With in-person events like Capital Pride on hold due to COVID-19, locals are finding new ways to to celebrate.
Last June, Emily Thompson, a doctoral student in Gallaudet University's audiology program, went to her first D.C. pride parade. She previously lived in Washington in the early 2010s, but came back last year for school, and the event marked the first one she'd attended locally since coming out at 25. She was thrilled to be among so many people freely being themselves.
"Celebrating Pride is such an important part of being a queer person," she says. "Even with the corporatization of Pride that we have these days, still being able to get together and celebrate as a community is a really vital thing." More than 400,000 people attended last year's event.
But this year, the annual celebration of LGBTQ+ communities will look different. In-person events like Capital Pride, which was scheduled to begin June 5, are on hold due to the coronavirus, as highly anticipated, crowded gatherings like the parade present a health risk. Indeed, D.C. is slated to be under a stay-at-home order during that time, leaving Washingtonians to rethink how they celebrate.
Thompson says she's planning on attending a virtual event. She recently participated in a virtual trivia night hosted by Adams Morgan queer and lesbian bar, A League of Her Own, through Google Meet. While it wasn't the same as getting together in person, she says she had a lot of fun, and it gave her a sense of what might be possible when June rolls around.
"To still have a space where we can be snarky in the chat and fight about if Fiona Apple is overrated or not, you know, it's not a good substitute, but it is still a place to gather and still a communal queer space," she says.
Capital Pride Alliance announced in March that both its parade and festival, in addition to events like Capital Trans Pride and D.C. Latinx Pride, would be postponed or cancelled indefinitely.
Ryan Bos, the executive director of Capital Pride Alliance, says the organization will be announcing new plans next week, which will include virtual programming, but declined to provide specifics.
Some local groups have already announced plans for online events. From May 21 through May 25, local LGBTQ collective, Makers Lab, is hosting a virtual celebration called Black in Space. It will feature a a range of programming—including a DJ set, workout class, sexual education discussion, and a movie night—all linked through the theme of the cosmos.
Patience Rowe, the director of operations for Makers Lab, says the goal of the festival, which is not affiliated with D.C. Black Pride, is to create a safe space for black queer folks.
She sees it "as a destination for us to be free and experience all the things that we can't really experience right now, and all the things that are not always safe for us to experience even when we are outside."
The festival will be held via online event platform Accelevents, and tickets range from $15 to $50, depending on the level, though they will not turn anyone away who cannot pay. For each ticket sold, the team will donate a face mask to Black Lives Matter, which will distribute them through mutual aid groups to residents in Wards 7 and 8.
Rowe says that, while throwing a festival like Black in Space isn't cheap, the new digital landscape brought on by the pandemic offers the organizers an opportunity to celebrate on their own terms, without the corporate sponsorship of larger events.
"I think this is making us take a look at who cares about us and who doesn't, and how can we collaborate with those organizations that do give a fuck about us to create these experiences and events," she says.
Capital Pride, which was first held in 1975, has grown from a small grassroots effort into a massive enterprise with corporate sponsorships from companies like Wells Fargo and Lockheed Martin. While the event has grown in popularity, some members of the queer community have raised concerns about those connections, denouncing them as opportunities for corporate virtue-signaling that obscure the reasons for the event.
In 2017, the group No Justice No Pride disrupted Capital Pride, both because of its corporate affiliations and its support for police marching in the parade and conducting crowd control. "Pride should be a haven for the entire LGBTQ community," said the group in a release at the time. "No Justice No Pride is for everyone who has previously been excluded and for a different vision of what this event could and should be."
Bos says, however, there was a time in the early 1990s when pride organizers were fighting for corporations to be a part of the celebration and help bring visibility to the events.
He acknowledges that there are dissenting views on the subject. "Pride is for everybody, but obviously Pride can't please everybody," he says. He adds that the Capital Pride partners with various other Pride events in the area to ensure all LGBTQ+ people have a space to "show up where they're comfortable."
Some locals are celebrating this year by giving back to fellow LGBTQ+ Washingtonians. José Romero, who runs the popular Twitter account @DCHomos, and sells rainbow flag pins, patches, hand fans, and other symbols of LGBTQ+ pride through his Etsy store, used to make trips to the post office about twice a week to ship the items. But as the crisis hit the area, he shut the online shop down.
"I didn't want to risk having to go to the post office that often," says Romero. But last week, with Pride month approaching and many members of D.C.'s LGBTQ+ community suffering as a result of the pandemic, he decided to boot it back up in an effort to raise money for local nonprofit organizations like the TransLatin@ Coalition.
Romero, who also works full-time in IT for a law firm, will personally match the proceeds up to $1,000 until the store closes on May 22, and has already raised over $700. Romero says, even if you're celebrating at home, you might as well wear something festive.
"I know a lot of Prides are probably planning virtual things," he says. "So, having a pin or a boutonniere, or a flag, or a fan with a rainbow while you're doing your Zoom thing or whatever virtual type of thing, I think would be great."
Those virtual events are happening well beyond the D.C. area, too. InterPride, a membership organization of Pride event producers all over the world, and the European Pride Organizers Association announced last month that they will host a Global Pride event on June 27, which will be held via online platforms and invite people worldwide to participate.
The organizers of both Brooklyn Pride and Queens Pride also announced virtual events this week after cancelling in-person festivities.
In D.C., virtual offerings include a Facebook Live event hosted by the Ask Rayceen Show's Rayceen Pendarvis, on June 3, featuring guests from various local groups, including Capital Pride, talking about the future of Pride in D.C. Northeast's Red Bear Brewing Co. is hosting a virtual Black Pride drag show on May 23.
For now, Thompson is still finalizing her plans, but she has heard of virtual events happening through several local bars including at Red Bear, and online drag shows, and hopes to watch with friends. "It's a nice reminder of the community, that it still exists," she says. "And that we are still here even if we can't be together in person."