The Rise, Fall, and Hopeful Return of Boston’s Pride Parade

The annual event became part of a massive rift among members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community. Now after a three-year hiatus, the street celebration is back. But with so much baggage, can it deliver?

Photo by MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

At first, the spectators standing at the intersection of Boylston and Charles were confused. They leaned into the parade barricade, their red Wells Fargo noisemakers in their hands, to get a better view of what all the commotion was. Then they saw it: Demonstrators in black impeding the most colorful parade in Boston. Holding placards and shouting, they wanted everyone to know that they were teed off. About violence against transgender women of color. About parade sponsorships from corporations that exploit vulnerable communities. About Pride’s predominately white board of directors. And about a parade route that ran through one of the most gentrified neighborhoods in the city instead of meeting the queer community where it lived.

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The 2015 protest, which came with the hashtag #wickedpissed—a biting take on Pride’s #wickedproud—marked an early fissure in Boston’s LGBTQ+ community over issues of inclusion. By 2020, when the country found itself in the midst of a profound racial reckoning, that fissure was well on its way to becoming a chasm. Within a year, accusations of racism and transphobia brought the board of Boston Pride, a once-revolutionary organization, to its knees.

In 2022, when it was finally safe enough to hold a parade again after two years of pandemic cancellations, the organization had disbanded, and there was no one left to make it happen. For the first time in more than five decades, Boston—home of GLAAD, Elaine Noble, the beginnings of the same-sex marriage movement, not to mention Barney Frank—was without a Pride organization at all.

Now, on June 10, after a three-year hiatus, the Pride parade is back. The group that organizes it has a new name, Boston Pride for the People, a new board (largely comprised of the harshest critics of the old guard), and has promised to build a more inclusive Pride organization and event. Yet underneath the glitter and rainbows, a question remains: Can this fledgling organization correct a long list of past errors and, at the same time, pull off one of the largest and most celebrated events in town?

Boston Pride Parade 2019 at City Hall Plaza. / Photo by Simone Migliori

More than a parade, the first official Boston Pride event was a protest. In 1971, 200 activists demanding visibility and reform protested at police headquarters, the State House, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The event concluded on the Common with a ceremonial closet smashing.

Over the next couple of decades, as the event grew, organizers confronted some of the same challenges they do today. At the time, transphobia was rampant and respectability politics were on full display as Pride leadership debated whether to allow drag queens to participate at all, says Joan Ilacqua of the History Project, a Boston-based nonprofit that maintains one of the largest independent LGBTQ+ archives in the United States. Organizers were also split on the same fundamental question it faced in 2015: Is Pride a parade or a protest?

It was, however, a vastly different era for LGBTQ+ people in Boston. Linda DeMarco, the former board president of Pride, remembers marching in her first Boston Pride parade during the 1980s in honor of a friend who had died of AIDS. At the time, the South End was an affordable neighborhood that queer activists called home. Many participants wore paper bags over their heads to protect their identities during the parade. DeMarco remembers two Eastern Airlines pilots who didn’t, and got fired for it. For this reason, she and her fellow organizers worked hard to secure the support of corporations and were thankful when they took a stand and marched alongside them. “It’s how things change. I understand they want to go back,” she says of those who criticized her leadership as overly corporate and out of touch with the event’s roots. “But to what?”

The AIDS Action Committee marches down Beacon Street during Boston’s 13th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Day, June 18, 1983. / Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Today, the hard-won support from corporations has become a source of criticism among younger members of the LGBTQ+ community. So, too, has the parade’s traditional route through the South End, now a wealthy and largely white enclave where few professional activists can afford to live. “I do think the changes in Pride, and its corporatization, mirror the changes in the city,” says Michael, a gay white cisgender man who asked to use his middle name to protect his privacy. “Boston lost a lot of its weird and a lot of its venues that were edgier and punkier. Other cities that have not become so boring still have that atmosphere that represents the oddballs, the weirdos, the people with quirks”—not the shirtless hunks gyrating on an Absolut Vodka float, he says, or the big banks boasting low interest rates with the tagline: “We support you!”

