Despite marriage equality, LGBTQ Americans in 2019 still face many challenges, including higher rates of teen suicide and the prospect of being denied homes or losing jobs over their sexual orientation.
But to Samson Racioppi and fellow organizers of a Straight Pride Parade on Saturday in Boston — an event expected to draw dozens of supporters and perhaps 800 counterprotesters — heterosexuals are victims, too.
Straight people have “been disregarded, and that’s a form of attack,” Racioppi said, citing a Netflix show about drag queens and his friend’s preteen daughter questioning her gender. “People need to be reassured that even though there’s all this mixed messaging, it’s still perfectly natural to identify as a heterosexual.”
LGBTQ leaders, however, say that the parade — despite organizers’ insistence that they seek to celebrate straight people, not tear down others — is led by radical bigots and predicated on an insidious, inaccurate idea: that LGBTQ Americans already enjoy full equality, and that attempts to celebrate them or end discrimination somehow come at the expense of straight Americans.
“We’re not there yet,” said Logan Casey, of the LGBTQ policy and research group Movement Advancement Project. “In many places across the country, it remains perfectly legal for LGBTQ people to be discriminated against in housing, in employment, in public places and businesses, in health care, in education, and many other contexts.”
The LGBTQ community, though, appears split on how to respond to the event, which has been skewered by many public figures, from comedian Stephen Colbert to US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Some groups — including Boston Pride, which organizes the city’s massive annual LGBTQ pride parade — are trying to ignore the provocation.
“It has become increasingly clear that the Straight Pride Parade is organized by a group of white supremacists and is an attempt to bait the Boston LGBTQ community,” the organization said. “It’s a trolling event, designed to get a rise out of vulnerable communities.”
Others insist Boston-area residents must stand up against hatred.
“These people are fascists and Nazis,” said Elvin Mackelston, of the group Solidarity Against Hate-Boston, which is organizing a counterprotest. “We will be getting together the biggest, proudest group we can.”
Super Happy Fun America , the group behind the parade, denies that the parade or its organizers are bigoted, pointing to their inclusion of black and gay speakers. Yet its members have close ties to the far right.
One of the parade’s scheduled speakers is the leader of the Proud Boys, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as violent extremists who attended the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Parade organizer Mark Sahady is part of Resist Marxism, a group founded by an alt-right leader with a history of violence. That group helped organize the Boston “free speech” rally in 2017 that critics said attracted white nationalists. Sahady said he is Arab and condemns racism.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has said his administration couldn’t deny a permit based on the views of an event’s organizers, but added that Boston values “respect, diversity, and acceptance of all.” Boston police said they planned “a large presence of both uniformed and undercover officers.”
The parade, happening amid the chaos of Boston’s busy college move-in weekend, will include a pro-Trump vehicle and floats. It will proceed from Copley Square to City Hall Plaza, where participants plan to raise their pink-and-blue “straight pride” flag, conduct a costume contest, and showcase speakers including Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor at Breitbart, the alt-right website, who has been banned from Facebook and Twitter for hate speech.
Organizers estimated Saturday’s parade would draw 2,000 participants, but only about 90 people said on Facebook they would attend. The 2017 “free speech” event attracted a few dozen supporters — but tens of thousands of counterprotesters.
Emerson College, located by the parade route, said it would postpone an orientation event and ban visitors from campus buildings until 3 p.m.
The idea for the parade began in April, when Sahady, 44, of Malden, and John Hugo, 56, of Woburn, decided to test whether Boston City Hall would fly their “straight pride” flag. The city often grants requests to feature different flags, but rejected the group, citing officials’ sole discretion over “government speech.”
In response, Sahady, Hugo, and Racioppi — a 37-year-old law student and Army veteran from Salisbury — decided to plan a parade to further test the city’s treatment of people with views that differed from the mayor’s.
The group’s website says heterosexuals are “an oppressed majority” that have “languished in the shadows for decades,” and that until the letter “S” is added to the acronym, “LGBTQ pride will continue to be a system of oppression designed to systematically erase straight people.”
That unwarranted feeling of exclusion is the same impulse behind the white supremacist movement and other hateful ideologies, said Casey, who serves as a policy researcher for the Movement Advancement Project.
“There’s a sense of ‘us versus them,’ no matter what the issue is,” he said. “It’s like, ‘If they’re getting a rainbow logo, how come I’m not getting a straight logo?’ ”
A majority of LGBTQ Americans have suffered violence, threats, or harassment, according to a 2017 poll released by NPR. Transgender people, meanwhile, face record levels of violence and frequently report being denied health care.
Casey and other critics believe “straight pride” events are simply the latest manifestation of anti-LGBTQ bigotry, in which overt slurs and attacks have been replaced with insinuations inspired by Internet trolls. They observe that “straight pride” supporters rarely debate the substance of issues facing LGBTQ people, and instead obsess over such superficial concerns as positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters in TV shows or growing corporate support for pride events.
In mocking LGBTQ events and organizations, Casey added, “straight pride” supporters are ignoring the history of anti-LGBTQ violence and of gay pride events. They also falsely insinuate that LGBTQ people desire special privileges or to be celebrated simply for existing, he said.
“Pride parades have been an incredibly important space and practice to build community and strength in the face of adversity,” Casey said. “These so-called straight pride parades . . . pose the hypothetical question, ‘What do [LGBTQ people] have to complain about?’ Well, actually, objectively, quite a bit.”
Following a widespread backlash to the parade’s announcement in June, organizers said the event’s purpose has shifted to fighting what they call “liberal groupthink,” identity politics, and a perceived lack of tolerance for conservative ideas.
As evidence that they are being targeted, the group’s members pointed to a series of setbacks: police confiscated Sahady’s three guns after his license expired; PayPal shut down their fund-raiser; their website has been suspended; their employers and parents have received phone calls; and the organizers were mailed envelopes of powder — which turned out to be glitter — prompting bomb squad calls.
“As soon as I opened my mouth about it, there he is — he’s Hitler,” Hugo said, adding that while he supports gay rights, he disagrees with the way schools, workplaces, and sports leagues have handled transgender issues. “The pendulum has swung too far.”
Critics say the free-speech rhetoric is just rebranding bigotry. Emerson College president Lee Pelton told students Wednesday that the parade was really “meant to objectify the ‘other’ as unworthy, as deformed, as disfigured and, most horribly, as something other than human.”
Racioppi was recently forced to resign as the board chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, or MassCann, after directors, volunteers, and vendors quit the group’s annual pro-marijuana “Freedom Rally” over his involvement.
Some MassCann members sympathized with Racioppi, seeing his events as somewhat tongue-in-cheek affairs with a tinge of civil disobedience. But others, including former MassCann director Shannon Jones, found his views objectionable.
“It definitely weakened the group,” said Jones, who resigned over concerns about the organization’s direction. “I consider him a friend, but people from the community — especially other black people — have come up to me and said, ‘What’s up with this guy? How can you defend him?’”
Though the parade has yet to take place, Jones believes Racioppi has already “won” by generating media coverage.
“He talked to me a lot about how their cause was just to show how the media can take one little thing and just explode it,” she said.