To honor the first day of Pride Month, I want to reflect on my experience as an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community.
While I grew up knowing a few individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community, my experience of being an active ally began during college. At Yale, there was a thriving scene for LGBTQIA+ folks from all sorts of backgrounds and identities. I learned new terminology, made new friends, and listened to stories that powerfully shifted my understanding of their life experiences.
One of the most memorable moments was hearing my friend’s coming out story. It was, thankfully, a happy story–but when reading between the lines I could see the anxiety and fear in the backdrop of what he was saying. His parents were accepting of him, but that didn’t erase the fear of rejection and alienation that had already run so deep in his veins for his entire childhood.
Hearing that story opened my eyes tremendously, and helped me see the LGBTQIA+ community with a new kind of sensitivity and nuance. I also realized I had more work to do to become engaged and educated. To me, being an ally starts with education. Learning more about identities and groups outside of my own is the first step to taking meaningful action on their behalf. True allyship can only be found in tangible action. It’s not just a mindset.
So much has changed for the LGBTQIA+ community in the decade since I left Yale. Marriage equality was upheld by the Supreme Court as a constitutional right in 2015. 21% of Gen Z now identify as LGBTQ. And just this year, the Biden administration announced U.S. citizens would be able to select their own gender markers on their passports. Real progress has been made, and for allies, that means keeping up with these milestones, understanding their impact, and educating others about what they mean.
Even our language has changed. Conversations around pronouns are perhaps not as advanced as we’d like in some spaces, but the issue is being discussed at all levels of society, from families to schools and workplaces. A broader lexicon–that goes beyond the four big categories of “gay,” “lesbian,” “trans” and “bisexual”–has also helped welcome more people into the community, who previously were unsure where they might fit in.
This openness and acceptance should be celebrated. But at the same time we need to recognize that, as with any aspect of progressive movements, the work is not over simply because the Supreme Court or your Head of HR says so. There are deeply troubling, life-threatening issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community today (and in particular the trans community). As allies and fellow citizens, we’re responsible for engaging with these issues and making sure they reach our non-LGBTQIA+ channels and networks.
True allyship can only be found in tangible action. It’s not just a mindset.”
Which brings us to Pride month. While the parades and the parties give Pride its signature brand of joy, community, and self-expression, it’s also a time to ask ourselves where these traditions come from, what they mean (historically and today), and why they’re still important.
As an ally, learning more about this history has given me a much deeper appreciation of the tenuousness of LGBTQIA+ rights in this country. State lawmakers have proposed 238 bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ Americans this year alone, and 670 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have been filed since 2018. It’s every ally’s responsibility to engage with this history and share it through our respective platforms, be they work, family, school, community, or social media.
A crash course history of Pride
In the 1950s, anxiety about homosexuals reached such a fever pitch that it led to mass firings of gay people in the federal government (commonly known as the Lavender Scare, a parallel to the Red Scare that targeted Communists).
But in the 1960s, with the advancing Civil Rights Movement, things began to change. And the queer liberation movement learned a lot from Civil Rights activism. The focus on civil disobedience, through marches and other demonstrations of solidarity, would come to inform the gay liberation movement and the first Pride parades. Interestingly, one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisers, Bayard Rustin, was both openly homosexual and a mastermind of political organizing. He helped design the March on Washington in 1963, and his work would continue in the 1970s as he helped advance the movement for LGBTQIA+ liberation.
However, when the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 finally signed civil protections into law for every American–regardless of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin–sexual orientation remained conspicuously absent from the list of those covered.
There were of course some who bravely advocated for the equal treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community in the 50s and 60s. The homophile movement, led by groups such as the Mattachine Society, ONE, Inc. and the Daughters of Bilitis, was a nationwide coalition of groups that advocated against the discrimination of homosexuals through civil disobedience, public education and community engagement.
Nowadays, the homophile movement’s efforts are somewhat overshadowed by the Stonewall Riots, which helped catalyze the gay liberation movement and catapult its agenda onto an international stage. These protests took place in June 1969 and helped create a climate of outspoken queer activism that would lead to the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in June 1970. This was the first large-scale march in New York, to which all modern Pride marches around the world can trace their origins.
The Stonewall Riots were one of several watershed moments in American queer history because of the amount of attention they received and the momentum they sparked in the LGBTQIA+ community. In the year between Stonewall and the first Liberation Day Parade, many members of the community got serious about organizing. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front formed and began demonstrating in regular protests.
