‘We’re very fearful’: Pride organizers prepare for the worst as they gear up for June festivals

An increase in anti-LGBTQ2S+ hate has forced some events to cancel, while others hire more security and take up emergency training 

Pride organizers from Toronto to New York and St. Petersburg, Florida, are worried but defiant as they beef up security and emergency training to prepare for festival season, in a year marred by attacks on LGBTQ2S+ communities. 

Many are on edge as anti-LGBTQ2S+ rhetoric has escalated over the last year, with protests against drag performances, trans rights and school inclusivity policies taking place across North America. The hostile atmosphere has fostered violent attacks and, in the U.S., culminated in a litany of regressive legislation. 

“The threat isn’t existential. It is very real, it is comprehensive in its impact. And we have to be vigilant, period,” says NYC Pride executive director Sandra Pérez.

“You need only to look at what’s been happening with the drag community to see that there are segments of the population that feel entitled and emboldened to inflict harm and attack our community.”

U.S. legislators have introduced 490 anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills as of May 23 this year, more than doubling the previous year’s record, according to the ACLU. The number of anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills has increased significantly each year since 2019. 

At least 40 bills targeting drag performances have been introduced this year, following the lead of Tennessee’s Bill 3, which banned “adult cabaret performances” in public or in front of children. GLAAD has tracked at least 166 incidents of protests and threats targeting drag events since early 2022, “​​with a sharp uptick beginning in Pride season 2022 and continuing through the midterm election cycle.” Last October, a donut shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was firebombed after hosting a drag event and armed members of an extremist militia group protested a Christmas drag show in San Antonio, Texas. 

Dozens of “forced outing” bills have been introduced, which would require teachers to notify parents when a student starts using a different name or pronouns, while at least 10 bills banning gender-affirming care for trans youth have already been signed into law, according to CNN. Numbers from the Human Rights Campaign show three in 10 trans youth aged 13 to 17 live in states that have passed gender-affirming care bans, and an additional 13.6 percent live in states that are considering restrictions on gender-affirming care. The campaign has counted the deaths of at least 11 trans and gender nonconforming people in the U.S. through violence so far in this year, while a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post in 2022 found one in four trans adults say they have been physically attacked—a rate that is highest for trans people of colour.

 

NYC Pride’s team of 1,500 volunteers is working with the NYC Anti-Violence Project on de-escalation training and handling emergency situations in preparation for the festival, where 2.5 million people are expected to march through the streets of Manhattan on June 25.

The cost of hiring private security for the event, meanwhile, has gone up “exponentially” since the pandemic, Pérez says, as has liability insurance, owing to incidents of death and violence at music festivals unrelated to Pride. 

“I have heard that from other Prides as well, that they’re getting in quotes that were triple or quadruple,” Pérez says. 

North of the border, Pride Toronto executive director Sherwin Modeste says liability insurance for his city’s festival has more than tripled, from $67,000 last year to $269,000 in 2023, despite not having made any recent claims. 

Pride Toronto introduced bag checks in 2022, after noting an increase in anti-LGBTQ2S+ rhetoric in the two years the festival was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, he says some artists have told him they are no longer comfortable performing at the festival that draws close to two million people annually. 

“We’re fearful because the attacks are real,” Modeste says.

“People are being attacked weekly in Canada, in Ontario. And we’re very fearful because, whereas a lot of the events that have been attacked have been in private spaces—in libraries, in clubs, in schools—Prides are happening in an open space. And the fear is, who would stop them?” 

Hate crimes based on sexual orientation that were reported to police rose 64 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent numbers. From Modeste’s perspective, the hate has worsened since 2021. On May’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, federal lawmakers issued statements concerning an increase in hate and violence directed at LGBTQ2S+ Canadians, while advocacy group Momentum urged the government to take action on a “staggering rise” in hate. 

Pride Toronto is looking to queer-owned, or at least queer-friendly security companies for extra protection this year, and Modeste has met with other Pride organizations across the country to discuss safety and security plans. Pride Toronto is spending much of its time in the lead-up to the festival, which runs through June, working on safety procedures and doing “constant drills” preparing for worst-case scenarios. 

Modeste says he finds the situation especially upsetting as an immigrant to Canada who had always felt it was a safe country in which to be gay.

“It’s really, really sad,” he says. “Could you imagine someone having to be afraid to come out here in Toronto, one of the largest Prides in the world?”

The hostility has reached a more urgent level in the U.S., especially in Republican-controlled states that have signed new anti-LGBTQ2s+ policies into law. 

For some smaller festivals without the resources to bolster security, the legislation has proven too much to fight. At least three Florida Pride organizations cancelled their events after Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed a string of anti-LGBTQ2s+ bills in May. The bills included a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, a requirement to use the bathroom that aligns with gender assigned at birth, an expanded “Don’t Say Gay” education law that restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation and a ban on minors attending “adult live performances”—a definition that includes “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts” and is thought to target drag queens. 

