Embracing Pride’s Revolutionary Spirit

Sarah Schetter

GO Speaks with Queer Liberation March Co-founder Jay W. Walker about racial justice, queer freedom, and the power of community

Since 2019, the Queer Liberation March has taken to the streets of Manhattan on Pride Sunday, combining activism and anti-corporate sentiment to demand equality for LGBTQ+ individuals and other marginalized people.

This year’s march is all about bodily autonomy, as state legislatures around the country move to restrict reproductive rights and access to healthcare for trans individuals. It’s officially titled “The Queer Liberation March for Trans and BIPOC Freedom, Reproductive Justice, and Bodily Autonomy.”

Photo by Leandro Justen and Sarah Schetter

“We see all of those things as linked,” says Jay W. Walker, Co-founder of the Reclaim Pride Coalition, which organizes the march. “That’s what the denial of healthcare to trans kids is; that’s what denial of abortion care to people with uteruses is. It’s all the same thing. It’s all about controlling our bodies.”

The Reclaim Pride Coalition has always been focused on activism and protest, but it hasn’t always been separate from Heritage of Pride’s official NYC Pride March. Organizers first started conceptualizing the Queer Liberation March in 2017.

“This was, of course, the first Pride after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President,” Walker tells GO. “We thought it was really important that, at the Pride March, resistance to his policies be featured very prominently and Heritage of Pride agreed.”

Heritage of Pride is a non-profit organization that plans New York City’s official Pride events, including the NYC Pride March. In 2017, Walker and hundreds of other activists formed a “resistance contingent” and marched together as the first group in the Heritage of Pride March.

“We got about 32 different organizations that were devoted to resisting Donald Trump,” Walker says. “That was a really powerful experience.”

Walker’s career in activism began in the 1990s as part of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), an HIV/AIDs service organization. He had moved to New York City in 1985, and attended his first Pride March in 1988.
Back in those days, we weren’t part of any group,” says Walker, who started the day watching from the sidewalk with his then-boyfriend, until, “we got off the sidewalk, in the street, and marched behind the gay authors. That’s how it was back then.”

Today, this wouldn’t be possible. The Heritage of Pride / NYC Pride March has grown exponentially over the past three decades. An estimated four million people attended their 2019 march, compared to around 150 thou- sand participants in 1989, The New York Times reports.

Now, The Heritage of Pride / NYC Pride requires participants to sign up ahead of time in order to be part of the Pride March. The route is blocked off with interlocking metal barricades, rather than wooden sawhorses, which were once so easily hopped by Walker and his friends.

“You could hop off of the march, get a drink for you and your friends, then get right back in. It was delineated, but it was porous, and anybody could join,” Walker recalls.

According to Walker, over the years, stricter regulations at the march have also come with a loss of activist spirit.

“There was this sort of thing that happened once marriage equality was achieved, where a large number of the mostly white, mostly middle and upper middle class gays just sort of said, ‘Okay, everything’s done,’” Walker says.

“All these intersectional identities within the LGBTQIA+ population were just sort of shunted to the side because well-off people were able to protect their assets and get married legally, and have that form of recognition.”

But the Reclaim Pride Coalition has tried to change that. The coalition officially formed over the summer of 2018, and decided to organize its own separate event, called the Queer Liberation March, for Pride of 2019.
There would be several key differences between this and the Heritage of Pride March. The Queer Liberation March would not separate marchers into different group and — just like the good old days — onlookers would be encouraged to join in from the sidelines.

“The absence of barricades along our route is key,” Walker says. “We are still saying ‘Off the sidewalks and into the streets,’ and every year, for the last three years, people join us off of the streets. That’s powerful stuff.”

It’s worth noting that the 2019 Queer Liberation March saw an estimated 45 thousand attendees, compared to Heritage of Pride’s 4 million. Pride in 2019 also coincided with WorldPride and Stonewall 50: the 50th
Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. For that first year, the Queer Liberation March went through all of the proper channels and procedures to permit their event, and everything went off without a hitch.

“It felt exciting and inspiring,” says Jasmina Sinanović, another member of the Reclaim Pride Coalition, who attended the march. Sinanović is originally from the Balkans. “I have seen activism there that was, and still is, trying to fight for very basic rights and recognition. So it was good to see an organization that was fighting for more political stuff,” they tell GO, of the 2019 Queer Liberation March.

Then, 2020 rolled around and everything changed. “George Floyd was murdered and our folks were out in the streets in those first protests,” Walker says.

Most Pride festivities had been officially canceled that year, thanks to COVID-19, but the Black Lives Matter demonstrations set a precedent for protesting in a post-COVID world.

“A bunch of us started calling each other and saying ‘Are you seeing all this marching? Are you seeing all these protests? Are you in them?’ COVID was not keeping people out of the streets for something as important as the entire racial reckoning,” Walker says.

That May, the organizers decided to move forward with a last-minute Queer Liberation March. They started at Foley Square, the center of the New York City court system, and called the event “the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality.”

I think it was important for all of us to make a statement that it’s not okay to have Black people murdered constantly, and that it’s not some- thing we as a community will stand for,” says Sinanović, who voted in favor of holding an in-person event in 2020. “If we need to put our bodies on the line to defend our friends and family, that’s what we need to do.”

This time, the march was unpermitted, and working with the NYPD seemed out of the question.

“The march was against police violence. They tried to reach out to us, and we said ‘No, we want nothing to do with you. We’re not planning anything with you,’” says Walker, though the event was not entirely with- out police presence.”

“They honored our wishes that they not encroach on our space,” Walker explains. “Their liaison came near the front of the march and that was fine. We just didn’t want tons of cops, making tons of people uncomfortable.”

In the few years since 2020 Pride, the Queer Liberation March has continued to shut out the NYPD, but not without incident. At the end of the 2020 march, five people were arrested in a police altercation. Again after the 2021 march, eight people were arrested, and an entire crowd pepper sprayed, by NYPD officers.
In the few years since 2020 Pride, the Queer Liberation March has continued to shut out the NYPD, but not without incident. At the end of the 2020 march, five people were arrested in a police altercation. Again after the 2021 march, eight people were arrested, and an entire crowd pepper sprayed, by NYPD officers.

That same year, Heritage of Pride faced controversy after announcing uni- formed officers would be banned from attending its marches through 2025. The ban would prohibit members of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) from participating in the event armed and in full uniform.

Organizers from the Queer Liberation March were not involved in Heritage of Pride’s new policies. “We never considered allowing cops to march in Queer Liberation March and certainly not in uniform,” says Walker, though he can certainly appreciate Heritage of Pride’s efforts to evolve.

“We’re giving them their space to grow. We see the decision about not al- lowing uniformed officers to march, and the fact that they seem to have stuck to it, as a positive,” Walker says. “They’re gonna go through their own process of growth. And we’re gonna do our thing.”

Photo by Sarah Schetter

According to Walker, the main “thing” that defines the Queer Liberation March is a commitment to bringing together the queer community.

“There aren’t tons of vehicles. There aren’t floats and stuff breaking up people. We’re all together,” Walker says.

“Yes, we’re going to have our signage and we’re going to have messaging, and we’re going to be focusing on the issues that the title of the march represents. But to me, it’s that real visceral sense of community. That is what separates the Queer Liberation March from a lot of the other Pride Parades and Pride Marches.”

This year, the Queer Liberation March for Trans and BIPOC Freedom, Re- productive Justice, and Bodily Autonomy will take place on Sunday, June 26 at 2pm. The march steps off at Foley Square.

For more info visit reclaimpridenyc.org.

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