Cincinnati Pride; Progress or Privilege?
Today is my birthday, but I can’t say I’ve been looking forward to it – not because I’m upset about getting freakishly close to 30, but because of another event that is also falling on my birthday weekend; Cincinnati Pride. It might seem like having Pride on your birthday is a stroke of luck – I’m alive and I’m queer, what a perfect combo of days, right? Everyone is out and ready to party, everyone except me, that is. For me, my hometown Pride is never about partying, it’s about work, frustration, anger, and disappointment. Every year it’s the same… well, every year except for one.
My first Pride was a celebration. When I came out, I didn’t know anyone gay. I didn’t know anyone queer. I didn’t know anyone trans. I wanted to find community. I took to the streets in that tiny parade of a few hundred, walking past people peppered sidewalks wearing beads and blowing bubbles. I had no money for colorful boas or identity themed t-shirts, but I treasured the little rainbow flag I got for free.
Playing dress up at my 1st pride – not pictured: my 1990s jean jacket that I wore all day
[Image: Young JAC with brown hair wearing a white sailor hat and black sailor shirt, looking at the camera and saluting with two fingers – on of which has a batman band aid on it.]
All day I searched the crowds for someone like me, someone trans, someone radical, someone queer; I never found them. Years passed. I found that the city’s prejudice and conservatism that I had been fighting before I came out was not limited to the “straight” world after all; it was in the “gay” community too. Pride came and went, but my little rainbow flag had long since been put away. Trans and queer activism had become my whole life, day in day out – what was one day of partying going to solve? Still, every June I walked past the 10am drunks, down the trash covered street to the festival; performing show after show, volunteering along street after street, all for the sake of being “visible.” Always looking for that radical queer trans kid who was seeing Pride for the first time, searching for someone like them. I wanted to make sure they found me. I stood on that street; I got up on that stage to prove that there is a place for our people in this town. And though I continually said how I hated Pride, without fail at some point during the day it would hit me; “Yes, I love this community. I’m proud of my people, our history, our success thus far…” and then in a wave of corporate floats and wrong pronouns I’d come back to reality and resentment. But you know, it’s true what they say: you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
Last year, Cincinnati Pride, now called Cincinnati Equinox Pride to include the business organization that runs this community event in partnership with the Cincinnati Gay Chamber of Commerce, was a hot rocket mess of issues surrounding organizational transparency and equal representation, involvement, and inclusion of trans folks, people of color, radicals, queers, allies, and lower income communities. After many people joining in the fight for inclusion, Pride organizers continued on without any actions towards reconciliation or solutions of any kind – with the kind addition of repeated personal attacks, forgery of my name, impersonation of me over email, and literal conspiracy by what I considered to be my own people. I guess sometimes the price you pay for rocking the boat is that your comrades throw you overboard. After that, I kept my distance for a while, secretly hoping without hope that someone would email me, or anyone, about how to do things better this time around. It never happened. From my almost exiled position, I occasionally kept tabs on Pride; a queer woman patronizingly told she could be the chair’s “assistant,” a pride organizer stating that trans folks “didn’t really belong in pride anyway,” and tales about disorganization, complaints about a lack of volunteers (despite doing nothing to obtain or include folks), and the kicker, tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt.
This year Cincinnati Equinox Pride was joining some of its organizers with Northern Kentucky (NKY) Pride, a new festival celebrating its 2nd year. I figured it was a good thing to merge the Prides, since we are such an over-lapping community. NKY Pride is very welcoming of all folks and my drag troupe, The Black Mondays, had great experiences performing there last year. I hoped that NKY Pride would be a positive influence on Cincinnati Equinox Pride. I decided not to give up and take the high road. If this was going to be my city’s Pride, then I needed to try my best to do right by it. The Black Mondays contacted Cincinnati Equinox Pride organizers about getting involved and after several weeks of unanswered emails, we received notice that we would be contacted about when we were to perform. The troupe was excited. After not being welcomed (or allowed) to perform at Cincinnati Equinox Pride last year (part of the issue of inclusion), we could put it all that behind us and start fresh – though I privately said I’d believe it when I actually stepped foot on the Cincinnati Equinox Pride’s stage. As the dates flew by, we waited and waited to hear from Pride organizers, our emails again going unanswered. Finally, it turned out that we weren’t allowed to perform at Cincinnati Equinox Pride after all. Pride organizers stated that were trying to bring “national attention” to Cincinnati Equinox Pride and therefore wanted to reserve the stage for big names, putting smaller names at NKY Pride –I guess because NKY doesn’t need national attention… I explained that if Cincinnati Equinox Pride wanted big names (a totally problematic and inaccessible concept) then we were what they wanted. The Black Mondays are a nationally recognized troupe who performed all over the USA, that we had headlined at Columbus Pride for several years, had been solicited by America’s Got Talent, and that we were being featured in an HBO documentary. When they learned this (cause I guess when they said they knew all about us, they didn’t know all of that) they said that actually it was because we were so big that they wanted us at NKY, to try and build it up. When I explained that we were already invited by the NKY board to perform, but thanks for trying to hook us up. The issue at hand was Cincinnati. We were in this to help the community, and though we love NKY, our actual home is Cincinnati and we want to be in our hometown Pride. Finally, after a week of excruciatingly long, borderline begging emails, Cincinnati Equinox Pride stated that we could not perform because there was no room due to a high number of performers. Now, I don’t know how much you know about Midwestern drag and “LGB” performance/music, but this isn’t exactly a bustling scene out here. If you have multiple stages, and over 10 hours of performance time per stage, how is it possible to run out of room? Even if you gave 10 minutes per performer on both stages, that still would leave time for my mom to step up and sing off key.
