On a hot, sunny Sunday in Pittsburgh, several dozen people in bright orange T-shirts that read “WalMart Pride” marched through the downtown streets behind a WalMart-branded 18-wheeler. A handful of rainbow flags waved from the truck’s windows.
“I’m here, I’m queer, I’m your cashier,” read one of the employees’ signs. The driver of the truck honked his horn and waved at the thousands of bystanders gathered for the city’s annual LGBTQ Pride parade.
Not far behind followed glitter- and rainbow-bedecked contingents from Uber, FedEx, Ikea, Chipotle, Amazon, and Comcast.
Accusations of “pinkwashing” and complaints about the corporatization of Pride celebrations stretch back decades. The first Pride march in New York in 1970 commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots, but by the nineties, many Pride protests had evolved into far more business-friendly parades. People have been organizing events to protest corporate sponsorship since at least 1998.
Nowadays, parades infused with corporate money are par for the course. But Donald Trump’s presidency has intensified a longstanding political rift in LGBTQ communities, a tension at the forefront of this month’s Pride parades across the country. And in Pittsburgh this year, the Delta Foundation, which has organized the city’s Pride for the last nine years, took corporate sponsorship a step further by selling naming rights to the Pride parade to a huge company—that’s been widely criticized by environmentalists for its fracking activities in the region.
Pittsburghers voted for “Rise Up” as the theme for this year’s event. But while Pride events in D.C. and L.A. were already being recalibrated as #ResistTrump protests instead of parades at the start of the new year, the Pittsburgh Pride Parade was renamed the “EQT Equality March” in honor of EQT Corporation, a petroleum and natural gas company.
Besides its fracking, EQT has a history of giving campaign contributions to anti-LGBTQ politicians. Last year, the company donated $10,000 to Republican state representative Bill Shuster, who said he was “disappointed” that “a handful of activist judges attempted to destroy traditional marriage” when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA in 2013. In 2016, EQT gave $7,500 to Republican Congressman Tim Murphy, who is openly transphobic and voted against barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees.
Delta Foundation also sold vendor booth spots to companies like Mylan, the company that famously jacked up the price of the EpiPen; Marlboro, despite the fact that the LGBTQ community has a higher smoking rate and greater risk of lung cancer than the general population; and pro-life group Rehumanize International, which flanked their booth with signs and T-shirts featuring cartoons of rainbow-gradient fetuses captioned “conceived this way.”
Activists also complained that the booths were too expensive for local community LGBTQ organizations, and that Delta Foundation spends substantially more on Pride performers than they do on supporting local organizations.
In response to all that, Sisters Pgh, a local nonprofit that provides shelter and permanent housing for homeless and low-income transgender people, organized a protest march, dubbed “the People’s Pride” immediately following the EQT parade along the same route. About a hundred protesters gathered at the starting point for People’s Pride, mostly wearing dark colors instead of rainbow flags, looking more angry than celebratory.
“Pride started with two trans women of color,” said Ciora Thomas, the founder and CEO of Sisters Pgh. Thomas, a black trans woman, started Sisters Pgh after surviving homelessness as a teen, and acted as the lead organizer for People’s Pride. She said communities of color are disproportionately affected by the environmental damage caused by companies like EQT, and that Delta Foundation has long failed to adequately represent the interests of the most marginalized members of the community. (Delta Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
“They’re turning Pride into a huge, expensive party for cisgender white men,” Thomas said, “taking away all the revolutionary spirit of [black, trans founders of the LGBT rights movement] Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. We want to turn turn it back into an inclusive, community pride that actually stands for something instead.”
While organizers in some cities, like New York, D.C., and L.A., have injected activism into their event planning, tensions are high elsewhere. On June 11, the same day as Pittsburgh Pride, a group of protesters from the group No Justice No Pride repeatedly interrupted Capital Pride in D.C. to protest corporate and police sponsorship of the event, citing police violence against people of color as a primary community concern. In Phoenix, which holds Pride in April to avoid the scorching summer heat, the parade was disrupted by a protest by Trans Queer Pueblo, a group advocating for LGBTQ migrants who also opposed police involvement in the event. Some Pride participants responded by yelling racial slurs and shoving the protesters, prompting a local alt-weekly to compare it to a Trump rally.
“I think many pride organizations are well aware that historically, they haven’t fully represented all aspects of our very broad, very diverse community,” said Sue Doster, co-president of InterPride, the international association of pride organizers. She added that Prides are at “a point of introspection” where they are trying to be more inclusive.
Doster has been involved in pride organizing for nearly 30 years. She said similar conversations about who should be running pride are happening not just nationally, but also globally.
“There have been all kinds of studies coming out in business sector that more diverse boards are more successful,” Doster said. “The trick is, building that diversity isn’t always easy. It does mean sometimes that the people who have traditionally been in power at the center of these organizations may need to just take a step aside—still be involved, but make room.”
