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Putting the protest in Pride: The histories of Toronto and Moscow Pride marches highlight the need for impactful activism

Pride’s success depends on communal protest
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ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY
ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY

After I came out, I attended Toronto Pride ritualistically. This past year, I’ve been living in Moscow. At one point, I started to wonder whether a Pride march would happen here — only to find out that Pride celebrations have been banned in Moscow until 2112. 

Yes, you read that number right. That ban alone makes it seem like the two cities’ marches exist in different worlds. However, comparing their histories reveals a crucial commonality: regardless of how accepted LGBTQ+ folk are by the society that surrounds us, Pride’s success hinges on our ability to nurture communal protest. 

There had been Pride protests in Moscow in the 1990s, all of which eventually puttered out — that is, until a new group of activists, led by Nikolai Alekseev, began to file requests to march starting in 2006. Their applications were rejected — which, according to organisers, is illegal, because rejecting the applications counteracts both Russian law and the European Human Rights convention on the right to peaceful assembly.

They marched anyway. The small group, which at some point, included representatives from Italy and Britain, was verbally and physically attacked by religious and nationalist assailants. The police allowed them to be beaten up, then proceeded to arrest them without penalty to the attackers. Moscow’s then-mayor described Pride marches as “satanic” at an Orthodox Christian meeting.

To avoid immediate attacks and detainment, organisers spread misinformation about their route, and managed to march uninterrupted for 10 minutes in 2009. That year, the march was staged near the area of Moscow where the Eurovision finals were held, in order to gain visibility for LGBTQ+ people, and international viewership. The idea was that noticeable public action was the only reliable way to get coverage of the protest.

This coverage came at a price: while protesters were beaten and arrested, a counterprotest by nationalist and religious groups was allowed to proceed. According to some citizens, homophobic hate crimes around the city increased in the days after the marches. Abductions of of gay men by regional authorities in Chechnya also started after permits for the parade were requested.

The LGBTQ+ community was therefore split on the necessity of the march. Some voiced concerns that attempting to march would put the LGBTQ+ community in more danger.

Some people, like the publisher of Moscow LGBTQ+ magazine KVIR, believed that while navigating sexual freedoms might have been difficult on a large scale, the Moscow LGBTQ+ community was able to live freely amongst friends. The publisher told reporters that the city had a gay dance club scene. “As usual in our country, everything is done undercover,” he added.

This view reflects a general attitude I have encountered in post-Soviet culture of staying away from large-scale politics. It’s correlated with the low turnout at the Moscow Pride marches, which seemed to be much more effective at attracting haters than allies. For many, living in Russia seemed to have beaten out the desire for protest.

In 2012, after years of small, short processions stopped by police, the Moscow government banned Pride marches for 100 years. Like its counterpart in the 1990s, the new Moscow Pride parade movement collapsed. The Moscow LGBTQ+ community was left to live online and undercover. While the organisers of Moscow Pride showed a spirit of protest, they only got about 60 attendees at the movement’s peak, because state and civil repression prevented their protest from catching fire in the community.

In contrast, it seems that Toronto’s Pride is thriving. Toronto’s first Gay Pride March was a show of remarkable solidarity within the LQBTQ+ community, as a way to protest for their dignity. In 1981, after years of sexuality-related violence, ‘Operation Soap’ — an event in which police raided the city’s gay bathhouses, assaulting and charging around 300 men — became the last straw for the Toronto LGBTQ+ community. The following night, 3000 people rallied in the streets, shaping an event sometimes called the Stonewall of Toronto. 

2021 Toronto Pride marks the event’s 40 year anniversary. Since its creation, public opinion has swayed further in favour of LGBTQ+ people.

At the same time, the celebration of a Pride parade in Toronto has disconnected the event from its protesting roots, which has weakened its ability to counter current issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community — particularly issues affecting its members of colour. The most infamous example of this is the police float that has recently been included in the march, which is a striking depoliticisation of an institution which has not only oppressed LGBTQ+ folk throughout the history of the march, but it continues to violate Black and brown members of the LGBTQ+ community today. 

In mainstream public discourse, Pride represents inclusion, which can be dangerous — such as when Black Lives Matter (BLM) asked the parade to remove its police float. News coverage of the event focused on how BLM appeared to be negating the inclusive spirit of Pride, rather than how it was fighting for the parade upholding social justice for members of the queer community. The parade has the air of a party in which anyone can participate, which can drown out the fact that not everyone feels safe with police participation.

Even though Pride has roots in being anti-establishment, it now toes the line of peddling the very agents of that establishment. I myself began to get disillusioned at how an increasingly large percentage of floats belonged to sponsors like Trojan, Home Depot, and RBC, who threw swag with their logos at the crowd. It began to feel like I came to the parade in order to watch advertisements and not much else. I was not alone in this critique — members of the community organized alternative parades such as the Night March, organised to reinject politics into Pride and to protest Toronto Pride Week’s appropriation of Indigenous cultural practices. 

While increased acceptance is wonderful, the depoliticised nature of the parade is a concern. At Pride, organizations can pinkwash themselves by introducing rainbow stickers to their logos, which allows them to be considered ‘progressive’ by liberal society and distract consumers from their continuing exploitative practices. 

It is at that point that Pride can be co-opted in order to rebrand corrupt corporations and cops, leaving the most vulnerable members of our community without support. If we want the Pride march to continue the work of LGBTQ+ liberation, it is crucial that we create space for protest and show solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other LGBTQ+ communities when they voice their concerns.

Moscow Pride tells a story of the state and civil violence of a post-Soviet culture which renders LGBTQ+ people invisible, and how it squashes desire for protest, resulting in a stalemate for Pride marches. Toronto Pride describes how public acceptance in an advertising-centric and white-centric culture has made the Pride parade so lucrative that it pinkwashes Toronto’s remaining institutional problems under the guise of celebration. These situations are different, but they have the same solution: solidarity with fellow LGBTQ+ folk and awareness of the need for protest in activism. Others have begun this work already.

See the way the organisers of Moscow Pride turned street corners to outsmart officers so they could march for another minute. See the way the organisers of BLM Toronto sat down in front of a policed parade, peaceful yet unyielding. See the sparks: they are here. Now it’s up to us to keep them alight.