Motor City Pride was my first out of the closet — and a reminder of what Pride really means

These celebrations are about more than corporations and cops donning rainbow logos

click to enlarge One can’t necessarily blame Motor City Pride for needing the bankroll of corporate America to operate. - Viola Klocko
Viola Klocko
One can’t necessarily blame Motor City Pride for needing the bankroll of corporate America to operate.

After I returned from New York City last June, I knew that I finally had some time to process my identity. I hadn’t had a real break since the start of photographing the George Floyd protests that began in late May 2020. During those consecutive 163 days, I soaked in a ton of history but I wasn’t permitting myself any time for self-care and reflection. The protests were quickly followed by a critical runoff election in Georgia, then a mayoral race in New York City. I was finally back in Detroit with some time to think.

A week passed and it was July 1. Pride month was over. As all of the corporations’ gradient logos were reverting back to their washed-out tones, I announced on social media about coming out as non-binary. I’ll never forget the sense of comfort I felt that day. A few days later, on the Fourth, some queer friends invited me out to watch fireworks on top of an abandoned building in Midtown. We celebrated each other and our mutual growth. We could all take a deep breath.

That was until the gang squad unit of the Detroit Police Department responded to a 911 call on us. The next hour and a half were absolute hell, with the cops swearing at us and inappropriately patting us down. A friend of mine present in the building even had a loaded pistol drawn on him. “Don’t try to run, we’ve got K-9s!” the officers threatened.

Don’t try to run. That phrase haunted me. I was outside of the cisgender bubble for 72 hours after finally mustering up the courage to declare who I was, now I had police-induced trauma to deal with — that same trauma that non-white and queer folk deal with every single day in America. I’d end up reliving that night in Zoom court over the next ten months of my life until the charges were eventually dropped when the officers did not show up in court.

So, Motor City Pride ’22. The first sights you’ll see when entering Hart Plaza are a myriad of brands posturing queer culture. Using appropriated AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), brands attempting to sound “gay” by stealing slang from Black queer culture and plastering it over their banners and tents. Walking past the corporate tents, among the attendees were several members of the Detroit Police Department — the same department that escorted armed and decorated Nazis outside of Pride at Hart Plaza in 2019 under the justification of “freedom of speech.” Not too welcoming if you’re seeing things through the lens of what Pride is about. It’s not a brand party, it’s an acknowledgement of the continuation of struggle that the community faces to this day. The first Stonewall wasn’t a peaceful party. No mega-corporations appropriating queer issues for dollars back then.

One can’t necessarily blame Motor City Pride for needing the bankroll of corporate America to operate — acts and artists need to be paid, but therein lies a problem. It’s difficult to compensate artists with no funding, but it’s not impossible and has been done before without General Motors or Ford. There’s a reason on Sunday a separate bike march occurred in contrast to the corporate-backed Motor City Pride parade. The Queer Pride Detroit Bike March had no corporate backing, while politicians were at Sunday’s Pride parade.

“You need someone to bankroll [to compensate artists], but it’s also a good in for them to pretend to be queer for the day,” Zora Monico, who performed at the riverfront stage on Sunday, told me as we sat down near the Riverwalk. On the appropriation by brands, notably “Glamazon,” Zora commented, “It feels like the black squares from the [Floyd] protests all over again.”

With these things in mind, it’s essential to not let the shadow of the Renaissance Center tower over the sense of community that was present at the festival. The sound of the stages were great, artistic covers of famous songs within queer spaces were sung aloud by many of the attendees, “Bad Romance” was covered by Act of Violets, a debuting band at Hart Plaza’s pyramid stage. At a certain point, someone in the crowd dashed toward the front of the stage and began dancing enthusiastically to Lady Gaga’s hit, interacting with the lead singer Julie Hugunin. Anna Toma, the keyboardist for the band, reflected on her favorite part of the performance.

“[Bad Romance] because of how much joy it brought people in the crowd,” Toma said. “Knowing I helped bring people joy today is really gratifying.”

The sun continued to shine, casting down unto the glamorous drag performances at the Pride Stage, with all proceeds and tips going to the Ruth Ellis Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing services for runaway and homeless LGBTQIA+ youth.

The marginalized folk that were present, whether performers or attendees, acknowledge that contradictions will exist in the current struggle against the system that Pride founded itself against in the first place. Again, Pride isn’t a party to be co-opted. The joy emitted throughout both days drowned out the irritable sense that both mega-corporations and cops were omnipresent. The community was the focus, because the community keeps us safe.

The takeaway here isn’t if people had fun or not, or if chicken on a stick was a hit. It’s about how the community will handle their next task. To quote the revolutionary queer feminist Audre Lorde, “For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”

Motor City Pride. Queer liberation: sponsored by Miller Lite.

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