Tampa Pride cancelled its annual Pride on the River event, which usually draws about 20,000 people for a boat parade, drag brunches and other performances. Organizer Carrie West told the Tampa Bay Times that the timing of DeSantis’s bills amounts to bullying, and she didn’t want to take any chances.

“It’s not fair for the kids. It’s not fair for the adults or for anybody,” she said. “We’re very concerned about what’s happening in the state.”

St. Cloud also cancelled its annual event, writing in a Facebook post that the new laws have “created a climate of fear and hostility for LGBTQ2S+ people … [that] … would put our community at risk.” The Pride Alliance of the Treasure Coast cancelled its Port St. Lucie Pride march, citing similar concerns. “We hope that everyone understands that this is definitely not what we wanted at all,” the alliance wrote in a statement quoted by the Associated Press

But Florida’s biggest Pride festival in St. Petersburg is pushing forward with a full slate of entertainment, including public drag performances. St. Pete Pride board president Tiffany Freisberg says it’s essential for the community to have a place to gather to feel safe and included. 

“We’re not going to be a feather in the cap of someone who thinks that they’ve achieved something by shutting down Florida’s largest Pride,” she says. 

Freisberg says some sponsors have dropped out of the festival, worried it would hurt their business, while new ones have stepped up.

St. Pete Pride expects about 200,000 people for its June 24 march and 310,000 in total for events throughout the month. Freisberg says organizers always take safety and security very seriously, but unlike many major Pride events, they have police on site. Freisberg says St. Pete Pride has a positive relationship with local police and relies heavily on their support. 

“I think a lot of the legislative attacks and a lot of the anti-queer rhetoric that we hear is meant to instil fear and cause a lot of angst within our community. And to be able to come together and celebrate each other is really important for us. I don’t think that there has been a moment in our history where queer joy was able to be fully squashed.”

In another red southern state, Oklahoma City Pride Alliance will go forward June 23 to 25 with increased private security and emergency preparedness training, according to president Kylan Durant. 

“We took a Stop the Bleed class just in case something catastrophic happens. We have plans to take some CPR classes, mass shooter training classes, those kinds of things. We are increasing some fencing for backstage this year to protect our entertainment. We’ve taken a lot of measures this year to make sure that everyone stays safe,” Durant says. 

“Our team hates that we have to have these conversations, but they know it’s super important in order for us to continue to have a safe and enjoyable festival.”

But in the darkness, Pride organizers are also finding renewed motivation to stand up and fight. 

Durant says the pushback against LGBTQ2S+ rights makes Pride events more important than ever. Oklahoma City Pride’s theme this year is Queer Joy: The Resistance, hearkening to the strength and resilience that motivated LGBTQ2S+ communities decades ago, in the protests of the civil rights era. 

“In a time where we’re told that we shouldn’t do or be or live our authentic selves, those moments of queer joy are really, really hard to find,” he says. 

“I think a lot of the legislative attacks and a lot of the anti-queer rhetoric that we hear is meant to instil fear and cause a lot of angst within our community. And to be able to come together and celebrate each other is really important for us. I don’t think that there has been a moment in our history where queer joy was able to be fully squashed.”

The Center on Colfax runs Denver Pride from June 24 to 25, in a liberal enclave inside a purple state with the country’s first openly gay governor, surrounded by red states. The centre’s CEO, Rex Fuller, says Denver Pride attracts a large out-of-state contingent, and will make a statement this year by commemorating the International Court System of Drag Queens’ 50th anniversary, honouring a local youth group that works with trans youth, and honouring the survivors of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, where a gunman killed five and wounded 25 more at an LGBTQ2S+ nightclub last November. 

Fierté Canada Pride, the umbrella organization for Pride festivals across Canada, has established an anti-hate working group to work with communities and government officials to combat anti-LGBTQ2S hate. 

Montreal Pride executive director Simon Gamache says his festival is expanding from seven to 11 days this August, and not making any specific changes in response to the hostile climate. While he says a small percentage of people on the political right are causing problems, the general population is more intrigued than ever to understand what drag artists are and what Montreal Pride does. 

“Everybody’s confused. [The backlash] is totally nonsensical, it’s idiotic. But we have to deal with it,” he says. 

Pérez says the rise in anti-LGBTQ2S+ sentiment has, in many ways, reminded people of the origins of Pride as a protest movement. 

While festivals in recent years have sometimes been “cast as being frivolous or just a celebration,” she says it’s important to remember they rose from a need to be seen and a demand to be treated equitably. 

Pérez says backing down is not an alternative. 

Back in New York, NYC Pride has made Strength in Solidarity its 2023 theme. 

“This is the time to really link arms, be proud of who we are, hold open these spaces that we fought for and not be silent,” she says. 

Perez says it’s more important than ever to stand up for Black and brown trans women in particular, who are the most marginalized within the LGBTQ2S+ community. “We see young people being impacted by laws that really decimated their bodily autonomy and are forcing parents to move from states where they are being threatened with the removal of their children. This is the depth of the issue. It’s not just about a march.”

Kevin Maimann headshot

Kevin Maimann is a freelance journalist based in Alberta who has covered a broad range of topics for VICE, the Toronto Star and others.

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