Those corporate sponsors, some of whom contributed to campaigns for Republican candidates who supported legislation targeting the transgender community, also came under fire during a protest in 2018 led by queer and trans people of color. The Pride board never directly addressed the issue.

The Pride Parade made its way along Beacon Street in Boston on Jun. 10, 2017. / Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Meanwhile, members of the Black community felt that the organization, which didn’t have a single Black board member at the time, was tone-deaf at best and racist at worst. In one workshop, Casey Dooley, the former chair of Boston Black Pride, says she remembers DeMarco commenting that Boston Pride helped Prides in third-world countries like Africa. “First of all, there are no third-world countries,” she says, referring to the antiquated term no longer used to describe developing nations. “Second of all, Africa is a continent.” (DeMarco did not immediately respond to a request to confirm that she said this.)

It wasn’t just language that upset Dooley, but priorities. Under the Pride organization, Black Pride was given a mere $5,000, which included funding for the Black Pride event the organization held in February for Black History Month. The event was so lacking in visibility that Boston activist Curtis Santos offered to develop a Black Pride for them from scratch, not knowing one already existed. When he eventually went on to launch his own independent nonprofit organization, which puts on the annual Urban Pride Weekend—a multiday festival held at the end of June with a pool party, a public health summit, and a soul picnic—he was able to fundraise enough for a $200,000 budget. “Pride had so much money; it just shows how they looked at us,” Santos says. “We were so low on their totem pole.”

Still, the simmering resentments within Boston Pride didn’t boil over until the organization released a statement on George Floyd’s murder in 2020. (See, “Boston Pride’s Response to the Black Lives Matter Protests Is a Shame,” from June 12, 2020.) Critics said that Boston Pride members didn’t consult their own Black and LatinX Pride colleagues before releasing it, and sent out their statement after striking from an earlier draft one crucial phrase: Black Lives Matter. They also said that Pride removed language about the systemic causes of police brutality and instead included something closer to the “bad apple” explanation of violent policing. What’s more, the letter said nothing of the steps that the organization would take to be more inclusive of Black LGBTQ+ voices, nor did it offer to focus on anti-racism work during the virtual Pride events that year, as many other cities’ organizations did. A resounding outcry ensued, leading the board to apologize and issue a new statement. It was too late, though: Roughly 80 percent of Pride’s volunteer workforce resigned in protest.

A new transgender flag was hoisted at the Mass. State House in Boston to honor the 50th anniversary of the Pride parade on June 12, 2020. The annual Pride Parade was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. / Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The critics weren’t done yet. In June 2020, thousands of LGBTQ+ community members and allies descended on Franklin Park for a vigil for Black trans lives. A few weeks later, protesters demanded that DeMarco and her board members resign immediately. Six months later, the board released information on its transformation advisory committee, which included diversity-related leadership positions. The board also hired a diversity consulting firm for $6,000, just a grand more than Black Pride’s annual budget.

Then things started to get ugly. Critics within the Pride community accused DeMarco and the board members of being white supremacists, even going so far, she says, as to call their employers to relay the message. DeMarco also claims she and her board members received death threats. And in a surprising—and chilling—development, a Straight Pride group offered to help the LGBTQ+ critics of Boston Pride protest an event slated for the fall, telling them: We’ll show you what a parade is.

It was all too much for DeMarco. In June 2021, she announced she was resigning. The vitriol, she says, felt dangerous to her. Earlier that same week, Trans Resistance MA, a nonprofit that advocates for transgender and queer people of color, and other groups convinced Boston’s mayoral candidates to attend their political forum instead of Boston Pride’s. It was just one of many calls to boycott Pride. In July, the organization dissolved.

It was a remarkable ending to a storied organization that had a huge impact on the city. Still, it wouldn’t be until the next June, when the pandemic subsided and cities across the country welcomed back their Pride celebrations after COVID-induced hiatuses, that most Bostonians took note. Because that month, there was no massive parade in the streets of the South End. There was no glitter, no dancing, no rainbows. There was no organization left to hold a parade.

