By John Stender-Custer
It’s that time of year again. June means that it is Pride Month. I’m proud every day, but having a designated month set aside to celebrate and reflect upon that pride is a gift. Pride 2020 has given me the gift of a deeper understanding of pride, privilege, and place.
My husband and I have been marching in pride parades with our Episcopal church contingents for a decade. It is a gift for us to walk side-by-side down Des Moines’ Grand Avenue, as I push our toddler twins in their stroller, and we wave at the thousands of supporters who have shown up to celebrate inclusion, diversity, and difference. It is a sight to behold. But we are also aware that there is an element of privilege to be able to cancel a parade during a pandemic so that our family can stay home, safe and sound.
Just as Pride parades were canceled all over the country, Black Lives Matter protests rose up and marched for justice from coast to coast. While I sat in the safety of my home ordering groceries from Instacart and home goods from Amazon, thousands of people took to the streets to say enough is enough. The protestors on my television were willing to risk their health to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and for so many other people of color whose names we know well and for those whose names we don’t know at all. I’m embarrassed to say that my family’s contribution to this national outcry amounted to a lot of armchair slacktivism.
There is a meme that gets passed around that goes something like this: “If you ever wondered what you would be doing during slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, you are doing it now.” It looks like my house would not have been a stop on the Underground Railroad and it seems I would not have been walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But I am proud of the abolitionists, and I am proud of the Freedom Riders, and I am proud of all of you marching for black lives. Thank you all for expanding my understanding and definition of pride.
If it is a gift to march peacefully in a pride parade, the women of color to thank for that gift are the women that led our struggle at the Stonewall Inn riots in June of 1969. Stormé DeLarverie, the Rosa Parks of the gay community, thank you. Marsha P. Johnson, trans woman and a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, thank you. Sylvia Rivera, trans woman and co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, thank you. It is a privilege to know that the rather ordinary life that I lead was, in large part, made possible because of your extraordinary actions.
The Stonewall Riots took place in a social climate that was deeply anti-queer, but because of the tireless work of activists like Stormé, Marsha, and Sylvia, the society that we live in today is much more affirming of the lives of LGBTQ people. The Black Lives Matter protests of today are taking place when both police brutality and climate change are having a disproportionate impact on communities of color than they are having on the rest of the country. It is my prayer that the more that we listen to black voices and devote ourselves to the truth that black lives matter, the more likely it will be that we can all become committed to the public policy changes that are needed to destroy systemic racism.
When this pandemic is over and I’m marching in a Pride parade again, I will still celebrate inclusion, diversity, and difference, but pride of place in my thoughts will be the celebration of the strength, fortitude, and resolve that I’ve seen in the faces that are chanting “I can’t breathe.” Your movement has created a beautiful intergenerational, culturally, and racially diverse community of changemakers. Who knows, maybe someday my own children will move out of their stroller and walk on their own two feet by your side. Thank you for creating a place for them and for everyone who seeks to build a better future. The protests over the last few weeks have given me a better understanding of what it really means to have pride. After all, the first Pride was a riot.
John Stender-Custer is an Iowa Interfaith Power & Light board member and a 7th generation Iowan who lives with his husband and twins in Des Moines. He grew up on his family farm in Western Iowa and often returns to Cass County.