A group of people in St. Louis face a one-two punch of adversity every day.
A small, local LGBT organization called Black Pride embraces all these challenges. But as members prepare for their annual celebration this weekend in The Grove area, members still have to justify the group’s very existence.
The more mainstream Pride St. Louis attracted 250,000 people in June to its annual festival and parade. Black Pride visitors typically number in the hundreds. So why doesn’t Black Pride just fold itself into the much larger organization?
Black Pride President Randy Rafter says there are many reasons. One of the most pressing is the need for a welcoming and comfortable environment.
“As a black man, I feel there’s no safe space,” Rafter said.
'We’re talking about black lives’
Rafter said he has no beef with Pride St. Louis, an organization whose stated mission is to become more inclusive of people of color as well as transgender individuals. But Rafter said white gay people can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a minority within a minority.
He recalled the Pride St. Louis parade of 2015, during which a few of his fellow marchers held up “Black Lives Matter” signs.
“I heard in the audience, while I’m marching, being proud of being black and being gay, ‘All Lives Matter,’” Rafter said. “Yes, all lives matter. But at this particular time we’re talking about black lives because black lives are the ones being executed in the streets on a regular basis.”
The shooting death of Michael Brown two years ago this month further riveted Black Pride’s attention to social justice. The group aligned itself more deeply with the Black Lives Matter organization, Rafter said. Brown’s death made it apparent that LGBT and black struggles are distinct, according to Rafter.
“How many LGBT people were right there in the streets of Ferguson standing up for the injustice?” Rafter asked.
The massacre of 49 mostly Latino club-goers in Orlando in June also hit home as well as the violent deaths of 17 transgender people, mostly of color. Disparities in unemployment, poverty and HIV/AIDS are among other issues minorities face. Black gay and bisexual men are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed as their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The power of the party
Rafter emphasized that Black Pride as a movement, not just a moment. Not a party, as the group used to be known for, but a purpose.
Former president Audrey Pearson says even interactions among Black Pride-goers and police who patrol the event can make a difference.
“It allows them to see, ‘Ok, this group isn’t bad and there are good people, so if they’re familiar with a community group then hopefully it will bring about less stereotyping and more engaging and building of a positive relationship,” Pearson said.
Pearson says the fact the black community is automatically stereotyped illustrates how much work there is to do. But Black Pride is not all work and no fun.
Music artists like Akay Tomboy drew a crowd last year at Kiener Plaza. Music and dance often bring people to the table. That’s the view of Earl Fowlkes, head of a national organization called the Center for Black Equity in Washington, D.C., that supports 40 Black Pride groups around the world.
“People may not necessarily want to come out and talk about internalized homophobia,” Fowlkes said. “But if you can get them to come out for a party, then you can turn the lights on for a moment and then you can talk about some of these issues.”
St. Louis isn’t an easy place in which to be LGBT and black, Fowlkes said. He called it a Midwestern city with a heavy Southern flavor.
“People have access, in theory, to services in St. Louis, more than there would be in a Memphis or Jackson, Miss.,” Fowlkes said. “But the whole stigma of HIV or even the stigma of being LGBT is very strong in St. Louis.”
Black Pride would like to see more Latino and Asian LGBT people at the party and in the movement. You don’t even have to be a person of color, according to Pearson.
“It would do our community some good to see Caucasian men and women be supportive out there at Black Pride,” Pearson said. “We would like to see a rainbow of different groups.”
This year’s Black Pride Weekend begins tonight and culminates in a Sunday festival in The Grove area on Manchester Avenue. The event will offer "Dance the Vote" performances that encourage taking part in the political process, voter registration, and HIV testing and other services, along with music and other entertainment.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL