COVID-19 safety and solidarity at Pride: A reflection

Betsy (center, right) and her partner Laura (left) at the NYC Dyke March, masked up in KN95s.

For years, Pride has been my favorite holiday. I love the crowds, the parties, the marches (not the parades with corporate floats, but the people-led marches), the explosions of anger and joy, the connections with my community.

COVID-era Pride has been more complicated than past years, as we layer safety measures onto the celebration. For me and many others I know in the LGBTQ+ community, Pride has become an opportunity to reflect on the importance of connecting this community and those calling for COVID-19 safety—disabled and immunocompromised people, those with Long COVID, and others at higher risk. This practice can be challenging, as others push for a return to the Pride we knew before the pandemic. But it’s not impossible, especially when we remember our values of inclusion and solidarity.

This year, one of the biggest Pride marches in New York City became emblematic of the tension between safety and a desire to party like it’s 2019. Called Queer Liberation March, this march originated in local organizers’ desires to protest on Pride, honoring the legacy of the original Stonewall protest. (Official NYC Pride, also called “Corporate Pride” by many, has become sanitized over time, to the point that you’re more likely to see corporate floats and politicians than community leaders.) So, Queer Liberation March offers an alternative; I’ve attended it since the first iteration in 2019, which commemorated 50 years since Stonewall.

A few weeks ago, Queer Liberation March garnered negative attention on social media due to an apparent disregard for COVID-19 safety. When a commenter on the march’s Instagram asked whether masks would be required at the march, an organizer with access to that Instagram account responded with a tirade dismissing the idea of any mask requirement, even suggesting that people who wanted to mask would not be welcome at the march. Obviously, many LGBTQ+ New Yorkers pushed back, expressing anger and disappointment that a Pride protest would exclude our community’s higher-risk members.

The march’s organizers listened and deliberated. Queer Liberation March has not had explicit COVID-19 safety protocols in 2020, 2021, or 2022, though the march partnered with local health organizations to offer easy vaccine access for people at Pride. (This year, organizations are offering sexual health resources, such as HIV testing and mpox vaccines.) But the community response suggested that, this year, the march had to do more to prioritize COVID-19 safety.

I actually reached out myself to Queer Liberation March’s organizers; I wasn’t acting as a journalist, but as a member of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a band that plays regularly at marches and rallies around the city, including past iterations of this march. Through conversations with a couple of the organizers, I shared resources on COVID-19 safety and walked through how my band approaches this topic. (You can read more about that on our website, though note that our data protocols are due for an update, and in this Science News article I wrote in 2021.)

Eventually, Queer Liberation March announced a safety policy. The march recommends that attendees mask up, along with testing before and after the event. Organizers are also coordinating mask-required sections at the front and back of the march, which will be protected by marshals equipped with extra masks to hand out. This policy is far from perfect; the “masking section” strategy in particular has garnered some criticism for essentially segregating higher-risk marchers from those who see COVID-19 safety as less of a priority.

Though it’s not perfect, I was personally glad to see these safety steps at one of NYC’s biggest Pride events. Another large march, the Dyke March (which took place yesterday), adopted similar strategies. When my partner and I attended the Dyke March, we masked up in KN95s and saw quite a few other attendees doing the same. One marshall offered to direct us to that march’s mask-required section. I also saw marshalls pushing wheelchairs for marchers who weren’t able to walk the full 40 blocks—another important step towards accessibility.

The Queer Liberation March is happening this afternoon. Around the time you read this post, I’ll probably be at the starting point, lining up with my band. So I can’t say yet how successful their COVID-19 safety policies will be. But I still wanted to highlight this march as an example, to show that 2023 is not too late to change course and adopt some safety measures. If NYC’s biggest (non-corporate) Pride marches can do it, no other organizers should have an excuse not to.

Solidarity is a wide tent. Pride is for all LGBTQ+ people, including those who are disabled, chronically ill, or simply can’t afford to miss work for two weeks. If a Pride event doesn’t include these groups, it isn’t a true Pride event. And inclusion is easier than you think. Many people will test if you ask them, or will mask for a few hours if you ask them—especially if you explain why it’s important, using the terms of their community: “We keep us safe.”

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