Update 4/5: This story has been updated to remove references to Marsha P. Johnson as the first Stonewall brick thrower and to add responses and information from Lurie Children’s Hospital and Pride in the Park.
Fifty years ago this summer, New York City bar patrons of many genders, sexualities, and racial identities trapped a group of police officers inside the Stonewall Inn after they shut down the bar in yet another routine raid. Riots continued the following two nights as the LGBTQ community spread word that something unique was happening in Greenwich Village. Every year, we celebrate their uprising with Pride parades that have come to resemble corporate advertisements rather than riots.
Pride celebrations in every city, including Chicago, pander to pink capitalism. Here, PayPal, Verizon Wireless, and Chipotle all march in support of the LGBTQ community, showing off their logos remade in rainbow for an expected one million attendees.
Does being queer today necessarily mean being just as radical and progressive as our ancestors?
This year, Chicago is taking the anniversary of Stonewall to a new level: Pride in the Park boasts a “killer lineup” featuring Iggy Azalea and Steve Aoki. The Grant Park event on June 29 will cost attendees $50-$100 for access to the show of non-LGBTQ stars. This is something of a Pride comeback for Azalea; in 2015 she decided to drop out of Pittsburgh Pride after racist and homophobic tweets surfaced. Her apology for the tweets might have set her in the right direction, but the following years of her work have been one act of cultural appropriation after another. Azalea, a white rapper who grew up in Australia, didn’t help her initial inclusion in a genre of primarily black artists by using the lyric “I’m a runaway slave master” in her 2011 song “D.R.U.G.S.” But her largest offense seems to be the consistent style with which she speaks, particularly in her recordings. The rapper Eve, among many other rap artists, has called her vocal style a “blaccent.” The Washington Post covered the topic, citing a linguistics essay that explains “linguistic minstrelsy is a form of ‘figurative blackface.'” Shortly after, Halsey, a biracial singer, accused Azalea of having “a complete disregard for black culture.” Artists Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, and Erykah Badu have followed up with similar criticisms, to which Azalea has persistently responded with defensive justification. After these accusations of appropriating black culture, she released a music video borrowing from Bollywood styles as she danced in a sari. A white straight person with a racist resume headlining an expensive anniversary event may not have been the liberation the Stonewall rioters imagined for their community.
Ticket sales from Pride in the Park will benefit the Center on Halsted, a building full of resources for LGBTQ people, and the Lurie Children’s Hospital, recently the subject of protests for continuing to perform surgeries on intersex children that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, three former U.S. surgeons general, and Human Rights Watch have deemed medically unnecessary and abusive. Another sponsor is Budweiser, which last year ran a pair of seemingly contradictory sponsorships: one for New York City Pride events, another for the World Cup hosted by Russia, where many LGBTQ citizens continue to be captured and tortured under the apathetic eye of the government. (Budweiser responded to criticism with a placating statement.)
Most of the members of the organizing board for Pride in the Park are white cisgender men. Three of them, Dusty Carpenter, Stu Zirin, and John Dalton, co-founded D.S. Tequila Co. and Fajita Factory. Their Mexican food businesses profit on a culture they weren’t born into, which is its own form of cultural appropriation. They have also participated in Lakeview Taco Fest. Do their businesses give back to Mexican culture in any way? Their persistence in profiting off Mexican cuisine and the hiring of Azalea suggest an ignorance and apathy about celebrating minority cultures in a way that benefits the minority communities themselves. While the Center on Halsted may be a worthy recipient of LGBTQ money, it may be difficult for some potential attendees to look past the problematic ties to the event.
Lurie’s sex development team wasn’t available for comment in time for publication. According to Pride in the Park officials, their board plans to provide free tickets to the event to underprivileged LGBTQ youth through the Center on Halsted.
Even if the headliners can attract a large queer audience, many underprivileged queer people will not be able to afford tickets. Many may already be hesitant to attend the annual parade, led by uniformed police and scattered with capitalist opportunists such as Nike and Google under rainbow flags. Many businesses play the role of “ally” in order to wave their advertisements in front of a million cheering attendees. Queer people of color and transgender individuals are often already at an economic disadvantage. The racial wealth gap, in addition to young queer people kicked out of their homes, leaves a large portion of our community deprived of more important needs than iPhone carriers, brand-name sneakers, or concert tickets. Why would they want to attend events now intended to market off their queer identity? It’s an ethical gray area for a Pride spectator who considers the intersections of identity of those who rioted together against police and profit schemes in 1969.
Our queer ancestors pushed up against these forces and now the community looks at an unprecedented level of ownership over our movement by corporations, police supervision, and business owners and non-queer celebrities inattentive to what constitutes actual allyship. Profits could be given to more pro-LGBTQ+ services, rather than a hospital with abusive practices. Headliners could be performers with more diverse identities who live within the queer community. Successful business owners could take the time to also create events that allow for the less-affluent members of our community to participate.
As companies, police, white business owners, and racist performers make themselves the faces of the anniversary of Stonewall, we need to ask, do gender-transgressive people and queer people of color benefit from the movement? “Queer” is defined by difference, so should all queer people be ethically obligated to resist nonintersectional, exclusionary events like Pride in the Park?
These issues, problematic as they are, may be unstoppable. As with Saint Patrick’s Day, many people have already made up their minds to use the occasion as a reason to party. They are uninterested in learning the history of the holiday. Perhaps conflating that history, which took place in a bar, with new events that involve the queer community’s consumption of alcohol is a double-edged sword that set the commemoration on this track a long time ago. But the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots can be an opportunity to take stock of the movement’s achievements and consider what should come next. Pride in the Park is an example of some of the ways queer people who have taken on leadership roles in the community continue to alienate queer people of color, transgender and intersex people, and anyone with a lower income. While the past decades of work since Stonewall have lifted up many of our queer siblings, the larger idea of liberation has not yet been achieved. Those lifted up into positions of power should look at the LGBTQ community as a whole and consider who reaps the rewards of this celebration. The 50 years ahead hold ample opportunities for events to finally make space for all of our queer siblings. v