No Cops, No Corporations — Boston LGBTQ Community Reimagines Pride Celebrations

Far from the tourist traps and high-end shopping establishments that line the route the Pride Parade once took through the commercial Downtown Boston, an alternative vision of what a pride march can be has been taking shape in the city over the past two summers. In the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain — predominantly communities of color — grassroots marches organized by Trans Resistance MA took to the streets to celebrate LGBTQ life and push mainstream LGBTQ organizations to do more than simply hold a yearly parade. They called for the inclusion of vulnerable queer and trans people of color in Pride celebrations and concrete actions to address these communities’ needs. As criticisms of the corporatization and lack of diversity in Pride celebrations have grown in cities and localities all over the U.S., the changes in Boston could well be a sign of the direction the LGBTQ movement will take in years to come.

As of July 9, Boston Pride, the nonprofit which has organized the city’s June parade since 1970, is no more. The organization announced its intention to dissolve, referencing the activist pressure which has challenged the group’s board of directors on issues of diversity and community support for the past two years. Its statement read, in part:

It is clear to us that our community needs and wants change without the involvement of Boston Pride. We have heard the concerns of the QTBIPOC [Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous and People of Color] community and others. We care too much to stand in the way. Therefore, Boston Pride is dissolving. There will be no further events or programming planned, and the board is taking steps to close down the organization.

We know many people care about Pride in Boston, and we encourage them to continue the work. By making the decision to close down, we hope new leaders will emerge from the community to lead the Pride movement in Boston.

This oblique reference to the concerns of QTBIPOC communities comes after more than a year of escalating tension, starting when Boston Pride’s board of directors changed a statement from its communications team to remove references to police brutality and the words “Black Lives Matter” in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Eighty percent of Boston Pride’s volunteer workforce resigned in response, with former volunteers organizing efforts to pressure the board to make way for new leadership after years of fruitless effort to change them from within. Some of the most committed formed Pride 4 the People, an organization dedicated to bringing about a leadership change in Boston Pride. Though these activists had long called for the board’s resignation, they were stunned at the abrupt shuttering of the organization without any plans for a transition or transfer of any resources Boston Pride amassed over its long history.

What comes next, after a local Pride organization accused of having been too corporate, too pro-police, too assimilationist, too detached from the community, and not diverse enough dissolves?

“It’s a beautiful thing to celebrate being out and being yourself, but people are starting to ask: What is pride? Who gets to celebrate pride, and how?” Julia Golden, the interim president of Trans Resistance MA, explained.

Trans Resistance was founded in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others to stage alternative Pride events with an activist focus in communities of color. For two years in a row, Trans Resistance has staged a June LGBTQ rights march, providing a model of what a more community-focused, inclusive Pride might look like.

“We just had a march last year, this year we had a march, a vigil, and a concert in Franklin Park while Boston Pride had no events,” said Golden, who identifies as nonbinary and Latinx. The setting of the march, from Nubian Square to Franklin Park, is at the heart of the activism because, like so many U.S. cities, Boston is highly segregated. People of color in Boston have long expressed that when they attended the Pride festivities in Downtown Boston they didn’t feel as though they belonged, and didn’t see many people who represented them. Trans Resistance aimed to change that, bringing Pride into neighborhoods where HIV/AIDS and homelessness still loom large over queer communities of color.

Issues such as these are not tangential to this new vision of Pride. Activists stress that beyond just a new setting or more diverse faces, they want a Pride that directly concerns itself with addressing community concerns such as HIV and youth homelessness by advocating for change and raising funds for those who need help most. Though Pride originated as an uprising against police violence at Stonewall in 1969, many activists believe Pride marches have morphed into self-congratulatory, commercialized affairs with no political goals beyond a nebulous awareness that LGBTQ communities exist. A founding board member of Trans Resistance, and former hair of Black Pride for Boston Pride, Casey Dooley, explained how the march in Franklin Park sought to change that.

“It was really amazing, that first year, to see so many community members pull off this event in just a week,” Dooley said. “It was so powerful and beautiful to see, to make sure we’re supporting Black trans community members, because there really isn’t that support right now.”

Dooley mentioned that a current goal of Trans Resistance’s partner organization, Trans Emergency Fund, is to buy a permanent building to offer housing to trans and nonbinary people experiencing homelessness.

Community-based housing initiatives are a growing part of trans activism in many parts of the U.S., not just Boston. Therefore, it seems fitting that one of the founders of Trans Resistance MA is Chastity Bowick, the executive director of the Transgender Emergency Fund, an organization whose goal is to provide housing and homelessness services to transgender people in Boston. Bowick described her relationship with Boston Pride before 2020 thus, “As I became more known in the community, Boston Pride would call me in June to have me at their flag-raising, but I wouldn’t hear from them for the rest of the year. I was the lead representative for the leading agency for the trans services — you’d think I’d have heard from them. But we were only called in June for the flag-raising, never allowed a seat at the table.”

Bowick was so moved by the first Trans Resistance march that she struggled to speak when her time came to do so. “It brought tears to my eyes to see the diversity, the inclusion, having people come to me, saying they saw this parade going down [in] the hood and they’ve never seen that in the hood — a pride march coming to the community that we’re from. It was so liberating. The overwhelming support was amazing as well.”

In addition to a shift in values in practices, activists say they want the organizations that arise in the wake of Boston Pride’s dissolution to embrace new leadership structures. Both Casey Dooley and another former Boston Pride volunteer, Henry Paquin, described Boston Pride as having a hierarchical structure where the small Board of Directors had the final say on everything, and resources were parceled out in ways that seemed arbitrary and unfair, including giving Paquin (who is white) a much easier path toward planning fundraisers and events than Dooley (who is Black). Dooley and Paquin both expressed hopes for a new organization that listens to the community, that prioritizes representation for everyone in the community, that has transparent processes for decision making, that advocates for services for those in need and that provides mentorship to newcomers who want to lead.

Trans Resistance MA, Transgender Emergency Fund, and Pride 4 the People have announced that they’re working with six other LGBTQ organizations in Massachusetts, including the Boston Dyke March and Urban Pride, to reimagine what Pride in Boston will be going forward.

These emerging leaders of Boston’s LGBTQ movement hope they can inspire those in other parts of the country as well. Boston is far from the only city to have tensions around equity, inclusion and political priorities around Pride. It’s not even the only city in which the mainstream organization responsible for planning the parade has suddenly dissolved: Philadelphia also underwent something similar in June.

As communities across the U.S. demand more radically political, inclusive, activist-driven and community-minded marches and decision-making processes, the upheaval in Boston may be just the start of a new generation of Pride organizing.