Pride in Washington has come a long way since local gay activists put together a one-time event to promote and celebrate lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender identity in 1972.
Those organizers pushed the boundaries in an age when gay sex was illegal and gay federal employees were fired for being gay — based on rationale that they were “perverts,” and therefore, security risks. They likely couldn’t have imagined the strides our country, or the world, would make with gay rights over the next 40 years.
But the purpose of the event hasn’t changed. “Every Pride is someone’s first Pride. When it’s your first Pride and you’re just coming out, you really need that mix of the political and celebratory,” says Chip Lewis, Capital Pride’s communications director.
Over the decades, however, a small demonstration has evolved into a spectacular slew of events drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors — not to mention hefty corporate sponsorships from mainstream companies and participation by traditionally conservative groups like the Boy Scouts of America.
Pride became an annual event in Washington starting in 1975, first led by community leaders like Deacon Maccubbin. For several years, LGBT-centric organizations like Whitman-Walker organized the event. In 2008, volunteers formed the Capital Pride Alliance to keep Pride traditions alive, as Whitman-Walker struggled financially.
Since its founding, Capital Pride has done more than just continue Washington’s lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender traditions. The organization and its volunteers have ushered in a new era of Pride in the District marked by broader attendance, new sponsors, more floats, parties, festival themes and a gala celebrating prominent supporters of gay rights, like this year’s honoree, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“For me what’s exciting is the continuing growth of excitement and energy around the event and what our community produces for Pride,” says Capital Pride Executive Director Ryan Bos. Chatting about this year’s celebration, his eyes light up, his fingers tap and he twirls the piece of candy in his mouth. (Bos keeps a jar full of Laffy Taffy, Dum Dums and other treats in his office at all times, FYI.)
Bos is particularly pumped for this year’s theme of “Flashback,” laughing as he describes how eager he is to see how the theme “manifests itself at the parade and opening party at Arena Stage.”
Capital Pride is planning for attendance in the hundreds of thousands for this June’s festivities. Parade highlights include color guards from the U.S. military and the Boy Scouts, and floats put on by several local schools and faith-based educational groups. Bos says, “We try to create a place for anyone who wants to participate.”
Lewis, a holdover from Whitman-Walker and the organization’s gay-history buff, notes the changing face of Pride sponsors. Lewis says, “A few years ago, our primary sponsors were beer and vodka companies like Budweiser and Absolut. Now there are a lot more banks.” In addition, Bos points out that Northrup Grumman, a major security and defense company, is sponsoring this year’s events in honor of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
Some have come to think Pride is just an excuse for massive partying, but Lewis disputes this, “Every time you bring the community together, you want to remind them that even though we’ve made progress, there’s still a lot that needs to be done.” He and Bos mention that transgender issues, LGBT homelessness, bullying, HIV and elderly people returning to the closet in assisted living are issues that still encumber the gay community.
“‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is the only LGBT issue that has been completely resolved nationwide,” states Lewis. That said, “When you bring people together who live every day under fear of discrimination, and bring them into a safe space, they’re going to want to have fun.”
Both Bos and Lewis see D.C.’s Pride celebrations reaching a larger audience than just the gay community. Bos says Pride in the District has become more than a celebration of gayness. “It’s not ‘I’m gay and I’m proud.’ It’s that ‘I’m happy for whoever you are and whatever you are,’ and there’s no need to label it.”
As for those who haven’t experienced Pride yet, for any number of reasons, Bos says, “Just come watch and you’ll be amazed by the sheer diversity of people in the community who are just excited to be who they are.”