In late February 2020, Noah Gonzalez, a vice president on the board of Los Angeles Pride, was watching COVID-19 cases begin to escalate in California and had a portentous phone call with one of his team members. “I remember jokingly saying, ‘What if we have to cancel Pride?’” he recalls. “And then suddenly it became this thing where it was like, ‘Oh, we actually need to start talking about this seriously.’”
It turned out that Gonzalez was right — in 2020, for the first time in its 50-year history, L.A. Pride canceled all in-person events (save for one protest held in honor of the death of George Floyd), including the annual parade and street festivals, over safety concerns surrounding the pandemic.
When the health crisis extended into 2021, the team at L.A. Pride came prepared. “It gave us an opportunity to broaden our own reach and our own footprint,” Gerald Garth, L.A. Pride’s treasurer, tells Billboard. “As we start to branch back out into the world and in-person again, we’ve been able to build some relationships and platforms and engagement points that we might not have had before 2020.”
With the restrictions and policies surrounding COVID-19 constantly changing, Garth says that the board decided to proceed with caution, canceling their annual parade, scheduling a digital, TikTok-hosted concert headlined by Charli XCX, and adding a few small in-person events, like LGBTQ+ Pride Night at Dodgers Stadium and LGBTQ+ Movie Night with Cinespia at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Approaching how to create an entertaining but safe Pride season in L.A., Garth says he found himself looking to “really make [L.A. Pride] available for the community at large.” The answer for their festivities, Gonzalez adds, was teaming up with local mainstays like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the film organization Cinespia, both of whom were looking to support the community during Pride Month. “Now, we’re really wanting to use L.A. Pride as a platform to partner locally, support locally, and do whatever we can to make sure that the community is a community.”
For Dusty Carpenter, the president and lead organizer of Chicago’s Pride in the Park concert series, safety was also of the utmost importance — as was getting fans back together to celebrate Pride in-person. “The majority of the people I’ve talked to are just very, very eager to get back,” he says. “I think we’re very lucky with our community has taken very serious about getting vaccinated.”
At this year’s Pride in the Park, taking place on June 26-27, stars like Chaka Khan, Tiësto, Gryffin, Betty Who and Alyssa Edwards will be taking to the stage at Grant Park and performing for a crowd of masked, vaccinated or negative-tested people. Not only will this be Chicago’s first major in-person Pride event since the pandemic — other major events like the Pride parade and the annual street fair have been postponed until the fall — it will also be Chicago’s first outdoor festival of its nature since the world shut down.
“There’s some pressure because all eyes are going to be on this event, being the first one,” Carpenter says with a chuckle. “But it’s also exciting, because that means all eyes are on a Pride event. Honestly, I’m really excited to get to see people outside having fun in a normal atmosphere.”
Carpenter says he and his team at Pride in the Park knew that they wanted to bring an in-person concert back to Pride in 2021, so they started working with the city early on to figure out the best way to safely assemble a celebration. That meant working with Health Pass by CLEAR early on in 2021 to figure out the best strategy for tracing and testing potential concert-goers.
“It came to a point where I decided we were going to do it in person or we weren’t going to do it this year,” Carpenter says. “Grant Park basically had zero fall dates available. So it was, ‘Take this date or go to 2022.’ So we put together a health plan and proposed it to the city, and they were on board. We were really lucky.”
For Dan Dimant, the media director at NYC Pride, 2021 was all about creating a hybrid experience where celebrants could enjoy some of the in-person camaraderie of Pride season, while also keeping everyone involved healthy. “It’s definitely virtual first, with the in-person elements being brought into the discussion as we deem it’s possible, feasible and safe,” he says.
On the in-person end, the annual PrideFest — a street fair where local businesses sell food, clothes and other wares while performers put on shows across small stages — will be coming back fully in-person this year on June 27. While the larger stages usually present at PrideFest won’t be back in 2021, Dimant says that the organization is excited to be able to support small businesses once again.
“Obviously, it’s going to be done in accordance with the latest guidelines, but otherwise, it really is important, especially for small businesses that have been struggling so much, to be able to [have a] booth in this environment where they can reach their community.”
While the traditional Pride March, complete with floats and massive crowds, will not make its return this year, the organization has put together a June 27 broadcast package with local news station ABC-7, an online livestream highlighting some of the groups that would normally march in the parade, and a number of in-person pop-up experiences for fans to enjoy.
Similarly, while the annual concert Pride Island will be streamed online this year with a series of “Dance Through the Decades” DJ sets, fans will be able to watch the stream in-person on The Greens on the Rooftop at New York’s Pier 17, or find participating bars to watch with their friends.
Putting together these events was a challenge, Dimant says — NYC Pride worked with the city as guidelines and requirements constantly changed over the last few months. Ultimately, he says the hybrid approach mixes together the best of both worlds. “Of course, there’s something special about connecting with people in person, but I also think we’re acutely tuned in to what are other folks doing online now,” he says. “There’s meaningful ways to engage on Instagram Live, on Facebook Live, on all of these things.”
Regardless of whether Pride is taking place in-person or online, organizers from around the country agree that the core, community-based nature of the annual celebration has been brought to the forefront in 2021 — which is a feature that none of these organizers plan on abandoning in 2021. “At the end of the day, we are a non-profit organization, we are for the people,” Garth says. Gonzalez agrees, adding, “We want to create activations that are supporting the L.A. community. It’s paid off for us thus far.”
Above all else, Carpenter says he is proud to have created an event in 2021 where queer people, who have been longing to celebrate together in public, can finally do so once again. “I think a lot of people are just ready to see their chosen family again.”