I’m old enough to have seen a lot of Pride celebrations.
My first was in San Francisco in 1982. I was 19 years old, freshly transplanted to Berkeley from my home in Nebraska. My mind was blown as soon as I stepped onto an East Bay BART train packed with other high-spirited gay people, all of us headed to the same place. From a crowded sidewalk, I watched as Dykes on Bikes – glorious motorcycle-driving women with gorgeous girlfriends behind them – rumbled slowly down Market Street in their honorary place at the head of the procession.
Following them were, among many others, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the floats from the gay bars, the politicians waving from convertibles, the “living sober” contingent (it would grow as the ‘80s progressed) and, my favorite, a performance-art troupe called Ladies Against Women, parodying uptight anti-feminists of the day such as Phyllis Schlafly.
More people marched and watched that day than lived in my hometown.
That afternoon, we filled the long lawn at the Civic Center. On the steps of City Hall, famous people spoke. Someone warned us about a new disease that was spreading among gay men. Singers performed and then a DJ took over and people danced. When the official program was over, we went to the bars and kept dancing.
In Kansas City in the 1990s, I crossed within feet of Fred Phelps’ red-devil face when he and his curdled family held their now-internationally infamous signs as our miniature version of that San Francisco parade made its way through the Country Club Plaza to a neighborhood park – one year it was Southmoreland, where Mayor Emanuel Cleaver famously said our celebration was the highlight of his weekend (as opposed to the city’s annual debutante ball, which had always invited mayors but for some reason had trouble getting an invitation out to the city’s first black mayor).
These days, my typical Pride celebration is a few hundred people in Kansas in a different town nearly every weekend in June. (Manhattan, a college town, holds its Little Apple Pride in April when students are in town.) My understanding is that these celebrations are staggered so folks can travel around and enjoy (and add to the attendance of) each town’s celebration.
I’m not sure when Pride day evolved into Pride month. And honestly, it still feels strange to have big corporations and straight strangers wishing us “Happy Pride!” at the beginning of June.
I’m grateful we’ve come so far, but I’m troubled by the fact that some people don’t know how we got here — and even more troubled by the insular nature of one particular celebration.
More on that in a moment. First, though, the good news about some small gatherings with big hearts.
The central Kansas town of Hutchinson (pop. 41,000) hosted its first Pride ever this month. “‘Love trumps hate’: 500 march in event that kicks off Salt City Pride,” read the headline in The Hutchinson News.
My wife and I were driving down from Kansas City that morning so we missed the parade, but we spent the afternoon among dozens of organizations, artists and entertainers and hundreds of people at a celebration that filled the Atrium Hotel and Conference Center’s hallways and meeting rooms.
The festival’s co-chairs were Julia Johnson and Jon Powell, who are among the activists I wrote about in No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Johnson told me the weekend was successful beyond their dreams, and they’re already planning for next year.
Besides witnessing the beauty of that weekend, my highlight was seeing Kara Vaughn and Eddie Ibarra, who had just started the Gay Straight Alliance at Hutchinson High School when the Hutchinson chapter ends in No Place Like Home.
They’re out of high school now, finding their paths as adults.
Vaughn spent some time working at Starbucks, where she joined the company’s Pride Alliance, and is now a paraprofessional at an elementary school; these days her most powerful expressions come in gorgeous paintings, one of which adorned the cover of Hutchinson Magazine’s Spring 2018 edition.
Ibarra is an educator at the Cosmosphere, where his bilingual skills are an asset. He’s still in touch with kids at Hutchinson High School, where, he says, the GSA he helped Vaughn start is still going strong.
An hour north of Hutchinson and two weeks later, it was Salina’s sixth pride since such festivities grew out of the months-long effort that failed to secure a non-discrimination ordinance at City Hall but built a community (chronicled in No Place Like Home).
A few hundred people visited Oakdale Park throughout a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, visiting at vendor tents and finding shade on metal bleachers to watch performers on the concrete stage.
Wichita, the biggest city in Kansas, has its official celebration in September, but it marked the end of Pride month Saturday with a march in the morning, a cookout later in the afternoon and a reading of No Place Like Home sponsored by Equality Kansas at The Center of Wichita. I was honored to be joined by folks from the book, namely Tom Witt, Kerry Wilks, Elle Boatman and Grayson Barnes, who shared their stories.
But now, a few words about how the month started, in Kansas City, where recent Prides have been weekend-long events behind a chain-link fence at a little-used park along the Missouri River, ten bucks at the gate. A lot of organizations show up and staff tables, but but the overall vibe is celebratory.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate how far we’ve come, but our movement’s gains are too fragile, and our country now too imperiled, to not also make Pride a clear call to action.
Prides should be places where activists and politicians share equal time with entertainers, where everyone in the crowd knows that the price of the entertainment is year-round activism.
They shouldn’t be places that charge entry fees to a fenced-off party in a part of town where passers-by don’t see us. And they should involve parades.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from one of this year’s celebrity headliners, Thelma Houston. Moving fluidly about the stage in spiked heels, the 72-year-old Houston thanked the LGBT community for helping to make her 1976 song “Don’t Leave Me This Way” a Grammy-winning hit after her record company balked at releasing it.
Disturbingly, though, as my wife and I made our way to the stage before Houston’s set on Sunday evening, streams of festivalgoers in their teens, twenties and thirties were leaving. Clearly these young LGBTQs did not know enough of their history to at least stay and pay respects to one of our original allies.
Houston said she loved performing at Pride festivals around the country, that she did it in return for our community’s longstanding support of her. But one thing puzzled her about Kansas City. Why, she asked from the stage, didn’t Kansas City have a parade?
She looked forward to coming back next year – and to hearing that we’d had a parade.
With all of their contingents – the churches along with the bars, the non-profits along with the politicians – parades are where we show the true depth and richness of our community.
And even more than our own parade, we need to put the hard-learned lessons of our movement to work in support of communities that are now even more threatened than ours.
As LGBTQs were partying this month, the United States government put little brown kids in concentration camps.
If all LGBTQs and our allies join other marches in the months ahead, maybe we won’t be in camps, too, this time next year.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.