hope this grassroots protest will encourage passersby to come “off of the sidewalk, into the streets,” as happened 49 years ago during the first New York pride march, then known as Christopher Street Liberation Day, which took place on June 28, 1970, the anniversary of the seminal Stonewall uprising.

The alternative march is the result of years of tension between members of the Reclaim Pride Coalition and Heritage of Pride, the nonprofit that produces the official NYC Pride event. Colin Ashley, a Reclaim Pride organizer, said the Queer Liberation March is a protest of the over-policing of NYC Pride and “the selling off of pride to over 150 corporate floats.”

Ellen Shumsky, a veteran Gay Liberation Front member, speaks on behalf of the Queer Liberation March in Sheridan Square, New York City on May 14, 2019.Tim Fitzsimons / NBC News

Ellen Shumsky, an original member of the early LGBTQ activist group Gay Liberation Front, was part of the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970, and says it was the first time she felt she could “step out of my closet and be proud.” Shumsky, who now supports Reclaim Pride's efforts, said she’s disappointed in what the official NYC Pride March has become.

“When I see the parade now — the mardi gras, the floats and everybody is partying, and there’s all these commercial floats and advertising,” Shumsky explained, “it’s a little bit upsetting and a little bit sickening that we have lost that feeling of that first march that was just incredible — that we were out of the closets and into the streets.”

Shumsky and Reclaim Pride’s organizers said several original members of the Gay Liberation Front, which was founded in the late ’60s, turned down invitations to be grand marshals of the NYC Pride March, choosing instead to join the Queer Liberation March, which is modeled on the original 1970 march.

One of Reclaim Pride’s several gripes about the city-sanctioned Pride March is that the New York Police Department has, over the years, erected more and more crowd-control barriers to manage the crush of bystanders. These barriers, activists say, prevent anyone but “official” marchers from joining and are particularly troubling for disabled participants.

They say they met “repeatedly” with Heritage of Pride leadership “to return the march to the people, but they couldn’t see it, so we are taking responsibility to do it ourselves,” according to Ashley, one of Reclaim Pride’s organizers.

"Logistically, you can't do it without barricades. You can't do it without police, and in New York City, if you get a permit for an event of this scale, you automatically get police, you automatically get barricades," Sue Doster, Heritage of Pride's strategic planning director, told NBC News shortly before Reclaim Pride announced its final plans. "And the truth of the matter is, regarding sponsors, pride has gotten more and more expensive over the years."

Robin Scott, a member of the Reclaim Pride Coalition, said that after coming out as transgender four years ago, she rollerbladed “in exaltation of joy and rainbows” through Manhattan for her first two pride parades. But two years ago, as she prepared to step off for her third pride, Scott said she “ended up rolling in little circles behind a Chipotle float for four hours before I gave up and went home.”

Ann Northrop, a long-time LGBTQ activist and organizer with Reclaim Pride, said she and others have been negotiating with city officials for months and secured an “agreement” — not a permit — for the march. “These kinds of things don’t get permits, but we get official permission,” she explained.

In addition, the timing of the Queer Liberation March is designed so that the NYC Pride March — and the millions of people expected to travel to New York for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots — can go off without a hitch at the same location, the Stonewall Inn, just several hours later.