Black LGBTQ people have always been here.
Marsha P. Johnson, in part, led the 1969 uprising at New York’s Stonewall Inn, an act of resistance to police repression of LGBTQ people. Author and activist James Baldwin delivered fiery, prescient writing and commentary on the state of society and politics. Bessie Smith sang the blues as a pioneer of the genre, and was known to be bisexual.
But many White and mainstream LGBTQ spaces, even during Pride Month in June, don’t incorporate Black LGBTQ and same-gender-loving (SGL) culture into the music they play, the films they feature, or the heroes they herald. That’s one reason why the term “same-gender loving” was coined by activist Cleo Manago as an affirmation of LGBTQ community members of African descent that exists outside traditional White definitions and experiences of being gay and lesbian. Historically, Black LGBTQ and SGL people have been routinely silenced, ignored, erased, or tokenized by their White LGBTQ counterparts, and they often experience similar indignities from Black heterosexual and cisgender people.
As such, Black LGBTQ and SGL people did what an oppressed community often does: They carved out spaces for themselves, including Black Pride celebrations each year. These celebrations typically occur in places such as Harlem, New York; Little Rock, Arkansas; Milwaukee; and Boston during or right after Pride Month.
“Black Pride provides a safe space for people to be authentically who they are, perhaps the only time of the year,” says Earl D. Fowlkes Jr., CEO of the Center for Black Equity, an umbrella organization for Black Prides.”We draw strength from one another, and this is something that goes back to when [Black people] were brought to this country as slaves. When we’re together, we can drive positive energy. And Black Prides are positive energy.”
Even though Black Prides aren’t the same as the parades that have become synonymous with Pride Month, they’re still a grand celebration. Picnics in the park, dance parties, and the dynamic movements of ballroom culture are but a few ways the events encourage unapologetic self-expression. In the midst of the revelry, social service organizations educate on health and wellness, political groups encourage civic engagement, and various vendors present an opportunity to support businesses run by Black LGBTQ and SGL owners.
The first Black Pride was organized in 1991 in Washington, D.C. The Black Pride movement began spreading shortly thereafter as the intention and need for the observances became more apparent in a community that experienced disproportionate impact from the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, along with the realization that mainstream LGBTQ organizations didn’t include Black people or acknowledge that Black culture existed.
More than 30 years later, dozens of Black Pride celebrations take place in the United States and globally, many of them occurring during LGBTQ Pride Month or on the Fourth of July weekend. An estimated 600,000 Black LGBTQ and SGL people in the United States participate, according to the Center for Black Equity.
Black Prides, along with Black LGBTQ and SGL events throughout the year, aren’t a matter of separatism or splintering off from the broader LGBTQ movement. Rather, they’re a reclamation of and a statement on the self-determination of a multifaceted community that seeks to build itself up and fulfill the needs not met in spaces that are White or not inclusive of LGBTQ and SGL people.
“We need to make sure our reasons to celebrate and have visibility don’t get diluted by the mainstream LGBTQ community. When you think of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, they’re mostly run by White members of the community,” says Charles Nelson, founder of the Ubuntu Center of Chicago and a co-organizer of Pride South Side, who has been involved in organizing Black Prides for more than 20 years. “We’re still not brought to the table ... and we need to be visible not only for the LGBTQ community but for the African American community as a whole.”
Black LGBTQ and SGL people sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, yet Black Prides provide an avenue for centering joy and respite, even as the struggle continues. For those who participate, the events serve as fuel for the journey. Some organizers have observed through the years that Black Prides even encourage Black LGBTQ and SGL people to invite others into their lives and into who they are, especially if they hadn’t opened up already. And as the observances enter a fourth decade, Black Prides still have more room to continue blossoming.
“Part of the evolution of Black Pride now is to dig a little deeper and take in nuance,” Fowlkes says, noting the need to further center the experiences of elders, gender nonconforming people, the faith community, people from various regions, and the many varied experiences and identities represented in Black LGBTQ and SGL communities. “We need to have spaces for all people in our community, and that’s part of the healing. The deeper we dig, the more we can heal.”
Derrick Clifton is an independent journalist writing about the intersections of identity, culture, and social issues. They have a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, and their reporting and commentary have appeared in NBCBLK, Them, Out, TheGrio, The Guardian, Mic, Chicago Reader, and more.