By Steve Taylor
There was a deep and unpleasant irony that the year when we ought to have celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the first Prides, most of us, instead, were locked down to try and stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic.
Within four months of the pandemic’s emergence, more than 500 Prides globally had cancelled or postponed their traditional summer march or parade. By the end of 2020, the number of affected Prides had passed one thousand – equivalent to more than 80% of Prides worldwide.
But the pandemic had an unintended positive impact, too. The activists and community volunteers who organise Prides are nothing if not resilient. Recognising their Pride’s essential role in bringing their LGBTI+ community together, most Prides reassessed their resources and capacity and pivoted to deliver online events not only in their usual Pride period, but throughout the year.
Global Pride, led by the European Pride Organisers Association alongside its international partners including InterPride, CSD Deutschland, Svenska Pride and members including Copenhagen Pride and Malmö Pride, created in just three months a 27-hour online Pride event which attracted an audience of 57 million people in more than 160 countries, in many cases reaching people who could never attend a Pride.
And so, in the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on the Pride movement, many have asked if the future of Pride activism is digital rather than ‘in real life’. The sheer brilliance and ingenuity of Pride organisers’ responses to the pandemic showed that Pride can and should have an online model.
Those people who could never attend an in-person Pride – because they live in some areas of the Middle East or Africa, for example, or because they are not out to parents or friends – could participate in Pride in 2020, and we must ensure that they can attend Pride in 2021 and beyond. But digital events can only ever be a part of Pride in the future.
From the first Pride in 1970 to the last pre-pandemic Prides, the visibility of these marches and parades has been their hallmark. By taking over the streets, by stopping the traffic, by sheer bloody-minded getting-in-the-way, Pride has provided a visibility and presence to the LGBTI+ community that cannot be ignored. And it is not coincidence that almost all the advances in LGBTI+ equality and human rights have taken place in the half-century since we and our queer ancestors took to the streets to demand change.
Digital Pride events cannot have an equivalent impact. Short of hacking international systems, we cannot disrupt and protest online as we can on the streets; as Canadian artist Petra Collins says, ‘hashtag activism is a catalyst, but things have to actually happen in real life’. Social media and other online platforms have created a whole new generation of digital activists and their contributions and actions are valuable and essential. But we have to link the digital with the actual.
We only need to look across to Poland to see the importance of the dual approach. The situation for LGBTI+ people in Poland at the end of 2019 was desperate. Far right and nationalist groups were encouraged by government to attack – ideologically and physically – LGBTI+ people. Some activists were detained. Dozens of municipalities declared themselves ‘LGBT Free Zones’. Some mayors attempted to ban Pride events.
The European Pride Organisers Association corralled financial support from Prides across Europe – including Copenhagen Pride – to help support Pride organizers in Poland. The support was put on hold because most Prides in Poland didn’t take place in 2020. But LGBTI+ activism continued, and in June the world’s eyes were focused on images from various Polish cities as police cracked down yet again on LGBTI+ people. With the media’s attention elsewhere, it was social media – and especially individual activists like Bart Staszewski and Alicja Sienkiewicz and groups like Stop Bzdurom – that showed the world what was happening.
Despite this online attention, the situation in Poland remains critical and we look ahead to 2021 with the hope that LGBTI+ people can take to the streets with some comfort in the knowledge that more people than ever are aware of their plight. They will march and protest and the role for the rest of us, and for Prides, is to amplify their voices and their stories. We can help their ‘hashtag activism’ reach more people and encourage more people to become activists – whether in their armchair or marching in the streets. And critically, we can reach back to activists in Poland and show them that we care, and that we are by their side.
The future of Pride has to be a thoughtful blend of real life and digital events, just as we are planning for WorldPride at Copenhagen 2021. Real life because we need to get in the way, disrupt and be visible. Digital because we can reach people who can’t be with us in real life and show them that they have a loving community by their side, wherever they are and whatever their circumstance.
Steve Taylor is Director of Communications for Copenhagen 2021, and a board member of the European Pride Organisers Association.