With more than 475 Pride parades canceled or postponed this year, gay bars and entertainment venues that would have hosted Pride afterparties and nightlife events are hurting.
Marke Bieschke, a member of the Stud Collective, which purchased the gay bar The Stud in 2016, says that Pride and Folsom Street Fair, a leather and fetish event, were “make or break for gay bars in San Francisco. We were full every night for a week, people would spend a lot of money, [and] we could sell merchandise.” These big weekend hauls went a long way toward offsetting The Stud’s rent costs: $440 per day.
When two Washington, D.C., gay bars, Secrets and The Eagle, closed for good, Sarah Massey, a PR public professional serving social change and arts organizations, felt the loss. “In terms of the community, it’s really painful. In terms of business, it’s devastating to lose spaces where we could meet and express ourselves,” she says.
For a community in which visibility has historically been accompanied by vulnerability, Pride is a chance to take up space on streets that haven’t always felt safe or welcoming. The ability to be openly themselves can be transformative for someone who may live far from a queer community or be closeted at work, as 46 percent of LGBTQ people are.
So, this year, some queer organizers and entrepreneurs are holding down the gayborhood virtually — and, in some cases, physically. Pride parades may be canceled, but community and allyship are not. Coming together in a pandemic looks like everything from uplifting LGBTQ community members through online celebrations to showing up, vocally and in person, to honor Black lives.
“As a young queer, I would go to gay bars and nightclubs. These were where I met my people,” says Massey, who has organized protests, fundraisers, and events for the Washington, D.C., queer scene for years. Riding with her motorcycle club, Massey has led the Capital Pride Parade, Baltimore Pride, and the first-ever Annapolis Pride, in 2019. “We made history, and it was really meaningful to be out and proud and visible.”
To address the loss of the Capital Pride Parade this year, Massey created Joie de Vivre, a secure platform where LGBTQ and sex-positive people can connect through weekly online dance parties and other events, including The Future is Queer Online Pride Celebration. The online Pride event, which occurred on June 13, features DJs, spoken word, virtual speed dating, and a clothing-optional dance party.
“When I think of Pride, I think about booty shorts and cute outfits, or Burning Man and play parties — who are we and who do we want to be? Can we not be more liberated being naked?” Massey asks. To protect guest privacy, Massey worked with a developer to ensure content couldn’t be recorded.
Through these weekly dance parties, Joie de Vivre offers a way for people to keep dancing and experience some of the titillation of see-and-be-seen gay bars until it’s safe to gather in person. “We can use this moment to bring more people into the LGBTQ movement, and I hope we maintain this creativity going forward,” she says.
While Massey worries for LGBTQ nonprofits that typically see huge donations in Pride month (“Where are the fundraisers going to happen?”) and for a community disproportionately affected by COVID-19, she draws hope for the future by looking back at the AIDS crisis. “When we focus on who we are and what we need,” she says, reflecting on Pride, “we’re resilient and we will make it through.”
The pandemic also hit at a specific time when gay bars were “reasserting themselves” as community centers. In a city with tons of gay bars, The Stud, San Francisco’s oldest operating gay bar, stood out for its commitment to inclusivity (showcasing performers of color and lesbian performers) and its “radical community.” It was a place patrons could not only drink and dance but also find roommates, pool resources, and engage in activism.
So, rather than “go broke paying the lease” during the pandemic, the Stud Collective decided to shut down and plan a way to reopen down the line. (There’s an online fundraiser to raise capital.)
With everything packed into storage, The Stud held a 12-hour drag funeral hosted by collective members VivvyAnne ForeverMore and Honey Mahogany, featuring 10 DJs and 70 performers. On June 5, The Stud took part in Eventbrite’s virtual Pride celebration, “We’re Still Here, an All-Day Queer Event Celebration,” and has further plans to participate in the SF Pride online celebration on the weekend of June 27.
The Stud’s activist spirit also shone through in the drag funeral when collective members talked about “pretty amazing protesting going on against the murder of Black people by police officers.”
