I Went to a Corporate Pride Event and It Was Complicated
There’s a delicate balance between being critical of institutions and not shaming the LGBTQ+ people who derive joy or money from them.
All photos by the author.
This weekend, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here.
The West Side highway piers are resonant spaces. In high school, they were where we would pull over to take smoke breaks while running the mile in gym class, where we would sneak forties and watch the sun setting over New Jersey. Free, unsurveilled space is hard to find in the city but is crucial—especially for teens, queers, low income and homeless people, trans people, people of color, and anyone occupying a body that's disproportionately harassed by police and business owners. The Christopher Street pier had been such a space for New York's queer and trans youth of color for years, until gentrification and development in the West Village in the early aughts led to an increased police presence at the pier—as the cis white gayborhood flourished, homeless queer and trans youth of color were paying the price.
Although the police has historically been an enemy of LGBTQ+ people, homonormative advocacy efforts have led to a growing alliance between the NYPD and the LGBTQ+ community that seems to favor the white, affluent sub-section of that community. Police commissioner Bill Bratton has recently seized on the tragic shooting at Pulse in Orlando as a way to further promote this relationship, speaking at last Monday's vigil at Stonewall while refusing to apologize for the Stonewall police raid and subsequent anti-police riot that led to the creation of Pride in the first place. Pride weekend was heavily patrolled by armed officers supposedly there to protect the queer community in the wake of Orlando, a claim made garishly manifest in a rainbow-washed squad car that's been haunting my news feed and nightmares.
These contradictions and capitulations, along with the overwhelming corporatization, have led many in queer activist communities to resent the word "Pride," to feel anxious at the sight of rainbow iconography. Usually I bypass official Pride events altogether, opting to support independently organized parties and activist marches, but I'm curious to see what it's like for myself and also have student loans to pay, so I take an assignment to cover Teaze, a daytime outdoor dance party on Pier 25. Last year Ruby Rose headlined, this year it's Samantha Ronson, Mark Ronson's sister, with a guest appearance by early aughts pop singer Mya, best known for "Case of the Ex" and "Ghetto Superstar."
"Teaze," formerly "Rapture on the River" is one of a half-dozen official Pride parties put on by the Heritage of Pride nonprofit, which is also responsible for "Dance on the Pier," "Fantasy," "VIP Rooftop Party," "WE Party: Graffiti," and "Femme Fatale." Over a decade old, Teaze is the second-oldest official Pride event. In a very literal shoring up of the gender binary, it's billed as an "exclusive women's event," presumably to balance out the 30-year old Dance on the Pier, which, like the rest of Pride, has historically been more of a boy's club.
Arriving at Pier 25 on Saturday afternoon, I'm immediately greeted by a gaggle of male cops who are sizing up the people that approach the pier. Last time I saw this many cops on a West Side pier, they were busting up a Black Lives Matter march. The rainbow SUV is nowhere in sight.
Upon entry to the outdoor, river-front space, Teaze looks more or less like any big box festival, except the port-a-johns are purple. The Bud Lite tent reads, "We're here/ with beer/ get used to it." There's a Delta lounge, which obviously doesn't mention airport security's history of referring to trans bodies as "anomalies" and subjecting trans people to excessive screening. There's a Lyft tent, which obviously does not account for tech startups aren't pushing low-income queers out of their neighborhoods in the bay area. Volunteers are posted along the periphery, seemingly on vibe control: whenever I pause to look around or look down at my phone, a volunteer swoops in to offer me a strand of purple beads or a picture with the T-Mobile Unicorn.
For the most part though, people seem wildly happy to be here. It's near-impossible to go out as a group of women or as a femme couple without getting harassed by men, and Teaze fulfills its promise to be a space free of that, which might alone be worth the price of entry. Beyond that, for many, Pride events are still important sites of celebration, and for many LGBTQ+ individuals, their first chance to be among other queer people, to feel their existence being reflected back to them after being vilified and tormented in other spaces.
At 7:30, the sun is setting on the Hudson River, and a trio of gogo dancers dressed like they just bought out Rainbow are dancing to a mashup of "Panda" and Ginuwine's "Pony," with the Freedom Tower looming in the background. Their Lisa Frank club kid lqqks are honestly perfect. Ronson is playing a neutral yet totally satisfying outdoor daytime dance party DJ set—sassy radio pop from the 90s and early aughts which includes many of my top Spotify plays:,= Mary J Blige's "What's Love" into Eve and Gwen Stefani's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" with a bunch of Rihanna thrown in. It's all crowd pleasers and the crowd loves it.
Recalling a bizarre post-Pride encounter with a self-identified mostly straight girl covered head to toe in rainbow TD Bank gear a couple years ago, I figured the crowd at Tease would be similar: "love is love" cisgays here to air out their undercuts, dance to "Sorry," then go home and enthusiastically vote for Hillary. (Full disclosure: I too have an undercut and love dancing to "Sorry.") In his 1987 essay "Is the Rectum a Grave?" Leo Bersani famously wrote that "to want sex with another man is not exactly a credential for political radicalism," decoupling sexual preference from necessarily engaging in a subversively political way of life.
