For as long as I can remember, there’s been a photo on the piano in my parents’ house of my first-ever Pride parade. I don’t remember it being taken — I’d been born just ten months prior — but I can picture it with crystal clarity in my head right now: I’m wearing a red jumpsuit, mouth open mid-gurgle, framed by my parents’ beaming faces as they hold me rapturously towards the camera. Since that day, I’ve been to Toronto’s Pride celebrations every year of my life. What started as a family tradition came to define who I was.
Some of my earliest memories are set against the Technicolor backdrop and explosive sound of Toronto Pride. My dad — a kindergarten teacher — would park at his school and we’d walk down the tree-lined streets, hand-in-hand, watching the grey sidewalks bloom into colour as we neared the Village; I lost my first tooth at Pride after sinking my front teeth into a corn on the cob, and my dad distracted me from the pain by taking me to a drag show.
As time went on, Pride began to take on meaning for me beyond street food and music. I’d talk to people who’d been going to Pride for longer than my parents had been alive, or I’d watch couples just a little older than me dance together on the neon-soaked streets. And, as I neared my teens, I began to feel like Pride had an urgency — a seriousness — that I’d never recognized before. While I couldn’t quite articulate it yet, I began to realize that the parade was born from a community of people that needed it to survive like they needed oxygen. As I got older and slowly figured out where I fit into the queer community, I began to need that community, too.
I was hypnotized by Pride, probably in part because of how badly I needed it to be perfect; so many parts of being young and queer were hard, but the parade was something that was meant to be easy. And so, even as I grew up, broadened my political horizons, and learned words like intersectionality and appropriation and commodification, I was determined to keep Pride firmly detached from my capitalist critiques. It was unflappably, ineffably good, and I wanted it to stay that way.
Then, in 2016, when I was 15, Black Lives Matter mounted a protest during the Pride parade criticizing it for anti-Blackness, its erasure of people of colour, and its celebration of the police. It became impossible for me to detach my fantasy from reality anymore. I remember sitting stock-still on the sidewalk curb, my fingernails carving half-moons into my palms as I watched the activists call Pride out for what it had come to be: a whitewashed, commercialized, capitalist charade that did almost nothing to support or include the Black queer activists who made its existence possible. The first pride was a riot, they insisted, and I listened.
Over the next three years, Pride went from an indulgence to an obligation. Instead of being endeared by the rainbows on bank windows and city sidewalks, I rolled my eyes at the exploitation of my community’s suffering as a cheap marketing ploy. I read up on the history of Stonewall, on the AIDS crisis, of the Black trans women who died while fighting for our collective liberation, and I began to feel like an alien in the place that used to define what it meant for me to belong.
Those problems they were fighting — racism, transphobia, police brutality, government inaction — were never solved, and as Pride needled its way into the mainstream, it forgot why it became necessary in the first place. Finally, with those societal inequities suddenly thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19 and the international Black Lives Matter protests, we are being forced to remember. 2020, in all its terrible glory, stripped back the commercialism, bank sponsors, faux-positivity, and exclusion of Pride that I’d grown to resent; it laid bare the radical roots that I’d always felt running deep below the streets of the parade.
Queer culture was built on mutual aid, on intersectionality, on solidarity, and most of all, on the undying hope for something better. It was created by people who were killed by their government for the crime of living freely. It was a product of the wildest dreams of a people who had nothing except what they created for themselves.
The essence of Pride, the thing that I felt so viscerally before I ever knew how to express it, is that we are only alive because we have each other. And in these past months, we have all had to rely on each other. We’ve had to learn how to fight for people we don’t know. We’ve seen strangers give everything to help the people who need it, we’ve seen communities revitalized by their desire to keep each other afloat, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people so furious at a system that doesn’t care about them that they’ve burned cities to the ground in pursuit of something better.
Pride month hasn’t been cancelled, it’s been reborn: for the first time in my lifetime, we’re being given the chance to build a world where nobody has to pick one month of the year in which to belong.
The first Pride was a riot, and, finally, so is this one.