“It was already tough being isolated, and there’s violence already happening and not talked about all the time as it could be… This is a moment where white people and people with privilege can step up and take action,” says ForeverMore, explaining her decision to donate her tips to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. Jillian Gnarling donated to a local bail fund.
“We mourn the people we’ve lost in the community to this terrible disease and due to police violence, but we are hopeful in the long run The Stud will return,” says Bieschke.
Last year, after Heritage of Pride, the nonprofit that produces the official NYC Pride events, showed disinterest in including activist voices, Reclaim Pride Coalition planned its own march: the Queer Liberation March. The event drew 45,000 people.
“It was an amazing testament to the need for authentic, inclusive programming to celebrate our community and demand progress,” says coalition member Jon Carter, who served as a parade marshal.
Reclaim Pride Coalition started planning 2020’s march immediately, but then the pandemic and the uptick in police violence against Black Americans became national news. In quick response, Reclaim Pride now intends to take to the streets on June 28 for the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality.
Reclaim Pride has noted the historic intersectionality between the LGBTQ and Black communities on Twitter. Both communities were historically targeted by police: A cop raid on the Stonewall Inn ignited the gay pride movement after patrons, including Black youth and trans women of color, fought back. Recently, a Reclaim Pride Coalition member sustained multiple injuries and was denied medical care after a march for trans women of color was “attacked by the NYPD.”
By aligning this year’s march with Black Lives Matter and encouraging Pride organizers not to cooperate with police, Reclaim Pride Coalition members are showing the LGBTQ community how to do what we’ve long asked others to do for us: be responsible allies advocating for a more equitable world.
“We are committed to finding the most safe and considerate ways [of marching],” says Carter. Online content has also been planned so those who want to remain at home can take part and as a backup option “if it becomes inappropriate for us to move forward with an on-the-ground march.”
The Queer Liberation March has also been materially different (no floats, corporate sponsors, wristbands for access, etc.) from New York City’s Pride parade, which marginalized groups (such as older adults, neurodivergent people, or trans folks) have often chosen not to take part in. “[The official parade] didn’t match their values, or they feared for their safety,” says Carter.
Before joining Reclaim Pride Coalition, Carter marched in four New York City Pride parades, twice with the LGBTQ rock climbing group CRUX and twice with a social justice community group, Rise and Resist. It was with Rise and Resist that Carter encountered and became more aware of how police officers would aggressively perform crowd control on queer and trans youth of color.
“I’ve been looking over my shoulder since I was 10, aware people perceive me as a threat,” says Carter, who is African American. “We can’t overlook this opportunity to help America come to terms with this issue that’s affected us for so long. After 400 years of terror and abuse, this country is opening its eyes in a new way to the plight of Black Americans… People have been content not being politicized because they thought it didn’t affect them, but at this moment any minority is under the gun, and acceptance of our political rights and power is the only way that we will be able to be proud and safe going forward.”
Queer folks tend to have fewer financial resources for several reasons (among them LGBTQ wage gaps, higher rates of unemployment for trans people, and higher debt loads than cishet peers), are less likely to have health insurance, and have high rates of preexisting conditions.
According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign and PSB Research, 17 percent of LGBTQ people and 22 percent of LGBTQ-identified people of color have lost jobs during the pandemic, compared with 13 percent of the general population.
True equality goes far beyond #LoveIsLove, and the pandemic may have created the perfect storm, pushing more LGBTQ community members to the streets to advocate for a stronger recovery from police violence crises.
“I do anticipate that the struggle for our rights continues. People are not going to let go of LGBTQ pride,” says Massey.
When it’s safe to gather, LGBTQ people will likely flock to the local gay bars that remain. “Once we open again, we’re going to spend 2 days hugging, crying, and drinking, especially after the pandemic,” Bieschke says. “Bars were valued for that role they had in the past of being community centers just as much as dance parties. I am hoping that comes back along with the drinking and dancing. We’ll need jobs and resources.”
Lindsey Danis is a Hudson Valley-based writer who covers food, travel, and LGBTQ stories. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.