Earlier this month, I was on the Williamsburg Bridge, looking at the northern path of the East River. Eventually, it bends around Queens, and there, in a small widening, lies Rikers Island. Moments before, I was standing in Lower Manhattan at a rally held by activists demanding that New York answer for the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman of color who died while being held on that infamous island in June. Then, stepping onto the street in Brooklyn, I noticed something new. Three rainbow-colored words had been painted on the storefront window across from my apartment: “Love is Love.” Below it, a sandwich board advertised a sale on shoes.
Not including Polanco, whose specific cause of death has yet to be released, at least four Black trans women have been violently killed in the U.S. this June alone. Meanwhile, the LGBTQ community is expected not only to celebrate, but to buy shoes while doing it.
Pride today asks us to promote the acceptance of queerness behind police barricades and under corporate slogans, including that popular trio of words—“Love is Love”—that ultimately mean nothing. And over the years, mainstream marketability for the Pride parade has grown in equal measure to its descent from purpose. According to the Financial Times, in 2016, corporate sponsors supplied half of the multi-million dollar NYC Pride Parade budget. Many of those companies, as it turns out, also fund politicians who support anti-LGBTQ policies. Four million people are anticipated in 2019—the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots credited with starting the Gay Liberation Movement. If previous findings stay true, a quarter of those people will be straight.
Over the years, mainstream marketability for the Pride parade has grown in equal measure to its descent from purpose.
Ever more disillusioning, companies annually produce Pride-branded merchandise—a mammoth collection of commodities that treat Pride as if it were a Hallmark holiday established in 1969 to absolve white, straight, cisgender American guilt. This year, corporate Pride campaigns feel more aggressive and ubiquitous than ever. Even Listerine has joined the rainbow-branding frenzy.
Some proceeds of these products are given to LGBTQ organizations. None, however, appear to have contributed to the funeral fundraiser for Layleen Polanco. To my knowledge, no corporate sponsor of Pride has demanded that the New York City Department of Corrections be held accountable for its role in Polanco’s death, or the federal prison system at large for its participation in anti-Black trans violence across the U.S. There must not be a mass market for that cause, which seems peculiar, given that queer rebellion against State violence is how Pride began in the first place.
But there is a market for slogans that flatten LGBTQ experiences in the name of homogeneity and palatability. The ever-present “Love is Love” declaration is one in a mind-numbing torrent: Banana Republic’s “More Love,” Chipotle’s “Homo Estas?,” Burger King’s “We’re all the same inside” (which accompanied a gay sandwich that outraged the internet by reimagining the LGBT acronym as “Lettuce, Bacon, Guacamole, and Tomato”), and evenINC’s impressively hollow and ignorantly carefree “Don’t Worry, Just Sparkle”—a flagrant call for self-lobotomization.
Slogans that speak to acceptance and tolerance may resonate with cis, white queers. But they have never spoken to the issues faced by queer and trans people of color, and they couldn't even pretend to address an issue like the crisis of violence being endured by Black trans women today. Right now, those members of the LGBTQ community need action, not acceptance.
Since before the Gay Liberation Movement started, Black trans women have been being murdered, and they are still being murdered all the time. In 1992, the body of Marsha P. Johnson, who is often credited with being at the core of the Stonewall rebellion, was found floating in the Hudson River. In the U.S. last year, 26 trans people were known to have died by violence. In 2016, the Unerased project, led by trans journalist Meredith Talusan, analyzed seven years worth of data and found that 1 in every 2,600 young Black trans women are murdered, compared to 1 in 12,000 members of the general population within the same age range and 1 in 119,000 for the population as a whole. The numbers are appalling, but they represent just a fraction of the problem; experts are sure that many victims remain unidentified.
Love is not relevant to liberation without principled political action.
I haven’t gone to Pride in years, but I have gone to court. In lower Manhattan in 2016, I learned how proud Islan Nettles’s mother was of her. It was the trial of James Dixon, and I listened as the prosecution described how that young man threw Nettles, a Black trans woman, to the ground on a normal day in New York, and slammed her head into the sidewalk, over and over again. The local police station was across the street.
Like Johnson, love would not have saved Nettles. What Nettles needed was a world not conditioned to regard Black life and trans life as disposable. Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza did not need for the U.S. government to accept however she loved in her life. She needed it to end its terrorization of Black and Brown communities, the criminalization of race, poverty, and the work that trans women of color turn to for survival because of the State’s own manufactured class inequality and disenfranchisement. Love is not relevant to liberation without principled political action.
How could our foremothers have known that their own movement would betray them, its purpose replaced by an obsessive pursuit of tolerance?
Today's white-washed Pride parades and accompanying brand campaigns would have you believe that equality has been achieved. Why else would Black trans women like Laverne Cox and Indya Moore be themselves participating in branded Pride campaigns this year? It is undeniable that, done well, corporate collaboration with LGBTQ rights organizations can benefit the community. But wholly accepting the modern reductive message of Pride makes us blind to the fact that the mechanics of success in America are still so selective and precarious when it comes to Black trans women.
Cox and Moore must know this. Following Nettles’s death, Cox marched in protest with Nettles’s mother, using her position within the commercial mainstream to advance an urgent social justice agenda to end the cultural violence that terminated Nettles’s young life. And Moore spoke passionately at the rally for justice after the death of Layleen Polanco. After all, Moore and Polanco were both members of the legendary ballroom family, House of Xtravanganza, and Moore looked up to Polanco as a young girl. The truth that they know, and that our queer ancestors knew, is that any political aim to liberate LGBTQ Americans will fail unless it is centered on reforming social institutions and beliefs that discriminate on the basis of race and class, and not merely sexual orientation and gender identity.
The hope that Stonewall birthed lives on in at least one sect of the queer community. As the New York Times wrote this month, the Reclaim Pride Coalition “calls the Pride March an advertising showcase for floats sponsored by major corporations like Wells Fargo and T-Mobile that distract from the message of Stonewall.” The coalition rightfully demands that the LGBTQ movement today regain focus on issues impacting people of color, trans people, the criminalized, the impoverished, and homeless members of our community. Whether officially part of a collective or not, we should all join them in their demands.
It is true that the societal damnation of gay sexuality, trans identity, and more withholds love from our communities. I do not underestimate the significance of love; without it, we rot. By focusing only on sexuality, however, Pride’s primary forces—today, corporations—have transformed the radical agenda of gay liberation into a cultural quest for gay assimilation. So, although it may seem as if we have won the battle, we have been losing the war for decades.
True, love is love. But love is not enough.