When marginalized people start to win equality, there’s still always a hierarchy for who wins it first. Poor white men won the right to vote long before black men in America, and white women were able to freely exercise their right to vote a full 30 years before black women could. So it isn’t surprising that some members of the LGBTQ community—namely affluent, white, cisgender ones in major metropolitan areas—are eager to focus less on fighting and more on celebrating the community’s victories than those who still have a lot of skin in the game, so to speak.
Doster recounted that last year, Pride organizers in New York encountered criticism from people who said, “We have gay marriage now, so let’s just call it a parade instead of a march.” The organizers, who have called New York Pride a “march” since it began, said no to the name change. “We may have some rights, and we might have made great progress in a very short time period, but we still don’t have full equality,” said Doster. “We’re not there yet.”
It’s tempting to hold up the images of Sisters Pgh’s Ciora Thomas and Gary Van Horn, the affluent, white, cis president of Delta Foundation, as the epitome of this “activist vs. reveler” dichotomy. But in Pittsburgh, as in the rest of the country, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Walmart, Uber, Comcast, EQT, and Pittsburgh Pride’s other corporate sponsors employ a huge percentage of the Pittsburgh region’s working class. Considering that an estimated 50% of the LGBTQ population lives in one of the 28 states where you can still be legally fired for your sexual orientation or gender identity—which include Pennsylvania—it’s still hugely significant for a large number of working class queer people to have their employers publicly affirm and support their identities. It isn’t their fault that their employers’ corporate ethics are abysmal.
And it’s not as if the People’s Pride march was completely divorced from corporate support; along with nonprofits like the state’s ACLU Pennsylvania, a handful of big corporations—including Google’s Pittsburgh office—endorsed People’s Pride, too (although the only group it actually received money from was a local non-profit called Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents). Several of those companies also had booths at the EQT March.
Doster also disagrees with the notion that the celebratory nature of many big Pride events means it’s inherently no longer political.
“All Prides were born of protest,” she said. “Being yourself and celebrating who you are when you’re surrounded by people who think you’re less than they are because of it is one of the greatest protests any of us can make… In big cities, we sometimes forget that in smaller communities in the middle of America, stigma still very much exists. Being able to come together at Pride in Salt Lake City, Utah or Anchorage, Alaska and say, ‘We’re all okay and we’re going to celebrate who we are,’ that is a protest.”
In smaller communities, Pride serves as a bridge to straight people who may not otherwise come into contact with members of the LGBTQ community (or may not realize they have). A case could be made that endorsements from big, recognizable corporate sponsors—even if it is just a PR move—helps normalize the message that LGBTQ people deserve recognition and respect.
Still, that doesn’t make up for the fact that corporations can (and do) sponsor Pride events while acting directly against the community’s interests. “The origins of Pride are deeply political,” Seth DiMartile, a 21-year-old protester with a glittery rainbow painted across his face, told me. “So the idea that now we’re partnering with fracking companies and anti-abortion activists is just kind of disgusting. It’s like, you’re betraying the most vulnerable people in the community. You’re betraying where we came from.”
As the final floats from the EQT Equality March in Pittsburgh faded from view and People’s Pride march began, there was a marked shift in mood. Protesters carried homemade signs bearing messages like, “The first gay pride was a riot,” and “Fracking poisons air and water. Silence = Death.” Police in riot gear flanked the sidewalks.
In lieu of the bumping bass of dance music accompanying the EQT Equality March, classic protest chants like, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Show me what democracy looks like” echoed through the downtown corridors. Most of the Pride revelers had already left the sidewalks for the bars, vendor booths, and performance stages on adjacent streets for the EQT Equality celebration, but the ones who remained mostly look on somberly, some recording the protest on their phones.
In 2015, a similar counter-Pride was organized by another group in Pittsburgh after the Delta Foundation booked Iggy Azalea, who’d been called out for a history of racist and homophobic tweets. When I spoke with Michael Battle, one of the organizers of that protest, he suggested that a plurality of Pride celebrations and protests is a good thing—that not everyone needs to celebrate or protest in the same way or at the same time.
In many large cities, multiple pride events already take place as a matter of course (New York City has a Pride celebration for every borough).
But many activists and organizers, including Ciora Thomas, hope we can figure out how to celebrate, make visible, and defend all members of the community simultaneously—and all together—during Pride.
“I think it makes sense for different segments of the community to have their own spaces,” she said, “but when I think about Pride, I think about inclusivity.”
Doster shares that outlook. “There were a lot of rainbow flags out at a lot of the Women’s Marches,” she said. “This intersectional concept in the social justice sphere that says we’re all connected, so we all need to work together, is really starting to take hold.”
In many ways, Doster said, “Pride is a microcosm for society. If we in the pride community and the greater LGBTQ+ intersectional community can’t figure this out, then greater society has very little chance.”
This piece has been updated to clarify that while the People’s Pride counter-march was endorsed by several big corporations, they didn’t receive any financial support from them.
Kristina Marusic is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist who covers stories about LGBT equality, feminism, and social justice. She’s also working on a memoir.
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