For LGBTQ+ Pride Parties and Events, 2021 is a Year of Transition

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A still from the film 'Queer Isolation' directed by Jordana Valerie Allen-Shim, screening online this year at the Queer Women of Color Film Festival on June 12.  (Courtesy of Jordana Valerie Allen-Shim)

“T

hings have changed.” These were the resigned words of Scott Peterson, general manager of San Francisco’s leather and cruise bar Powerhouse.

It’s been nearly two years since Peterson and his patrons have been able to celebrate Pride in proper style, with cruising, a wet underwear contest and, of course, lots of dancing and mingling. 

Although Governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan to remove most COVID restrictions on June 15, Peterson was wary and decided not to plan a big event. Several uncertainties hung in the air: Would Pride celebrants be ready to party in a crowded space after a year of distancing? And would tourism return to San Francisco? Then there were masks—after suggesting that California will lift its mask mandate on June 15, the governor clarified that may not be the case for all indoor activities. That left Peterson hesitant. “It would be nice to see everybody smile,” he said, adding, “I’m not even sure if we’ll be able to do the Folsom Street Fair in September.”

Over a year of the pandemic has left its mark on Powerhouse and its manager. The bar is weighed down by a sizable debt, and requirements like table service and masking have dulled its dive bar vibe. Though businesses will be able to operate at 100% capacity come June 15, Peterson was reluctant to promise a party that might not come together.

While some in-person celebrations are still happening this year, 2021 will be a year of adjustment for LGBTQ+ artists, performers and events presenters, for whom June is typically the busiest month of the year.

People march during the San Francisco gay pride parade in San Francisco, California on June, 24, 2018
People march during the San Francisco gay pride parade in San Francisco, California on June, 24, 2018. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

The main Pride celebrations are going to be muted this year. Billed as “the best version of what is possible at this time,” there will be no centerpiece Pride parade, and the planned Pride Expo—which would have replaced the annual street celebration in the Civic Center—has been cancelled due to the uncertainty surrounding changing COVID restrictions. That leaves two film screenings in conjunction with the Frameline Film Festival at Oracle Park on June 11–12 and a Black Liberation Event in conjunction with the African American Art & Culture Complex on Juneteenth.

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Having a truncated Pride two years running is a loss for the LGBTQ+ community. Peterson knows this firsthand: growing up in Minnesota, he clung to spaces that were accepting of LGBTQ+ identities. Even though it’s now decades later and many things have changed, it’s still necessary to have spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals to feel safe, seen and understood. 

Peterson regards Pride as a unique time of year, when people just seem happier, the city gripped by a special energy. “It’s a celebration of who we are, and in San Francisco we can do it better than anywhere else,” he said.

Fortunately, some of that will still be happening in person. Community arts space SOMArts will offer a Pride Kickoff Party on June 23, highlighting the work of queer Black artists and featuring an art party with DJs on its back patio. Oakland Black Pride has a slate of in-person and virtual events planned throughout June, including a pub crawl and kickball tournament. On June 25, longtime Pride stalwart El Río will host an outdoor T for T party featuring trans and nonbinary DJs and performance artists, with seating limited to three two-hour time slots. And on June 26, it will also host an outdoor Mango SF party.

Devon Devine, co-founder and producer of Hard French—a raging dance party that styles itself as a home for all of those who feel left out of mainstream Pride—is embracing 2021 as a year of slow emergence after collective trauma. “The pandemic stripped us of our ability to celebrate and give our gift back to the community, which was awful,” he said. 

“It’s a healing thing. I’m in a state of re-entering the world, and that’s a lot to take on,” he added. “I’m relearning social skills, learning how to do an event again.”

For months, Devine and his collaborators were wracked by indecision, uncertain of whether or not they’d try to do a major Hard French for Pride, or even if they could with such little clarity on what COVID restrictions would look like in June. He’s been experimenting with doing smaller, COVID-safe events, but that didn’t feel right for Pride. “A seated party with masks just wouldn’t feel like a special Pride party,” he said, adding that “it all really goes back to the dancing. We should be hard cruising, but right now we’re hard sitting.”

