Ask Lea DeLaria how many Pride events she’s attended over the last forty-something years and she’ll proudly tell you, “Uh...”
That’s because the comedian, actress and singer has been to so many ― often performing stand-up, riding on a float or serving as grand marshal ― she couldn’t possibly nail down an exact number.
In honor of Pride Month 2018, DeLaria called HuffPost to chat about what her very first Pride in 1978 was like, how “middle-class, mainstreaming, assimilationist white gay men” almost ruined the annual, globally celebrated event for her and her dream of starting “a goddamn dyke party” with “Orange Is The New Black” co-star Samira Wiley.
I attended my very first Pride in St. Louis in 1978. It was also the city’s first Pride, though an officially recognized event wasn’t held there until 1980. Pride that first year went on for just a block or two through the gay neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if there were even 300 people there.
It was still dangerous to be gay in Missouri at that time. Queer people were being arrested under the state’s “buggery” law and because of that, the person I went with wore a mask.
I was 20 years old. When I came out, I came out with a vengeance, so when I heard that the march was going to happen, I knew I was going to be there.
I started going to the queer bars in St. Louis when I was 16. That’s when I realized who and what I was. I knew what I was into, I knew what to call it, but finding out what to do next was much more difficult in those days. Being queer and living in the Midwest in the 1970s wasn’t like being queer in San Francisco or New York City.
The queer bars back then were always in the seediest neighborhoods. By the time I turned 20 there were queer bars in St. Louis proper and people were becoming more organized. A lot happened for gay people in just those four short years between me being 16 and 20. We were becoming more visible. There were more politics involved. There were more news reports about us. And… I found lesbians! I found lesbian feminists. I found ardent militant queerness. And everything changed for me.
The planning for that Pride in St. Louis was very grassroots. There wasn’t a gay newspaper in the city. There wasn’t a gay magazine. It was more about handing out fliers and getting people to come by word of mouth.
It was less about “pride” at that time and more about saying “this ends now.” The inequality, the discrimination, the terror that queer people were living in ends now. We were angry then. It was a protest.
Unless the float from Citibank and the float from Starbucks says 'Fuck Trump!' then we don’t need them there.
I’ve said before that I always thought I was going to be shot at a Pride rally before I made it out of my 20s, but I wasn’t worried about my safety at my first Pride in St. Louis. I never worried about my safety. I just thought whatever was going to happen was going to happen. When you’re younger you’re a little more foolish. What was important to me was being out there and making a statement.
The next Pride I attended was in 1980 when I moved to San Francisco. That was a huge upgrade. I remember taking the BART and going downtown, and as we got closer and closer to where the parade route was, I saw more and more gay people with signs. San Francisco pride in 1980 was still very much a protest — a monster protest — which makes sense. The White Night riots, which took place after Harvey Milk was murdered, were just a year earlier. So pride in San Francisco that year was incredibly fucking political.
The first time I performed at a Pride rally was in San Francisco in 1982. I had become incredibly popular as a dyke comic in the city by that point. I was asked to perform — I didn’t go out and seek it — partly because lesbian visibility was becoming really important at that time. It was something we were discussing as a community. So I was happy to be up there. It felt amazingly different to be able to talk to that many queer people at the same time — and to have them all laughing. That was a very cool thing. At one point a Christian protester got on stage — I’m not sure how — and started screaming about fire and brimstone and all of that tired stuff, and I remember ad-libbing to the audience, “Oh, look! There’s a Christian! Does anyone have a lion that we can throw him to?” As much as it was a protest, it was also about bringing people together, and that’s what I was offering with my comedy. That’s always what my humor has been about.
I’ve been to too many Prides to count since then. I go to — and perform at — multiple Prides every single year. I’m the grand marshal at Prides now. I just did it at Sydney Pride. We’ve gotten smarter about our Prides, so now they’re not all on the same day, which gives us much more visibility.
I know there are people out there who say we don’t need Pride anymore, but with the government that we have right now, I don’t understand how they can possibly say that. We’ve got Trump trying to block trans people from the military, and his administration is systematically trying to take away all of our other rights too. They want to pass laws to overturn our right to marry — to overturn our right to exist! They want to make it so that you don’t have to serve a gay person if you claim doing so is against your religion. This is fucked! For anyone to say that we don’t need Pride in this day and age — they are blind fools. We need Pride more than ever. In fact, we need Pride to go back to what it was, and it needs to stop being an excuse for companies to sell their products to us. Fuck that. Unless the float from Citibank and the float from Starbucks says “Fuck Trump!” then we don’t need them there. This needs to be a huge protest — it really does.