As all this was going on, I reached out to my network of activists searching for help, support, a solution, anything. I found out from several trusted sources that the chair of Cincinnati Equinox Pride had made a statement about me in reference to my activist work about Pride last year. He said that he specially wanted to “avoid upsetting me.” I still don’t’ know how to feel about that, but if that isn’t having an impact I don’t know what is. But all JAC ego boosts aside, who gives a shit about upsetting me? Do well for the community because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re afraid of getting busted by furious radical activists with great hair. Afraid of a repeat of last year, I stressed to Pride organizers that our whole motivation for wanting to perform was to promote visibility of Cincinnati drag kings, queer, femme, and trans communities; that all we wanted was to make a space for our people. They assured me that it was “taken care of.” Call me an untrusting person, but I asked around to make sure. Turned out that not a single performer I knew, king or queen, was scheduled to be on the Cincinnati Equinox Pride stage. As of today the list of performers is still unavailable to the public. In the continuing conversation about performance, the Pride organizer mentioned a show that The Black Mondays are doing tonight which is being put on by another local artist to celebrate the Pride weekend, claiming it as a Pride event because it happened to take place during the Pride bar crawl. I called them on it saying that it was not a Pride event, and it wasn’t even listed on the Pride events calendar. The next day it was posted on the website, despite there being no true affiliation. Maybe it was another move to try to “avoid upsetting me.” It didn’t work.
Through further sleuthing it came out that despite Pride being in debt and their claims of awareness of the previous years issues of unequal (or non-existent) representations, once again Cincinnati Equinox Pride organizers decided to pay expensive “big name” performers (that no one actually knows because really, are there any real gay celebrities other than RuPaul? JK!) allowing no room for local performers – local performers who spend all year forging space in this city… We’re not a big enough deal to perform and be proud at our own Pride – though I’m positive that some local queens will get on stage since they know all the Pride organizers and… no further comment… And all these “big name” performers are brought in because Cincinnati Equinox Pride wants to get “national attention.” Now, can someone explain to me why a small city Pride needs national attention? The community doesn’t get anything out of it, unless we trying to prove to Chicago that we’re cool so we can eat lunch at the cool kid’s table. Direct from the mouths of Cincinnati Equinox Pride organizers (who are primarily businessmen from the Gay Chamber of Commerce) what they would get out of it is more traffic for their gay businesses; AKA money. But they can’t be that clever with money, considering they ran a non-profit event under a for-profit model and ended up in debt, not to mention losing a ton of sponsorship (including huge funders like Macys and Delta) due to this mismanagement. (yes, Cincinnati Equinox Pride, we do know about that.)
I bring all these issues about performance, not just because it sucks for us, but because of what it represents and proves: that Cincinnati Equinox Pride is a problematic, unqualified organization with goals not in line with what Pride is really about; community. What’s the point of a local community pride if the pride of the local community – its activists and its performers who work all year round for space, visibility, and rights are not recognized, included, or valued? If I wanted to celebrate someone else’s community, I would go to some other city’s Pride. At my hometown Pride I want to see my community, my people. And after another year of waiting, I’m still looking. Pride has no point if it is not centered on community. Pride is not about big names, fancy products, or money driven reputations. The first Pride was a riot. The first Pride was about human rights, about standing up and saying “This is who I am. I am not afraid. I am not ashamed.” To use a common community joke, size doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do and how you do it. What if Cincinnati Equinox Pride doesn’t impress other cities, is it a competition? Our people are homeless, jobless, without family support, without resources, without health care, without rights, but our “leaders” main concern is getting into pissing contests via normie, corporate crapfests. Sounds real productive.
It’s not that I don’t recognize that Cincinnati Equinox Pride organizers’ hard work – I do and I support them in trying to run Pride – a huge undertaking without a doubt, but good intentions only go so far. Our community continues to suffer and split because we do not support each other and we do not or hold each other accountable when we behave in unjust, problematic, or oppressive ways. Looking the other way or making excuses like “They mean well” or “You don’t know them like I do” is just being a part of the problem. The solution is not to kick people out of the community, not to scream at them, or to hate them, it is to say “You need to change, and I’m going to stand here and wait until you do.” It worked when my parents wanted me to eat my vegetables; Social justice to a community is like vegetables to your body – it gives you good stuff to grow strong and healthy and helps you get rid (aka poop out) all the stuff you don’t need or are better off without. (Sorry to get scatological, but it’s a good reference.) My parents made me eat vegetables because they love me. I want my community to be socially just and inclusive because I love my community, all of my community. Family is family, even when it’s a chosen one. And like any family, you won’t always get along, you won’t like everyone, but you’re still a family. We’re all different but in the end, we’re all in this together. And all of that warm fuzzy crap would work a lot better if the people in my communities who have more power than me, more privilege, would look back once in a while and remember where they came from. It wasn’t too long ago that they didn’t have it any better than I do now. I’m glad that the Cincinnati Equinox Pride folks are working hard to try and create something big and beautiful, but when you build something without the correct supports, it is bound for crumble and crushing everything beneath it.