An Open Letter to Pride St. Louis

Dear Pride St. Louis Board,

First, thank you for the hard work you did this year and every year to produce PrideFest and the Pride Parade.  I know from producing 200 author events per year, pulling off something like this is a LOT of work and the chances that you will make someone unhappy are 100%.

Some unhappiness is part of the gig. Lack of communication and other surprises make tempers flare in high stress situations.  Most of us who manage these events know how to handle this.  Personally, I’ve had books thrown at my head (an unfortunate baseball event some years ago) and emails and phone messages from people who didn’t feel heard or respected for one reason or another. Usually it can all be resolved with some work.

I’m writing today in hopes that my unhappiness (and the hurt feelings and anger of the group I was with) can be resolved.  Let me tell you what happened.

Metro Trans Umbrella Group (MTUG) registered to march in the parade.  In keeping with its mission as an umbrella group, other groups such as the Gender Foundation and Queer People of Color (QPOC) joined in our entry, making 2015 include the largest transgender and gender queer presence I can remember in two decades of attending PrideFest.  It was really remarkable.

In the weeks leading up to the parade we all discussed what message we wanted to convey, and the consensus was clear.  We wanted to honor all of the trans people, many of whom are people of color, who came before us – who paved the way with their reputations, careers and lives.

As you know, people aren’t just gay.  They aren’t just lesbian. They aren’t just transgender. They aren’t just intersex. They aren’t just bisexual. They aren’t just anything.  We are all many things, and our struggles sometimes come at us from many angles.  We wanted to honor that by opening our arms and hearts wide and talking about gender, race and class in our entry.

After all, the theme this year was “Color Our World.”

So we set up on the parade route – all of us in many ages, all of us in many genders, all of us in many races with our signs and our pain and our celebration – ready to walk down the street in our home town in front of our families and friends, in front of you, and speak clearly.  We were excited to be a part of the march.

When our group set up we were asked what we were “doing.”  Our Black Lives Matter signs were nervously noted. The black people in our group were monitored by the same police officers who had maced them in other contexts. There were no plans to stop the parade, but one police officer approached a member of our group and pleaded with him not to stop the parade. Another person asked for a heads up from MTUG president, Sayer Johnson, about anything we might do to disrupt the parade. Other friends approached me asking about an action.

Our presence made people uneasy.  That feeling, unfortunately, is an everyday occurrence.  It’s one of the thousands of paper cuts that ruin a good day for every transgender person and every person of color in America.  It’s not a feeling I was prepared for in a parade celebrating diversity.

We had gotten there early enough for a good spot in the staging area and waited patiently.  We knew it would take a while to get the parade underway.  There were four lanes and entrants from each lane were being fed into the parade. Those around us were being allowed through and we were told to stay still.  People behind us who had arrived after us were steered around us.  People directly behind us in our lane were steered around us to the parade entrance.  We waited. Finally, near the very end of the 2 ½ hour parade – at the back of the proverbial bus –  we were allowed to proceed.

We marched, some of us coming out for our very first time, some of us celebrating, some of us protesting, all of us relevant, all of us important.

The respect and support from the crowd was exhilarating. I teared up.  Everyone needs a several block long standing ovation in their lives.

But when we got to the judges’ booth we were met with sarcasm.  Our Black Lives Matter message was met with a very loud “All Lives Matter” retort from the emcee.  If you need more information about why that’s problematic, I will explain.   When we replied “Black Lives Matter” the emcee sarcastically read our signs, “Oh, Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter. Um yeah, I get it.” I thought I was being too sensitive when I heard this passing by but later, when I watched the video we have of the exchange, I realized I had heard her correctly.  The one time we stopped in the parade was here, for a few seconds of silence. It was barely noticed.

One of the best ways to crush someone’s spirit is to ignore or laugh at them. Insurance companies and politicians do it all the time. It works beautifully.  It’s how gay men died for decades of AIDS before someone took them seriously.  It’s how black citizens were denied the vote for decades.  It has no place in our queer community.

Our entry was a celebration, a tribute and a protest.  It was meant to remind everyone of the beautiful complexity of our humanity, and that this complexity was the beginning of the LGBT Pride 46 years ago when a group of trans people who looked a lot like us decided to fight instead of hide at Stonewall.

I am someone who recognizes the work we need to do and celebrates the work we’ve already done. I love that our queer movement has become a celebration, but I know that there are still reasons to rise up.  I want to celebrate millions of happily married gay couples, and I want to work even harder for the rest of us who are still here fighting for our lives.

What can you do to make this right?  You can believe me.  You can believe us.  We are only telling our truth.

Best Wishes and Happy Pride,

Jarek Steele

Co-Owner, Left Bank Books

Supporter of Metro Trans Umbrella Group