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Back to Black: Baltimore Pride returns to its activists roots

Mimi Demissew, executive director of Pride Center of Maryland, is aligning the organization with the Black Lives Matter movement, as part of Pride celebration.
Mimi Demissew, executive director of Pride Center of Maryland, is aligning the organization with the Black Lives Matter movement, as part of Pride celebration. (Kenneth K. Lam)

In past years, Pride month in Baltimore has been more a “corporate party” than anything else, according to Joseph Weeks, owner of Rituals, a Station North bar and venue that was designed to serve the LGBTQ community of Baltimore.

“Of course, you want to live your life, celebrate your existence by having fun, having drinks and being able to enjoy your friends,” Weeks said. “[But] you are celebrating your lived experience together. It’s very poignant considering the roots of pride to center around activism. It’s remembering how you are connected to your community and honoring your elders by thinking about who came before you.”

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Mimi Demissew, executive director of Pride Center of Maryland, had the same concerns.

As the organization that oversees Baltimore Pride Month activities, the Pride Center of Maryland has decided to shift its priorities this year and align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, which reflects the demographics of the LGBTQ community in Baltimore, according to Demissew.

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“Glitter and alcohol is great, but there is more than what pride is about. As a community we need to stand and uphold our most vulnerable. We’re all linked. We must support one another and we must demand change,” she said.

In late May, Demissew issued a statement reminding the public of Pride Month’s “protest” roots and announcing that this year’s activities would be linked to Black Lives Matter. Gay Pride’s origins stems from honoring the Stonewall riots, which began in 1969 after police raided the Stonewall Inn bar in New York City.

“Pride is a protest against police brutality and a protest for us having these double and triple standards for different citizens,” Demissew said. “Enough is enough. And we need to engage and demand change.”

Mimi Demissew is the executive director of Pride Center of Maryland.
Mimi Demissew is the executive director of Pride Center of Maryland. (Kenneth K. Lam)

As part of this year’s Pride Month, Demissew’s organization honored Juneteenth, the oldest celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Demissew wants to make it a holiday recognized by the state of Maryland.

Other initiatives include: supporting the effort to defund the police; asking for reparations for Black people who are the descendants of slavery in Maryland; and a push for Congress to pass HR 40, which would create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans. They plan to present these asks to the Maryland State legislature. They also intend to participate in Black Lives Matter protests.

Advocacy is needed, according to Demissew, as people of color in the LGBTQ community have the highest rate of HIV, suicide, homelessness and chance to be murdered in Maryland, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Baltimore City and Maryland Department of Health.

“These are issues affecting Black people. They are the most vulnerable in this community,” she said.

Demissew is not worried about any potential pushback. The country is now in a position where non-Black LGBTQ members will support Black issues, she said.

“That wasn’t the case even last year,” she said. “I don’t think today there is an obstacle. I don’t think they are saying ‘No, I won’t join.’ That has not been the case.”

Joseph Brooks, a Pasadena resident who regularly attends Baltimore Pride events, supports the approach that Demissew and the Pride Center are taking.

“Baltimore is a very diverse community but a very Black-influenced community,” he said. “I believe they should absolutely focus on that.”

Brooks, who is biracial, said that aligning with Black Lives Matter means being on the right side of history.

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“We’re worse off for it if we don’t. It is the right thing to do at this point in time,” he said. “You can’t just worry about gay, gay, gay and transgender, transgender, transgender. This is the time right now — especially as the microscope is on us. You can’t miss this moment.”

Veteran drag queen performer Shawnna Alexander said she supports the activist direction of this year’s Pride Month.

“I’ve always been taught there’s power in numbers. Being a minority person of color, being gay, being of the trans group are all numbers of things to definitely stand up and peacefully rally for,” said Alexander, who has been a fixture in the community serving as emcee for eight Baltimore Pride Parades. “Having policemen and policewomen in my family I am pleased to agree with the fact not all of them are bad.”

Weeks, who is black and lives in Station North, anticipates that there will be slight resistance — particularly among White LGBTQ members, to this year’s approach.

“I think there will always be some sort of resistance to a burgeoning social justice movement because of those people who are comfortable in their complacency,” Weeks explained. “Their complacency is their privilege. Their whiteness allows them to say, ‘I’m feeling fine.’”

But overall, Weeks said he believes white LGBTQ members will be supportive of a greater activist presence in Pride Month activities.

“We’re in a time of social activism because people are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said. “The next level is for white people understanding their privilege and understanding what’s around them.”

Demissew’s organization will also offer several workshops ranging from sharing the results of their 2019 annual report to a workshop addressing financial wealth.

“COVID has really hurt us,” she said in reference to the financial impact the coronavirus virus has had on the LGBTQ community. “We’ll address how do you recover and how to protect yourself.”

Demissew believes that the LGBTQ community still needs an actual Pride Parade. She thinks that it is important for some type of social interaction between members of the LGBTQ community whom she said have been more affected by quarantine guidelines because a disproportionate number suffer from depression and suicide while others are estranged from their families.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Demissew’s staff has provided virtual counseling sessions, food drop-offs and other services for vulnerable LGBTQ members who are elderly, have HIV/AIDS or are homeless teens.

”It’s the one time of the year that every single person — the community is not a monolith —regardless of all those differences that we have, that is the one time that we can come together and gather under the idea of loving our culture, feeling empowered,” she said.

As a result, Demissew has picked alternative dates in September and October to hold the parade. Demissew is leaning toward October so that the parade can coincide with Black Gay Pride., which is a multinational network under the umbrella of the Center for Black Equity.

“It’s the one time that you really feel affirmed,” she said. “Every single part of you is being celebrated.”

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