Jun 5, 2023

What Pride Includes

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by Joel McDonald

Most who read this message are likely to be LGBTQ+ or an ally. If that’s the case, I’m just preaching to the choir. If you’re a member of our community, you may not glean anything new or enlightening from reading. However, I hope you will read on and consider this message an opportunity to join with LGBT+ Democrats of Virginia in educating others and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community within our Commonwealth and around the nation this Pride.

If you’re reading this and you’re not a part of the LGBTQ+ community, I extend my heartfelt welcome and appreciation for you and your taking the time to read this message. I hope what I share will increase your understanding of our community and the historical and current meaning behind the celebration of Pride.

While I am writing this as chair of LGBT+ Democrats of Virginia, the opinions expressed are solely my own and may not represent LGBT+ Democrats of Virginia or the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. There is absolutely room for disagreement, other opinions, and novel insight. Just as with any community, we are not a monolith.

A Brief History of Pride

Just a few weeks ago, I heard about a young queer person seeing a sticker that said, “The first Pride was a riot,” and responding, “Yeah, I bet it was a lot of fun!”

This sort of misunderstanding happens when LGBTQ+ history is minimized and erased from our schools. Just as we should teach about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, we must teach about Stonewall.

Yes, the first Pride was a riot, but not because it was a good time. It was an uprising against discriminatory laws and police brutality targeting the LGBTQ+ community. In the 1960s, police raids and arrests at establishments catering to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender individuals, and drag queens were common. However, the raid on the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969, was anything but routine. In the early morning hours, the LGBTQ+ community resisted and fought back. Word spread quickly, and thousands of protestors joined the resistance. It wasn’t the first time the community fought back, but the events at Stonewall and the annual commemorations and marches that followed sparked what would eventually be known as Pride.

The first Pride march was June 28th, 1970 – one year after Stonewall. It was described by organizers as commemorating when “thousands of Homosexuals went to the streets to demonstrate against centuries of abuse; official betrayal of their human rights by virtually all segments of society; from government hostility to employment and housing discrimination… and anti-Homosexual laws.”

A decade after Stonewall, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco Board of Supervisors member and the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, asked Gilbert Baker to design a symbol for the gay community. In collaboration with Lyn Segerblom, an eight-striped rainbow flag was designed and constructed. The flag debuted at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. This design evolved into the six-color rainbow flag commonly seen today. It represents the entire LGBTQ+ community and serves as the basis for the Philadelphia and Progress flags, including colors of brown, black, and the transgender community to recognize the historical and ongoing discrimination against people of color, indigenous communities, and the transgender community and the vital role of those individuals within the broader LGBTQ+ community.

From the annual marches commemorating Stonewall, we now celebrate June as Pride Month. Since 1999, Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Biden have all issued official proclamations designating June as Pride Month.

Celebrating Pride Today

While Pride is rooted in protesting discrimination, it has also become a communal celebration of the vibrancy, strength, diversity, progress, and contributions of the community and an individual celebration of living one’s authentic self, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Pride flags flown, whether in June or otherwise, are an outward, visible symbol of these things.

We see the Pride flag as an inclusive symbol standing against discrimination and celebrating who we are, but there are those in our towns, counties, cities, states, and nation for whom Pride triggers visceral contempt. Today, national political rhetoric is scapegoating the LGBTQ+ community, specifically the transgender community. Some falsely claim the grooming and sexualizing of children to manufacture anger and votes. This rhetoric emboldens hate against the LGBTQ+ community. We’re seeing the results play out in our governors’ offices, our legislatures, our school board meetings, our department stores, and on our streets.

Pride Includes Families

It has been horrifying to watch as some politicians and their strategists weaponize parents’ love for their children by demonizing the LGBTQ+ community to create political opportunities by sowing division on issues like bathroom access, sports participation, library books, and health care. While banners and signs at school board meetings espouse parental rights, it’s clear those carrying that message only mean it for themselves and other parents who agree with their ideology. They accuse those who disagree of being child molesters or groomers focused on sexualizing children.

I believe these parents love and want to protect their children from things that may cause harm or that they don’t understand. However, fueling this harmful discourse is a belief that the rise in young people identifying as somewhere along the LGBTQ+ spectrums is due to social contagion, that identifying as something other than straight and cis-gender is the result of increased exposure to LGBTQ+ individuals, media, information, or even peer pressure.

I did not know anyone in my middle or high school who identified as anything other than straight or cis-gendered. The first Gay-Stright Alliance in my city did not form until the year after I graduated. I was also in a very conservative religion. I did not come out as gay until I was 24 years old, and it was only a few years before that when I even had a vocabulary or understanding to describe my own orientation.

There was zero social pressure or encouragement for me to be gay—quite the contrary. Yet, I was. I fought to accept it for years, but I just am. My experience mirrors that of my LGBTQ+ peers. Nothing made us gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer. We just are.

Are we seeing more young people identify as something other than straight and cis-gender? We are. Is this possibly due to access to more information about sexual orientation and gender identity than we’ve seen in previous generations? Yes. Is it possibly also due to decreases in stigma in these areas? Yes. However, it’s more likely that these factors aren’t contributing to youth being LGBTQ+. These factors are contributing to youth being open about their true selves. In other words, they have the information and vocabulary required to explain their feelings and who they are; and they have safe, affirming spaces to do so.