There was a minute there when I did not go to Pride unless I was performing; the reason I didn’t go was I couldn’t take the middle-class, mainstreaming, assimilationist white gay men who ran Pride. You know the ones I’m talking about — the ones who say, “we’re just like everyone else.” That infuriates me! I love when those guys are always up there saying that shit, and then a six-foot drag queen wearing three-foot platforms and covered in sparkles walks by and opens his butterfly wings. We are not like everyone else! We should be celebrating who we are and fighting for our rights instead of licking straight ass. Who needs them? We do not need anything from them. We need to be less concerned about what we call ourselves and more concerned about what we’re doing to change the situation we’re in — which is a very dangerous situation. These people want to put on blinders; that has to end right now. And as long as we’re banning NAMBLA from Pride — which I wholeheartedly agree with — we need to get the fucking Log Cabin Republicans out of Pride too. Fuck them.
The same goes for people who want Pride to be “family-friendly” and who get upset about the idea of a guy dancing on a float in a jockstrap. Those people need to stop. This “family-friendly” bullshit is part of that same mainstream, assimilationist, middle-class crap. That’s not who we are! If you don’t want to show your kids who we are, then you need to examine your own internalized homophobia. There’s nothing wrong with a jockstrap, honey. There’s nothing wrong with somebody’s ass hanging out of their chaps. These are the same people who told dykes who were walking around with their areoles covered to “put a shirt on.” Fuck you!
I truly believe all of this infighting that’s going on among queer people is the biggest issue we’re facing as a community. Imagine — if we spent even half of the time we spend yelling at each other to instead yell at the powers that be, we would already have our rights. We have to stop the infighting. We have to stop playing the more “who’s more oppressed” game. We’re all on each other’s side. I’m on your side! If I say something that you disagree with or I use a term that upsets you, let me know that it upset you. But come from a place of love and don’t lecture me and don’t presume to say that I am not your friend. I have spent my entire life fighting for your rights. I am on your side.
Imagine — if we spent even half of the time we spend yelling at each other to instead yell at the powers that be, we would already have our rights. We have to stop the infighting. We have to stop playing the more “who’s more oppressed” game.
That’s why you don’t hear me using the alphabet soup. When we using all of those letters to define ourselves, we’re pointing out our differences instead of embracing our shared demonization. It must end. It’s too urgent now. There’s too much coming at us, and they’re trying to take away everything we’ve fought for. I’m personally pissed off about this. I have spent my entire life fighting tirelessly for our community, and we are in danger of losing what we’ve achieved and even more. We have to stick together, and we have to stop fighting over language and over politics. I got in a lot of trouble because I went to Tel Aviv Pride but wherever there’s a Pride, I’m going there! If there are queer people who are being oppressed, and they’re having a Pride to protest what is happening to them, I will be there.
I’ve been really heartened by watching the younger generations and seeing how on point and on focus they are right now. Every time I go to a university to speak — apparently I’m a role model, which is just about the scariest thing I can think of for the community [laughs] — every one of these young people is angry, and they want this stuff to change. They’re out and queer and proud. And it’s not just younger people. This Nazi who stole the election has probably fucked himself in the ass because he has woken up a very dangerous sleeping bear. There were a lot of complacent people out there, and I think they’re waking up. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone saying “we don’t need Pride” this year. The backlash to Trump and his administration that’s about to happen in the midterm election is going to be so severe that those Nazis and KKK members who voted for him aren’t going to know what hit them. People are furious; we saw it at Pride last year, and we’re going to see it at Pride again this year.
If I was designing Pride, I’d follow in Sydney’s footsteps and turn all of the bank ATMs into GayTMs. We have to keep the Dykes on Bikes in front of the parade. I would ban all corporate floats unless they were saying something political and supportive of our community, instead of shilling their products. I would get rid of all of the Christian protesters. Fuck them. Either that or we get to taunt back. There are always these awful Christian protesters at all of the Prides and then the people who run the Prides say, “Don’t talk to them. Don’t look at them. Don’t give them any attention.” Fuck that! We should surround them with huge billboards so you can’t see their signs or see them, and then we should pummel them by playing Barbara Streisand’s “Hello Dolly” as loud as it can be played. If that won’t make them leave, nothing will!
Finally, we need a big dyke dance, for god’s sake. I’m all about Pride being political, but we should continue to have our fun as well. We need a goddamn dyke party! We used to have them. Where did they go? Maybe it’s up to me? Maybe I’ll grab Samira Wiley and say, “Girl, let’s throw a big ol’ dyke party this year!”
For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.