Pride Flashback: Do you remember 1996? Were you There or were You on the Sidelines?


Pride Parade Seattle, photo by Heidi S.

Last Sunday, I managed to navigate the crowds and spend a few hours at the Seattle Pride parade. The crowd was massive, in fact a little overwhelming. And the parade didn’t disappoint. It was festive, beautiful, fun, and full of community groups, nonprofits, government departments and elected officials, businesses, religious groups, etc. It felt like everyone was there. In fact, it is really starting to feel like the Pride parade is the place everyone and every organization wants to be seen.

What I couldn’t help but wonder is if all the straight ally community groups, businesses, politicians, and religious groups were there 20+ years ago. Did your organization support gay rights before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses, before sexual orientation become part of the protected class from discrimination, before “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” got repealed, before legal same-sex civil unions or gay marriage, before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage nationwide? Did your organization stand up for LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) rights when it was uncomfortable, when you really risked losing funding, getting targeted or boycotted, when no other organizations around you were standing up?

Don’t get me wrong the current support feels great! It feels like the warm societal hug that I wanted and needed when I struggled with coming out. It feels like the affirmation I needed when I wished my life could just be more “normal” (read: straight). It feels like the support I wish I had when I couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about my “partner” and ended up referring to her as my “roommate or best friend.” It feels like the support I really wished I had 20 years ago.

Remembering 1996
Let’s go back 20 years. It’s a nice round number, and also happens to be when I graduated from college so I have clearer memories of that time. For those of you whose memories are worse than mine, or those of you who were too young to remember 1996, here are some mainstream pop culture highlights. The Macarena was the number one music single (you’re doing the dance I hope). The number one grossing movie was Independence Day. It was also the year Jerry Maguire came out, “Show me the money.” Nintendo released its first gaming console. A postage stamp cost 32 cents. And, Prince Charles and Diana, Princesses of Whales got divorced. I still had bangs, wore my clothes way too baggy, and was contemplating putting a corporate logo on my body. I am happy to report I was wise enough then to not get the tattoo.

The LGBT context in 1996 was not as festive as the atmosphere at the Pride parade on Sunday. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The United States Senate passed the Defense of Marriage Act (defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman) in an 85 to 14 vote, and rejected prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the private sector in a 49 to 50 vote. And, based on a Gallup poll, 68% of the public opposed same-sex marriage. Contract that with the now 61% of people who believe in same-sex marriage in 2016. I think it’s fair to say that if you or your organization were standing with gay people in 1996, you were taking a risk. You were brave at a moment in time when it was uncomfortable to be brave. You were an ally or accomplice when it wasn’t trendy or easy to stand beside us. We also hope your organization was changing policies and behaviors to model inclusiveness and acceptance.

A Fakequity blog post wouldn’t be complete without a racial equity analysis. So here is a little taste of what societal racism looked like and sounded like in 1996. The O.J. Simpson trial had just ended in an acquittal a few months earlier in October 1995. Hilary Clinton’s infamous speech where she talked about “certain kids as super-predators” happened in 1996. She made the comment in reference to Black urban kids to justify “three strikes.” A referendum to end affirmative action passed in California. Over 30 Black Churches were burned down in nine different states. It was also the year of the “Hollywood Blackout” at the Academy Awards. People magazine featured a story announcing of the 166 Oscar nominees, only one was black. Yes, this happened in 1996 too (and most years before and after), even before Twitter and 2016 trending #OscarsSoWhite.

As for looking at the intersection of sexual orientation and racism in 1996, I couldn’t find much reference to gay people of color, except for a few academic articles. It’s as if we didn’t exist. Which is strange because now I know plenty of gay people of color who were around in 1996. The invisibility of our experiences in how and what we remember about homophobia and racism speaks loudly.

The 1996 LGBTQIA Context Still Exists in 2016
I am aware that Seattle’s Pride parade is a bubble, although an expanding bubble. I know that we still have work to do gaining acceptance and full rights in our society. This is particularly true in places, communities, and organizations that still feel like that 1996 context. In fact, that 1996 context is everywhere. Here are a few places that come to mind:

  • In white dominated LGBTIA space – Too many LGBTQIA spaces are full of whiteness. Too many spaces are disproportionately (and often, unintentionally) focused on addressing LGBTQIA issues in white communities and for white people. The voices, perspectives, and experiences of LGBTQIA people of color are missing, silenced, or ignored. We need White individual and organizational allies to no longer tolerate these spaces. We need you to direct resources to the amazing things that are happening in Queer POC spaces.
  • In many communities of color – As a queer person of color, I know talking about relationships (besides persistent questions about marriage to someone of the opposite sex), much less sexual orientation can be taboo in many communities. There are also cultural issues upholding silence around homosexuality. This is often complicated by societal pressures to assimilate to white norms and give up aspects of our culture. But we need to explicitly address the messages that are putting our cultural identities at odds with being gay. We need to be talking about the mass shootings in Orlando at a gay club, and the disproportionate impact the Latinx and Muslim communities with our families. We can’t avoid addressing the fact that in the words of Alan Palaez Lopex, “It’s not safe to be a queer person of color in America.” This is especially true for transgender people of color.
  • In the anti-transgender movement – This is happening everywhere. From the recent attackon a transgender man on Capitol Hill in Seattle, to the waste of resources and energy on anti-transgender initiatives such as Washington’s I-1515. As a community and country we should really be directing our resources and energy to fighting the fact that according to a 2013 national report “More than two thirds of the homicide victims were transgender women, while 67% of victims of homicide were transgender women of color… This data follows a multi-year trend where the victims of fatal hate violence are overwhelmingly transgender women, and in particular transgender women of color”

What are you going to do today? Do you want to be a leader or a follower?
Ten and twenty years from now what do you want to say you were doing to advance social justice causes. Do you want to say you were marching and working with communities of color or do you want to say you were on the sidelines?

Recently Erin told me a story about how Starbucks failed #RaceTogether campaign makes other Fortune 500 companies leery about boldly leading on racial equity. Starbucks took a risk and it didn’t work, but doesn’t mean they and others shouldn’t continue to push for social justice causes and examine and speak out about racism. Do they want to be on the sidelines or do they want to be leaders? The same conversation people were having in 1996 about being seen in the Pride Parade.

Posted by Heidi Schillinger