Unlike my generation and those before us, young people today can navigate their sexual orientation and gender identity in more informed and healthier ways, hopefully avoiding the confusion, shame, and trauma we experienced. Making the family a safe, affirming space is essential for their happiness and mental health.

I’ve seen actual harm done to families when LGBTQ+ individuals can’t live authentically, from unhappy and unsuccessful mixed-orientation marriages, when one spouse attempts to overcome their homosexuality by marrying someone of the opposite sex, to children being emotionally and physically abused by their parents or guardians when their characteristics, mannerisms, or how they identify, don’t align with traditional expectations of their assigned gender. A significant contributing factor to youth homelessness is a young person being LGBTQ+.

I know that gender roles and expectations run deep in our family traditions. I had to make difficult adjustments to my expectations for myself when I came out as gay and watched my family adjust as well. If your child identifies as LGBTQ+ or questions their sexual orientation or gender identity, the best thing you can do is love and support them without judgment or shame. Keep the lines of communication open. Learn as much as you can. No matter how they may ultimately identify or their related choices, your relationship with your child and your family will be stronger for your effort.

Being a part of a loving, supportive family is critical to the healthy development of every person, including LGBTQ+ people. We all want families to be happy. We all want parents and guardians to love and support their children.

Pride Includes Faith

LGBTQ+ people are raised in faith traditions and experience faith and religion like everyone else. Many LGBTQ+ individuals are faithful adherents to various religions, even those that do not fully affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity. The need for spirituality and a community of faith does not disappear when someone identifies as LGBTQ+.

Yet, we know that homosexual and transgender individuals are often the subject of scornful sermons, talks, and gossip from pulpits and pews. If not outright hate. Church leaders use traditional or accepted translations and interpretations of scripture to define our lives as sinful, somehow even more so than the many other sins that scriptures warn against more clearly and consistently.

Many faith traditions sounded the alarm against same-sex marriage, warning adherents that legalization would force them to endure same-sex weddings performed in their places of worship, even though their doctrine condemns homosexuality. The sanctity of marriage became a rallying cry.

In reality, those of us working toward marriage equality had little concern about doctrine or being married in places of worship. Marriage equality was not a religious issue. It was civil. We were fighting for equality under the law, not equality under the steeple.

Often political discourse places religious freedom at odds with LGBTQ+ rights. This misses that there are faithful LGBTQ+ members within just about any faith tradition. As they live more openly and authentically, their faith traditions have had to wrestle internally about accepting, welcoming, and potentially affirming them. This has been a challenging evolution that has not been without conflict and pain. It also hasn’t been without discovery and beauty.

Religious freedom is at the core of our nation’s framing. This freedom includes participating in any religion or denomination we choose. It also includes the freedom not to have any religion imposed on us. We all have the right to determine what we believe and how, or if, we worship. However, we should have the integrity to recognize and resist when the beliefs of some are being legislated for all.

Pride Includes Patriotism

Before the late 1960s, the LGBTQ+ community was virtually invisible. We were forced by discriminatory laws and social expectations to live in the shadows. After Stonewall, our community adopted the belief that the only way to create legal and social change was to be visible.

In 1978, Harvey Milk spoke at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day, pleading with those listening to come out to their parents, relatives, neighbors, and friends to “break down the myths” and “destroy the lies and distortions” about gays and lesbians that would cause those they know and love to “hurt [us] in the voting booth.”

During the AIDS crisis, organizations like ACT UP advocated for direct action, research, and treatment to end the AIDS pandemic by being a constant visible force that could not be ignored at a time when the United States government was silent about the crisis they believed it only impacted the gay community. Their efforts have saved countless lives, gay and straight.

Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, GLAAD, GLSEN, and countless others have advocated, lobbied, and fought for legal and social change, ending discriminatory laws like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving in our nation’s armed forces and the “Defence of Marriage Act” prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Similar efforts have passed anti-discrimination measures in housing and employment at all levels of government.

For some, the rise in visibility and activism of and by the LGBTQ+ community over the past 50+ years and the changes the community has called for and successfully won is a cause for unease. They view the challenging of laws, traditions, and social norms historically discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community as un-American.

Our founding ideal of all men being created equal, as penned by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, has proven challenging to meet throughout our nation’s history. At the time and early in our history, this phrase only meant men. Further, it meant only white men who owned land.

Equality in the United States has evolved to include all men and all women, regardless of race and other protected characteristics historically targeted for discrimination. This evolution has been hard-fought and bloody. We fought a civil war over this, which Abraham Lincoln described as a war to test “whether this [this] nation… so dedicated [to the proposition that all men are created equal] can long endure.”

From declaring independence from a monarch, and ending slavery, to extending the right to vote to women, and countless other examples where discrimination has been prohibited and civil rights upheld, the expansion of equality is wholly American. Each time we have expanded equality, we have challenged the status quo. We have challenged laws, traditions, and social norms.

After Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ community began to organize to expand our American ideal of equality further to include us. In this, we sought not to limit the rights or freedoms of anyone else. We fought to ensure we had the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. In this, we were not fighting against our nation. We fought to better our country.

Patriotism and Pride are not mutually exclusive. We can wave the Pride flag in June, celebrating our LGBTQ+ community, and then the U.S. flag on July 4th, celebrating a nation where our equality is possible.