This, mostly, is why Pride events have always felt a bit hollow to me. I'm hesitant to call such a widely disparate group of people as ours a "community" based on one element of our identity alone. As evidenced by Bratton's recent rhetoric, in New York City in 2016, sexuality alone is rarely a determining factor for state-enforced persecution. Instead, LGBTQ+ identity is being assimilated into a complex matrix of legibility, homonationalism, and the "Gay Inc" nonprofit industrial complex.
On Friday, my friends and I attended the Trans Day of Action: an annual march organized by the Audre Lorde Project to call for social and economic justice for trans and gender nonconforming people—and especially TGNC people of color—and to honor Pride's roots as a site of activism and resistance. The march opened with points of unity that included calls for nondiscriminatory and affordable housing and health care, and an end to police brutality and was full of people I recognized from other rallies and parties. It felt more like a community because it was based on shared goals and practices—perhaps a tenuous connection but one that, in moments of recognition, made me feel seen and home. At Teaze I felt better than I would have at, say, Coachella, but I was ultimately still among strangers and felt a little like a college freshman, or like someone's third cousin at a family reunion.
Pride discourse makes me anxious. I am not Proud™ to be manipulated in support of increasing police militarization, pinkwashed imperialism, or in privileging the institution of marriage. The optimist in me is a little bummed by this because if we divorce the word from the branded content, I am proud of the queers in my life. I'm proud of them for getting out of bed in the morning, for making amazing art, for resisting easy categorization, for being critical, for taking to the streets, for organizing, for resisting the Islamophobia that the state tries to carry out in our name. I'm proud of them for being vulnerable and resilient and holding space for each other throughout a seemingly inexhaustible barrage of tragedy.
As night falls, Ronson plays perhaps the most archetypical queer dance party staple—Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody"—sending ripples of celebration through the crowd. There are femme4femme couples, butch4butch couples, amorphous groups, tight-knit groups, everyone in between. I pass a grey-haired woman twerking with a tomboy femme who I would 100% card at the bar, and my heart is glad. The crowd is much less white than many of much more "alt" parties I've been to, and much of the party's staff, as well as the team of the official Pride nonprofit, is made up of QPOC. The looks are mostly college quad casual meets Necessary Clothing, but I spot a couple of super sharp dandys that would make Bklyn Boihood proud.
Within queer circles that self-identify as radical, the fear of co-optation translates to shade thrown at people who go to official Pride events—the notion that Pride Inc is exclusively for straight people and assimilationists. But we need to find way to be critical of these institutions without necessarily shaming those who derive joy from them. Activist work is arduous and it needs joy to sustain itself. Plus, the supposed division between the mainstream and the underground is permeable. In a world where queerness still often renders people unemployable, Pride offers opportunities for revenue and employment for LGBTQ+ people, including many of the very people who nurture independent queer culture in the city during the rest of the year. (A portion of the ticket sales for Teaze is supposed to go to LGBTQ+ charities, although which are not specified.) A Job is A Job is A Job and Surviving Under Capitalism is Surviving Under Capitalism and Teaze is not quite my scene but I'm not here to demand purity because as much energy as I put into independent arts projects, I know that most underground parties sustain themselves by selling corporate alcohol, and I partially make a living by writing for corporate publications (such as this one).
Back on stage, there's a comedian trying to hype the crowd up for Mya, but instead catching a lot of side-eye because all of her jokes are about sleeping with men. She points to the rainbow spire of the Freedom Tower and yells, "The Freedom Tower is lit for us tonight! Give it up for security—the guards, and the concept in general."
The rainbow cop car rolls back through my mind, and with it a reminder that the post-9/11 sense of American security is made possible by an expansion of the surveillance state, by drone bombing countries that have their own LGBTQ+ populations, by increasing deportations and detentions, which disproportionately affect queer and trans immigrants. I linger long enough to hear "Case of the Ex," then head back to Brooklyn to catch the end of a friend's more homegrown Pride party.
I missed the main event but it's turned into a backyard hang—all warm summer vibes and chosen family. It's the kind of queer community that I feel comfortable calling by that name, one that encompasses a tangible support structure that persists after the party is over; it's the kind of community queers all over the world rely on for survival, the kind of community I feel lucky to have found. The celebration is bittersweet—many are still processing grief about Orlando, holding pain at the same time as gratitude for another night sharing space with chosen family.
I strike up a conversation with someone who works for an advocacy organization that works to secure affordable housing and food assistance for HIV-positive populations and to expand those protections to the rest of New York State. It's work that's feels so crucial and so endless that making space to relax seems impossible, even momentarily. But they're here now. And when I ask them what they're doing on Sunday, they say they're going to the parade.