Like Peterson and many others, Devine sees the Folsom Street Fair in September, or even events this coming fall and winter, as more natural points at which to rev up LGBTQ+ celebrations to full blast. “We’re lucky to have multiple queer high holy days,” he said. “Folsom is where my brain is at right now.” 

For event presenters like him, there are benefits in having more time to plan. “We’ve all been working in silos for a year,” Devine explained. “We haven’t been comparing notes or seeing each other, and we’ve had to be a lot more intentional about communication. We need time to re-establish those connections and learn to work together again.” That means waiting until 2022 for another Pride Hard French.

O

ther events are moving ahead at full steam—albeit virtually. Sean Dorsey, artistic director and founder of Fresh Meat Productions, a producer of performance art by trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, is celebrating 20 years of the Fresh Meat Festival with a bigger lineup than ever before. As living with COVID has become more a fact of life, Dorsey’s stance on virtual Pride changed.

“Last year, the idea of doing Pride online two years in a row would have generated a lot of sad-faced emojis,” he said. “I’ve been processing it a month at a time, and while it’s hard to miss connecting with communities for so long, I’m glad to still be investing in artists and commissioning new work.” An online event has its upsides: Dorsey said that this year Fresh Meat Productions will present more national artists than even before. The festival will run on two consecutive weekends, June 18–27, with a full festival program and free ticket registration available online on May 28.

The Queer Women of Color Film Festival has followed a similar COVID trajectory. A project of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, which came together in 2000, the festival is now in its 17th year. In 2020 it was able to pivot to an all-streaming schedule at the last minute, resulting in a worldwide audience several times larger than what it could host in its usual location, Brava Theater Center. 

“We were blown away,” said founding executive/artistic director Madeleine Lim, noting that last year’s festival was filled with “unexpected joys and thrills.”

This year the Queer Women of Color Film Festival is coming back stronger than ever with 19 new short films. The festival will run June 11–13, with free ticket registration required beforehand. Lim and her team are trying to compensate for inequities caused by COVID shutdowns. The festival has undertaken outreach efforts to make the films accessible to those who have been left behind by the digital divide—such as older viewers who may not have the technological know-how to view streaming content—a shortcoming that the festival was not able to address in the hasty 2020 pivot to streaming.

There will be other virtual spaces to celebrate. Drag festival Oaklash is happening mostly online through May 31, and, in addition to a dozens of performances, it includes panels about disability justice, housing and harm reduction. The Transgender District will host two Zoom panels on the state of trans visibility. The one on June 7 will focus on politics, policy and social justice, with panelists Sarah McBride, Andrea Jenkins, Chase Strangio, Honey Mahogany and Mariah Moore (moderated by Imara Jones); and one on June 16 will focus on Hollywood, with panelists TS Madison, Zoey Luna, Amiyah Scott, Ian Harvie and Nava Mau (moderated by Raquel Willis). The Frameline LGBT Film Festival will run for an unprecedented 18 days, June 10–27, with a mixture of over 50 outdoor, drive-in and streaming films.

With vaccination rates climbing and COVID infections falling, it’s tempting to hope for a Pride that resembles the pre-COVID normal, but it’s clear that this will be a transitional year—not quite 2019, but not 2020 either. For Devine, this story of misfortunate followed by slow, steady reemergence is typical of how the queer community deals with setbacks. He noted that queer creators have had a whole year to discover new strengths and new sides to their creativity. “I won a literary award this year,” said Devine, “and I never would have seen myself as a writer without the pandemic.” 

“I feel in my gut like we’re on the brink of a queer renaissance right now,” Devine said. June 2021 won’t be quite the Pride he’s hoping for, but it will be the beginning of something major. “Down the line, all these venues are going to be the sites of some amazing experiences.”

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Correction: This story listed the original location of the Queer Women of Color Film Festival as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In fact, it is the Brava Theater Center.