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After the abrupt collapse of the organization that ran Philadelphia’s annual Pride parade for three decades, queer and trans activists have stepped up to make sure there’s an OutFest celebration this fall.
It won’t be the same festival as before — and that’s by design.
The new group envisions a more affordable event, with less of a focus on corporate sponsors. They want to prioritize Black and brown people, trans people, people with HIV/AIDS and people with disabilities. Another priority for them: no police at Pride.
“I do believe we can make it happen,” said Elicia Gonzales, former director of the Latinx LGBTQ group GALAEI. “I’m incredibly excited and want to support and stand behind a community safety model. We’re considering solutions that are actually rooted in community and healing and supporting people.”
Philly Pride Presents created a vacuum last month when it suddenly disbanded after 28 years, leaving the sixth largest city in the country with no one to produce the annual parade.
The void didn’t last long. Within days, local trans rights activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad hit social media and got together reps from activist organizations, members of LGBTQ community centers and…regular Philadelphians.
“The act of them saying, ‘We’re dissolving ourselves,’ was shocking to me,” Muhammad told Billy Penn. “But I saw this rupture coming, because it’s been there for years. It’s been boiling and bubbling over.”
The organization that used to run Philly’s summertime parade and the fall OutFest had long been criticized for racism, transphobia, and a general unwillingness to hear the community they claimed to represent.
In response to requests for an interview, former Philly Pride Presents senior adviser Chuck Volz only texted back: “Our work for the last 28 years speaks for itself.”
Other cities are also seeing a new generation of LGBTQ activists take over. In early July, Boston Pride also abruptly dissolved after years of the community calling it out. And two years ago, a group of queer and trans NYC residents started an organization called Reclaim Pride.
Dozens of people are now involved in reimagining Philly’s June festival, Muhammad said, which is meant to honor the 1969 Stonewall Riots and celebrate queer and trans people.
Members of the new group are feeling hopeful.
“All the meetings are open, the leadership is voted on by the community, there’s a process by which folks can share ideas and opinions,” Gonzales said. “It’s all very clear and transparent.”
Decades of offending people in the community
José de Marco, a longtime community organizer with HIV/AIDS advocacy org ACT UP Philadelphia, said he began distancing himself from Philly Pride Presents a long time ago.
In the mid-90s, de Marco said he was alarmed when executive director Franny Price scheduled the parade for the same weekend as the Odunde Festival, one of the largest and longest running Black street festivals in the country. He asked Price to switch the date of Pride.
“You’re making African American people choose between their race and their sexuality,” de Marco said about the conflict. “It’s like, ‘Are you Black or are you gay?’ No one’s going to run to two festivals in one day.” Price refused to change the parade schedule, de Marco said. So ACT UP maintained its booth at the Odunde instead.
Gonzales, formerly the director of GALAEI, said she once considered Price a friend.
“To be clear and fair, I think that the contributions Fran made to the community are absolutely unparalleled and added to the richness of LGBT community’s experience,” Gonzales said. “But that level of rigidity and that authoritarian kind of vibe,” she added, “doesn’t have any place anywhere, [and] certainly not in something that should really be community led.”
Black and brown LGBTQ people were again disheartened in 2016, said activist Muhammad, when Philly Pride Presents chose to honor the Greater Philadelphia Gay Officer Action League (GOAL) as grand marshals.
“The community protested and called it out,” Muhammad said. “That idea was met with mostly outrage.”
Pride started as a riot among Black trans women in response to police violence, so many queer and trans people feel police inclusion in modern events is problematic. Data shows LGBTQ people experience discrimination and violence from police at higher rates. In 2015, the US Transgender survey found 58% of respondents had experienced verbal or physical assault by police.
In the end, GOAL declined the honor and LGBTQ police did not act as parade grand marshals.
The following year, in 2017, Philly Pride Presents senior adviser Chuck Volz was discovered sharing racist and misogynistic memes on his personal social media account. Executive director Price refused to remove Volz from his position — telling PhillyVoice: “I can’t tell him what to do with his Facebook.”
Things came to a head this summer, when Philly Pride Presents posted a Facebook message that included the pro-police Thin Blue Line flag — which has become a symbol of white supremacy — altered with a rainbow stripe. Another post referred to the trans women who participated in the Stonewall Riots as “those dressed as women.”
After outcry, the posts were deleted, and the entire organization shut down.
Keeping police out of Pride while maintaining safety
Muhammad started organizing the very day Philly Pride Presents publicly disbanded. A virtual meeting later that week lasted three hours and brought in more than 50 attendees, they said, who helped draft and approve the new organization’s founding document.
The “Points of Unity” document outlines the group’s ground rules, including:
- Making Pride affordable
- Banning cops from Pride
- Limiting participation from big corporations, and refocusing on LGBTQ people and businesses
- Centering Black and brown people, trans people, people with HIV/AIDS and people with disabilities
The group met again to decide the structure of the budding organization. It’ll be divided into 10 committees: medical, logistics, fundraising, sponsors, social media, volunteers, entertainment/nightlife, safety, youth and accessibility. Anyone can join any committee.
In a meeting this Thursday, the members of each committee will elect a “convener,” who will form the core leadership group.
“I’m really excited to cultivate the idea that we all make decisions,” Muhammad said. “When we’re on the other end, at Pride 2022, people will see how valuable it is.”
The group already has big plans: Hosting OutFest in the fall, which Philly Pride Presents had previously cancelled for this year, and then a robust Pride parade and festival next summer.
William Way LGBT Community Center executive director Chris Bartlett, who’s been attending the meetings, believes they can make it happen. “It doesn’t have to be perfect next June,” Bartlett said. “I think there may be innovative solutions this group comes up with.”
Is the goal to “ban cops” realistic? Cities like San Francisco, New York, Denver and Toronto have all banned officers from marching in their respective parades, though there’s still a police presence during the events.
Sgt. Nick Tees of the Greater Philadelphia Gay Officers Action League said he understands the sentiment.
“We recognize that people throughout this country, especially the BIPOC and trans communities, have been deeply impacted by the negative actions of officers in recent and past years,” Tees said. “We also know that the actions of those officers do not represent who we are as an organization.”
Philly police spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp said he would need more specific information about the festival to determine whether the department would allow Philly’s parade to happen without police presence. He said the department is willing to discuss a possible hybrid community safety model.
“The Philadelphia Police Department is disheartened to learn that some members of the LGBTQ+ population feel safer without police,” Gripp said. “It is our sincerest hope that we can continue to be a part of Pride and OutFest events.”
Celena Morrison, the director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, couldn’t comment on whether the city would allow a public event without police officers present. But she said she could understand why the community would want that.
“I have been harassed and assaulted by police, so I know that history all too well,” Morrison said. “But also, as a trans person, when I’m at large gatherings that are LGBT-focused or just trans-focused, I feel like a target. At some point, I do feel having some police presence in that sense makes me feel a little more comfortable.”
The group is planning to present their ideas to the city after Thursday, per Muhammad, and Morrison said she’s ready to listen.
“They have some really impressive folks working on this,” Morrison said. “I’m sure they’re going to figure it out.”