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A Dream of Lasting Solidarity at the Dyke March

Marching this year was a reminder that the mainstream LGBT movement still needs to cement its commitment to anti-racism.

Josephine Livingstone

The march began soaked in the thrill of being outdoors, near the water, in Brooklyn Bridge Park: Sun bounced off skin, and glances were exchanged over bicycle handlebars. Held annually since 1993 in New York, San Francisco, and many other hotbeds of queer sedition, the Dyke March is politically to the left of mainstream Pride™, accepting no corporate sponsors and ordinarily requesting no permits. Each year, it brings together and celebrates the marginal, rebellious, and pathbreaking within queer culture, as elderly leather dykes walk alongside trans children and we stop traffic in raucous celebration of ourselves.

There would be little of the topless, trombone-playing debauchery of the usual march, this year. On its website, the Dyke March posted a statement explaining that they “believe that the ongoing protests against white supremacy and police brutality are the most important thing happening in the streets right now, and we cannot distract from that.” This year, therefore, the march would instead “be diverting our time, energy, and resources to protests being organized by Black activists in NYC.”

It made sense: Given the urgent protest movement roiling America this summer, we walked under the name “Break the Chains With Love,” on a new route through New York, led by activist and former Lesbian Avenger Valarie Walker. (The first Dyke March, in Washington D.C., was organized by the Lesbian Avengers, ACT UP, and the Los Angeles group Puss n’ Boots.)

Stigmatized as corrupting influences, unfit mothers, or barren threats, dykes, especially Black dykes, have long been at the razor’s edge of prejudice—see the “criminal lesbian” stereotype exploited in the sentencing of Black women—and the protest march adapted easily to 2020’s demands. “We are asking our dyke communities,” the organizers wrote, “to join us in fighting for Black lives; putting an end to police brutality; and destroying white supremacy together.” And so we did.

A question hovered over the Manhattan Bridge as we walked along it, calling the names of dead people over the water: Will the broader LGBT movement heed the call to commit to anti-racism, or is this alliance a temporary and partial one?

I can’t take some cross-section of queer protest sentiment across America today—nobody can—so I was stuck, like everybody else, trying to decode the tiny part of the march around me that I could actually see. As it was Juneteenth, there were many marches and actions to participate in, but the crowd was big and pretty mixed. The police presence was heavy, in contrast to most years. There also seemed (I’m not psychic) to be more white, cisgender men present than usual, but they were easily accounted for, between the professional photographers, those keen to lead chants and bang drums, and the dudes who looked like they’d just left another protest and then rushed to the nearest analog.

To the unfocused eye, this larger and whiter crowd might have looked diluted, as if merged with Black Lives Matter at the expense of its old specificity. The reality is more complicated. Although the Dyke March itself has long been connected with radical politics, the mainstream American LGBT movement has long treated police abolition (and the related, overlapping fields of harm reduction, trans rights, racism, and sex workers’ rights) as marginal, pushed to the side by the fight for marriage equality, and erasing the legacy of precisely the women whom marchers on Friday drew on cardboard to celebrate: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Kim Watson, CeCe McDonald.

Many of those older campaigns, which some radicals see as assimilationist, fractured after Obama granted their wish, all their strategic aims put in one basket.

On Friday, as the clouds pinkened over the river, the abolitionist agenda was front and center of the 2020 Dyke March, as if it magically always had been so. In one sense, the “magic” of the transformed march was simple dynamism, a response to changing priorities. Of all the queer protest marches I’ve been on, the Dyke March traditionally has one of the most visible commitments to radical politics, challenging everything from white supremacy to cissexist beauty norms, so perhaps this was simple historical synergy of the best kind: The legacy of the Lesbian Avengers x Black Lives Matter is a powerful combination.

At the same time, I could not shake the worry that this alliance might be temporary: The march is nowhere as big as Pride, so it’s nothing like proof of consensus. Only three years have passed since the Black Pride 4 were arrested while trying to hold a peaceful silent vigil in memory of Philando Castile at a Pride Parade in Columbus, Ohio. In a video published by Al Jazeera at the time, the TransOhio activist Wriply Bennett described how a predominantly white crowd “laughed and cheered” as she and Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton, and DeAndre Antonio Miles-Hercules were arrested.

What happened to those women on the sidelines? I honestly don’t know. White supremacy has been as much a part of the LGBTQIA movement—itself an unwieldy coalition of interests that cut across class, race, and gender lines—as any other institution. “Having a Pride parade that is predominantly white and then over-policed by a system of police that have been murdering Black folk in your city,” Bennett said in that video, “absolutely excludes Black and brown folk of color, trans folk, LGBTQIA folk from the Pride event—and from other events following.”

