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Queer Resistance and Existence: Understanding 50 Years of Pride

At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our interns are responsible for updating the bulletin board in our waiting room once a month. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit us recently, you can read about this month’s bulletin board topic here. This post is by our 2019 summer intern, Hannah Piecuch (she/her/hers), who comes to us from Agnes Scott College in Georgia thanks to the Civil Liberty & Public Policy (CLPP) Program’s Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Program.

This year’s June Pride Month marks the 50th year since the Stonewall Riots, the events that launched the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement and, specifically, the tradition of Pride. In 1969, the most marginalized members of the queer community in Greenwich Village of New York City, including transgender women, people of color, drag queens, and sex workers, many of whom were homeless, frequented places like the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall and similar bars were one of the only places they could connect with other queer community members and simply exist openly as themselves.

However, police often raided places known to be frequented by queer folks, and when yet another violent raid took place at Stonewall on June 28th, the patrons had had enough. Legend has it that Marsha P. Johnson, a homeless trans woman of color and sex worker, threw a shot glass against a mirror, sparking everyone to riot against the cops. Further demonstrations broke out at neighboring bars, erupting into a wave of anger that would turn into the modern gay liberation movement. Johnson’s close friend and fellow activist, Sylvia Rivera, is said to have exclaimed, “I’m not missing a minute of this — it’s the revolution!” When a year had passed after the Stonewall riots, Pride parades were held in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco to sustain the energy of the protest on its anniversary, and the tradition has continued ever since.

Although the first American Pride events took place in its biggest cities, the history of Bangor Pride also reveals the radical roots of this celebration. In 1984, Charlie Howard, a young gay man from Portsmouth, NH, was walking along State Street arm-in-arm with Roy Ogden when the two crossed paths with three teenage boys. After harassing Ogden and Howard for daring to be visibly gay in public, the boys threw Howard into the Kenduskeag Stream, and he drowned. The small queer community in Bangor, many of whom were closeted due to the political environment of the time, expressed outrage at his senseless and violent murder. The outpouring of grief and anger following his death spurred Maine’s queer activism; that year marked the founding of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, which is now EqualityMaine. The first Bangor Pride parade took place eight years later in 1992 thanks to the efforts of Jim Martin. Even now, 35 years after Howard’s death and 27 years since the first Bangor Pride, it is evident how, in our community, it is a radical act of resistance to simply declare one’s queerness, and to express pride in that queerness.

From shutting down the Food and Drug Administration to demand better access to AIDS-fighting drugs, to resisting police violence against trans bodies during the Compton Cafeteria Riots, to mourning those who died from AIDS by making a national memorial quilt in each person’s memory, queer resistance has taken many diverse and poignant forms. Nowadays, Pride is a month-long celebration of queer culture on seven continents—yes, including Antarctica. The transformation of Pride from a riot into a celebration of queer life is not without controversy; although activists do not necessarily want violence at Pride, the events have been criticized in recent years for the overwhelming presence of multinational corporations, lack of intersectionality and inclusivity, and overall dissipation of political energy. It may seem like queer culture is now genuinely supported by corporations because large companies often sponsor Pride festivities today. However, it’s also important to hold these companies accountable, so they’re not, for example, getting all that rainbow advertising during Pride month but then abandoning their LGBT employees’ needs the other 11 months of the year. Additionally, relying on the support of corporations like these can move queer activism more toward the center, leaving more radical queer goals such as holding the criminal justice system accountable or addressing wealth inequality to scrounge for support at the margins.

As we contemplate how Pride has changed over the past fifty years, there is a wealth of opportunity to remember the LGBT people who have come before us, reflect on mistakes, and look with hope to the future. We can honor and tell the story of queer people who faced violence throughout their lives because of their identities, like Charlie Howard. We can use the history of Pride to remind us that Pride has always been about the most marginalized members of our communities, and to challenge us to always think harder about who is being left out of our spaces.

In Mabel Wadsworth Center’s work around reproductive and sexual healthcare, Pride reminds us as an organization to center queer and trans folks who are excluded from conversations around contraceptive and abortion access, and ask ourselves what care we can provide to even better serve our queer community. This Pride month, we remember that taking pride in queer existence connects us with the radical visionaries of the past, as well as allows us to envision the hope we have for a beautiful, queer future.