These groups were themselves political, and soon fractured into several organizations that served the specific needs of different groups in the broader community, especially for queer people of color. Two of the most famous leaders in this respect, who were present at the Stonewall Riots, are Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. They were drag queens and sex workers in the NYC queer community, and eventually founded an organization called STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to advocate for their community and help protect homeless queer youth.
Pride was, therefore, born out of protests. And the next 20 or 30 years would see the community face new waves of rage and despair as the AIDS crisis took hold and the U.S. government refused to acknowledge the epidemic. An entire generation of LGBTQIA+ people lost their lives during this period, which led to generational traumas that still impact the community today. In the 70s and 80s, new organizations popped up, like ACT UP, to help educate the population about this epidemic and lobby corporations and governments to take meaningful action.
These horrific years also influenced the evolution of Pride into a party and parade, as well as a protest and march. For many in the community, Pride became a necessary release from the harsh everyday reality of queer life in America. As time went on, Pride the party joined Pride the protest, and the two continue to coexist today.
Why Pride still matters today
Last year I watched a panel about Pride month, led by several young LGBTQIA+ people from different racial and regional backgrounds. One of the most eye-opening points for me came from listening to a young gay man talk about his first Pride. Given his rural and religious upbringing, this Pride parade in Los Angeles was in effect his first experience of LGBTQIA+ community and culture. It was an entry point but also a way of facilitating connections and education in an aspect of his identity that he hadn’t been allowed to explore as a teenager.
Visibility is only the beginning.”
Pride is a party and a protest, but for many it’s also simply a loud declaration of visibility. For many people, that visibility comes at a high price in their own communities. So being able to find it, experience it, and share it with other queer people is incredibly valuable. While I acknowledge the criticism that some people in the LGBTQIA+ community make about the “rainbow-washing” we all see every June, I think it’s important to remember how deeply symbolic and reassuring that rainbow is for many in the community.
Visibility is only the beginning. Engaging with Pride necessitates deeper education. Pride is also a forum for people of any background to learn more about LGBTQIA+ people and the issues they face today. Just because we’ve made progress doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more progress to be made. Pride is a time for all of us to reflect on those tasks and check in with ourselves about how we contribute to them (especially as allies).
Today, some of those issues include transgender rights and healthcare, rising hate crimes, education reform, and workplace/media representation.
Trans rights are under attack in a number of states, most notably in traditionally conservative states like Oklahoma, Arizona, and Tennessee where there are 10+ anti-trans bills moving through state legislatures. These bills often seek to limit the rights of transgender youth to access gender-affirming healthcare – which has been proven to save their lives, as they suffer disproportionately from mental health issues and higher suicide rates. While some of these bills are more dangerous than others, a quick glance at a map of the US shows the prevalence of the issue in several Southern and swing states.
Transgender people also face some of the highest rates of hate crimes in the community. In particular, Black trans women experience disproportionately high levels of violence. As one of the most historically marginalized intersectional communities, it’s every ally’s job to spread that knowledge and advocate for cultural and legal change where we can.
Meanwhile in Florida, the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill will now prevent the discussion of queer identity, history and issues for Floridian children in Kindergarten through 3rd grade. Most commentators agree this bill will be particularly damaging to LGBTQIA+ youth.
And of course, across several industries, but particularly in government and entertainment, the community has been pushing for adequate representation and visibility. LGBTQIA+ people deserve to see themselves reflected in the media, as well as the governments that serve us all.
Pride the protest is a necessary reminder that these critical issues are still faced by so many members of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s only through visibility and transparency that allies can learn about these realities and act accordingly with their votes, voices, and wallets.
So happy Pride to those who celebrate this month. To my fellow allies: remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll need to remain in this fight alongside the LGBTQIA+ community for the long-haul – not just in the month of June.
To that end, wherever possible this month, let’s use our platforms–at work, with family, on social media–to bring voices from the LGBTQIA+ community to the forefront. Creating that space and opportunity is incredibly valuable for a community that is often sidelined or silenced.
Let’s also get out there and talk to people. Attend events, go to museums, and speak to friends and family: the best way for allies to celebrate Pride month is to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ people and institutions in our lives.
If we all do that a little more, we might start treating the entire year like it’s the “right” time to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community.
Which, of course, it is.
Porter Braswell is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Jopwell, Founder of 2045 Studio, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained.