Gay Pride in the Outer Boroughs
by Tony Phillips
High heels or platform sneaks? The perennial question of footwear is as important today as it was almost 40 years ago at the Stonewall Inn on that one fateful June night that jump-started the modern gay-rights movement. Today, as the Gay Pride celebration in Manhattan swells into a corporatized event, smaller, more grassroots Pride celebrations in the outer boroughs preserve the spirit of Stonewall. Staten Island–based performer Donna Maxon seriously considered her shoes before hitting the stage at the inaugural Gay Pride celebration on Midland Beach back in June 2005. She was happy her platform sneakers were keeping her above the infrequent patches of lawn. Soon enough, the Bette Midler impersonator was working her way through a set that included "I'm Beautiful, Damn It!" and "The Wind Beneath My Wings" for this largely Hispanic, lesbian, and quite receptive crowd.
At first blush, why is a middle-aged, married mother of two living deep in the wilds of southern Staten Island headlining a Gay Pride celebration? And why is her audience — lesbians of color with their flags of origin worn as headbands — typical in this, the whitest borough? Maxon insists that she's a potent symbol of gay pride on Staten Island. "Out here," she says, "there's no difference between me and my gay friends. I wear my colors on the outside: My hair is neon, my cleavage is out, and I'm often mistaken for a drag queen."
This year, Staten Island's upstart Pride event became less a parade and more a march — quite possibly an illegal one. Growing numbers and a rain-out shifted the festival from Midland Beach to the indoor Cromwell Center. But local police balked at the proposed downtown parade route and tried to railroad marchers down a desolate stretch of Front Street lacking any visibility. "We decided to take back the streets," Maxon says of the decision to defy police orders and march down Bay Street past a brand-new gay community center. In the end, the police came around and ended up sanctioning the Bay Street route.
Queens Pride, which took place on June 1, also emerged from police inaction. The first march, in 1993, was a response to the brutal murder of Jackson Heights resident Julio Rivera by members of a skinhead gang. The parade has since grown into a showcase for DIY ladies, from spangled drag queens to working moms. Whole families line the colorful parade route, which cuts through a main artery of Jackson Heights, to cheer their gay neighbors and enjoy the open-air fair. Unlike its Manhattan sister, Queens Pride isn't some mega-march run by and for the gays; rather, it's a real homegrown affair that unfolds throughout the largely Hispanic neighborhood in the city's most ethnically diverse borough.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the city's most powerful "out" politician, calls Queens Pride "uplifting and heart-warming. The outer-borough celebrations are incredibly diverse — they really have the flavor of the borough that they're in — but you go to Queens and the best thing about it isn't the parade, but all the folks from the Latino community lined up on the sidewalks in folding chairs. They come and sit to watch the bands and to support their neighbors. There's just such a great sense of community and coalition between the Latino and LGBT communities."
Quinn recalls one protester that first year who attempted to scrape the lavender line off 37th Avenue, the same street where Rivera was murdered. "Whenever I walk down that parade route," she says, "I see all these folks in the community — who I don't think are gay — watching, but I also wonder about that wacko out there trying to scrub the purple line off the street. I always think: 'What a big loser! This neighborhood loves this parade.' "
If Queens Pride is all about its namesake borough, then Brooklyn Pride could be subtitled "Ladies' Night": It's all about real girls. This evening march, which took place on June 14, snakes through Park Slope from the southwest corner of Prospect Park up Seventh Avenue, ending near Grand Army Plaza. Unlike the separatist way their Manhattan sisters have broken into a "Dyke March," Brooklyn Pride is girl power front and center, even as Park Slope changes from the sisters' Chelsea and the dykes continue their migration down Fourth Avenue.
"Park Slope, almost 20 years ago, was a pretty hard neighborhood," says Pansexual party promoter Red, whose Park Slope SPAM event comes right on the heels of Brooklyn Pride. "Dykes were living there, but it was on the outskirts. Since then, it's just become integrated — young people move in, and then, a few years later, there are strollers."
More than the other outer-borough events, Bronx Pride wrestles directly with the question of visibility. Returning for its third year on June 21 after a five-year hiatus, it's the baby Pride march and the biggest problem child. Perhaps that's appropriate for a borough with such a large, hidden LGBT youth population.
"Many people who live up here who are queer still live in the communities that they grew up in," Lisa Winters, executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, explains. "They're still connected to their families and religious communities. In Manhattan, there's a sea of anonymity, but in the Bronx, there are still very strong ties to home. We've come a long way, but the more visible we become, the easier it gets. We have to show people who we are."