The 2019 Boston Pride Parade and Festival / Photo by Simone Migliori

On a blustery afternoon in March, Adrianna Boulin surveyed Boston Common, trying to visualize where the festival tents might go. As the president of the new organization that rose from the ashes of Boston Pride, it is her job to bring the Pride parade back to Boston. The organization she helms—called Boston Pride for the People—has a board that includes many of the people who criticized its predecessor. As she looked around the Common months ahead of the big day, she said she felt energized by the prospect of holding Pride here: The simple act of imagining June 10 made her feel “like a little kid” again.

At the same time, she still has a very grownup job to do, and a tough one at that. After all, she’s been tasked with attending to the long-standing and as-of-yet unanswered calls for reform—including security without police; a Pride that focuses on community, not corporations; and a new parade route—while also ensuring the event is sufficiently funded and safe.

Much like politicians who come into office to discover how hard it is to fulfill promises made on the campaign trail, she and the other Boston Pride for the People organizers are learning how tough it is to plan a major parade and festival and stay true to their grassroots origins. Boston Pride for the People vice president Jo Trigilio, a longtime Boston Pride organization volunteer who had been critical of the former Pride board, now has a slightly different perspective. “I don’t think people understand the number of challenges in planning a parade route,” Trigilio says. For her part, Boulin acknowledges that Pride grew out of a movement protesting police but says that police are very much a part of the parade this year—to perform the essential function of keeping people safe.

Corporations are also essential, considering that the organization needed to raise $750,000 to fund the event. The new leaders insist that some corporations are true allies. How Boston Pride for the People plans to differentiate those companies from the “soulless” ones, as one committee member said in a recent town-hall discussion, remains to be seen. “It can’t be all in or all out; all corporations or no corporations; all police or no police,” Trigilio says. “The middle ground should always be open for revision.”

A scene from the 43rd (then-)Annual Boston Pride Parade on Boylston Street in Copley Square on June 8, 2013.

Some of the activists who helped take down Boston Pride, though, aren’t buying it. Julia Golden, the interim president of Trans Resistance MA, says the group pulls off its early June parade and festival without police—and last year the organization announced it was also forgoing corporate sponsorships—so it’s clearly not impossible. Golden says Trans Resistance MA is also concerned that the Pride parade will not be accessible enough for people with disabilities. “If you don’t prioritize that as a march or festival, then we can’t work with you,” Golden says.

For her part, Boulin says accessibility has been a priority all along. The parade route, for example, has been shortened. At a town-hall webinar in April, she said that festival vendors will be accessible through paved pathways with signage at varying heights for those who use wheelchairs. American sign language interpreters will also be available during speaking portions of the festival, and she said other accessibility features, such as free water, will depend on funding. But it didn’t go unnoticed by critics that the closed captioning was disabled throughout the virtual presentation.

There will be rainbows and glitter, sure, but some predict that this year’s parade won’t rise to the level of past events.

So what should we expect on June 10? There will be rainbows and glitter, sure, but some people—including Quincey Roberts Sr., the inaugural director of the new Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ+ Advancement—predict it won’t rise to the level of past events, which he says were one of the top-five revenue earners in the city, and drew 750,000 attendees at their peak. Roberts doesn’t have a role in planning this year’s celebration but was at the table when activists began communicating their visions for the event. He says he’s optimistic about what’s to come; it’s an opportunity for all of the people who sat on the sideline and laughed about how “lame and late and old school” Boston’s Pride was to take the reins and create a Pride event that reflects their priorities.

Even after all the drama, former board president DeMarco can empathize with the new organizers. It was never easy putting on the Pride parade, especially in the face of so much criticism. What’s important, she says, “is what each individual takes out of it. It’s not what is portrayed by the press. It’s what you feel there on the street.” Boulin agrees. After years of strife within the community, the 2023 Pride celebration should be “an opportunity for healing,” she says. “There has just been so much hate.” That would be something for everyone to be proud of.

First published in the print edition of the June 2023 issue with the headline “Everyone Loves a Parade!”