The Dyke March is not Pride, but it certainly counts as “events following.” Over the weekend, I reached out to two other protesters to share my anxieties. Julia, who asked that I not use her real name, a white transgirl who was at the front of the march, felt frustrated by the way marshals, distinguished by their running up ahead to block traffic, were “working with the cops” to keep the pace of the march slow and “literally pushing people off the roadway, physically restraining people from moving past the head of the march.” This kind of collaboration was “very distressing for a theoretically anti-cop protest,” she said and, for her, symbolized the impulse to “retain white respectability in order to maintain power over more marginalized groups, even when [they are] theoretically acting for the sake of them.”

Since it was Juneteenth, some people had better things to do entirely. Nancy, which is also not her real name, a Black clinical staffer at Planned Parenthood (which provides trans health services and was recently the site of an organized CEO ousting), felt turned off by the march’s name. “I feel suspicious of things that call upon love at this moment,” she said. Emotion can smooth over the work that needs to be done, and “there’s something about the idea of breaking the chains with love feels a little too much like 1990s multiculturalism”—the Benetton ad effect, if you will. After a run-in with a drum circle of mostly white women in the Village, she spent the evening relaxing outdoors with friends.

Nancy grew up in a student organizing group and sympathized with protesters suspicious of allies who appear to have come to the abolitionist movement overnight: “It’s a critical politic,” she said, “and it’s not one that a person necessarily comes to lightly.” There may be potential in these tenuous new coalitions, but whether people are committing to the long road of an abolitionist politic or just a slogan remains an open question in these early days. In an interview with NBC News in April, the organizer, educator, and curator Mariame Kaba insisted that history contains the lessons we need to learn. Looking back at movements around “domestic violence, and sexual violence in particular,” she said, you see how “the feminists of the 1960s and ’70s who were pushing for a more serious addressing of gender violence, particularly racialized gendered violence, were asking for the system to take that more seriously. But their solutions were decidedly noncarceral.”

Even back then, Kaba explained, “it was contested. Mostly, I would say radical lesbians as well as Black and brown women were saying: ‘We shouldn’t start taking funds from law enforcement for addressing these issues, because we’re gonna then be at the mercy of law enforcement, and as Black women, we’re not calling the cops in the same way that white women are because the cops end up harming us and our loved ones, which we don’t want to have happen.’” Abolition is not about removing accountability, Nancy pointed out, but about committing to transformative justice. “That transformation and the work towards it has to be sincere.” This is emotional and strategic labor, she emphasized.

Some of this history is dense, the new activists are young, and all barriers to entry are strategic losses for the movement. “We do not have the numbers that we currently need to take on the United States government and white supremacy,” Nancy said over the phone. “We’re going to need a lot more people if we’re actually going to win. And some of those people are going to have done harm.” Perhaps my suspicion of the overnight activists might be the most counterrevolutionary of all these mixed feelings.

Organizations like Decrim NY, the march for Black trans lives earlier this month, and other grassroots efforts are now forcing Black, brown, and queer abolitionist and liberatory frames into the mainstream, to meet the requirements explained by longtime activists like Kaba, Andrea Ritchie, and others. So there is a great deal of work left to be done, no matter the exultation a white dyke might let herself feel on a hot June night outdoors. I struggle sometimes with imagining the scale of our own demands, since the movement for Black lives is in a vertiginous and vulnerable moment of expansion, with disorientation affecting us all. The names we chant on the streets—Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade—evoke the specificity of individual faces and individual lives but in moral and political contexts—right versus wrong; police versus no police—of dizzying depth and dimensions. Facing up to complexity is the point of the exercise. The LGBTQIA-advocacy umbrella needs to reconfigure its priorities around justice from the inside out, taking the lead from the Black women who have always been at its vanguard, to address the problem of its amnesia around race and then step up to the conversation about abolition in full readiness.

Cameron Awkward-Rich wrote recently in The Paris Review, “It’s impossible to know what the other side of this will look like, how this unfolding situation will crystallize into a narratable event. Whether a stretched-out moment of insisting that black trans life matters will, in the end, matter.” He cited the extraordinary amount of money moving within the community, organized by regular people to pay for a funeral for Tony McDade, a survivor fund for Iyanna Dior, the Okra Project for Black trans sustenance. These are all actions done in the present tense, scrambling to meet present needs. But this project requires, to use Nancy’s word, sincerity, and a concept of the future that must be mind-bendingly enormous in order to contain the movement’s demands. The road to transformation will be longer than a midsummer evening’s walk across the river, but the wind that blew on Juneteenth has yet to die down.