In Honor of Pride, We Talk to 5 Former Grand Marshals

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2015 New York City Pride Parade Grand Marshal Kasha Nabagesera

Photo courtesy of NYC Pride.

When it comes to feel-good parades, it’s hard to beat a present-day Pride procession. From Seattle to Sydney to Stockholm, they’re kaleidoscopic explosions of love, color, glitter and often expertly applied makeup. They’re everything joyful and communal. But they weren’t always lighthearted celebrations of sexual diversity—and as we honor June as LGBTQ Pride month, we feel it’s important to recognize the adversity as well as the positivity.

Beyond the rainbows, floats and festive costumes exists the continuing struggle for tolerance and equal rights for the LGBTQ community—one that has been hallmarked by many events throughout history, but most notably in the U.S. by the Stonewall riots of June 1969 in Greenwich Village in New York City. The riots, precipitated by police raids gone violently awry, were one of the first organized attempts to massively protest the oppression of LGBTQ people. The following year, major cities across the country—from New York to L.A.—commemorated Stonewall with political marches in June, and Pride month was essentially born. Over the decades, Pride marches have evolved into festive parades with floats and cheery regalia, especially in large, accepting cities, but it’s critical to remain mindful of the human-rights movement that has spurred these festivals.

This year we’re spotlighting five inspirational people who’ve served as grand marshals in past parades. As the leader of a parade, the role of grand marshal is as honorable as it sounds. In fact, it’s the highest honor the LGBTQ community can bestow upon an individual—and those chosen are often nominated for their exceptional achievements in the fight for human rights.

From filmmakers to Supreme Court justices to international human-rights activists, these incredible luminaries describe their experiences as grand marshals, the important role that the LGBTQ movement and Pride have played in their lives, and the evolving struggles the LGBTQ community still faces.

Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu,
Seattle Pride Honorary GM, 2014

Originally from Chicago, Justice Mary Yu joined Washington state’s Supreme Court in 2014 after working as a trial court judge for 14 years in Washington’s King County Superior Court. She’s the court’s first openly gay justice, as well as the first Asian-American and Latina justice.

 

Photo courtesy of Seattle Pride.

Nordstrom: Tell us what Pride personally means for you. 

Justice Yu: Pride festivities represent an opportunity for people to come together in support of equality and acceptance. It is often the only opportunity for individuals to feel safe and accepted for who they are, especially for so many of our young people. Personally, it is a chance for me to feel pride in who I am and pride for our community and all of its accomplishments over the years. I find it uplifting to see the large numbers of LGBTQ families and supporters who are just coming to celebrate love and tolerance.

Can you tell us how it felt to be asked to take on the role of grand marshal for Seattle?

It is an honor and privilege to lead a parade focused on love and acceptance. When I was a Special Guest in 2014, we were celebrating marriage and the fact that I was the first member of the LGBTQ community to be appointed to the Washington state Supreme Court.

While the LGBTQ community is diverse and the needs are wide ranging, what do you see as the biggest issue facing the LGBTQ movement right now?

The greatest challenges we face today are the ongoing political attacks aimed at undermining the rights the LGBTQ community has achieved across the nation. The greatest erosion is occurring at the state level, so it makes it very hard to develop a nationwide strategy. Other issues we face touch upon an aging population and how we might find ways to support our elderly, especially since many might not have family or children as safety nets of care. The issue involves healthcare, social isolation and housing.

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Ugandan LGBTQ Rights Activist Kasha Nabagesera,
New York City Pride GM, 2015

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera is founder and director of  Freedom & Roam Uganda, an LGBTQ rights group dedicated to decriminalizing homosexuality in Uganda. She’s also the recipient of several human-rights awards, including the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.


Photo by Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic.

Nordstrom: You are a well-known Ugandan LGBTQ rights activist, fighting for rights in a country that has actively outlawed homosexuality. You were even arrested in May of 2017. Can you explain how this struggle against criminalization has shaped your view of LGBTQ rights at home compared to here in the U.S.?

Kasha: The struggle against criminalization in Uganda is real, and no one should underrate it. Many people have since joined the struggle, compared to a decade ago when it was just a handful of us who were willing to stand out and be counted. That alone is a win, since now there are more faces to the struggle—as we know, every struggle needs faces. It shows that what we are doing is making an impact, especially to our oppressors. I remember when I was just out of university, when I embarked on this journey, many people called me “nuts,” “insane,” you name it. No one had ever stood up to say, “Enough of these draconian laws!” But I did just at a time when even the mention of the words homosexuality or lesbianism was taboo.

What we are doing in Uganda is not really extraordinary—countries in the West, like the U.S., were once also where we are today. That alone gives me hope and more courage to continue to fight, knowing that one day even this will just be history. Changing laws is one big part of decriminalization, but it’s not all that is needed. Mindsets of the masses, too, have to be changed. Otherwise we wouldn’t still see hate crimes in countries like South Africa that have since decriminalized [homosexuality].

Can you tell us how it felt to be asked to take on the role of grand marshal for New York City?

At first, I didn’t take it seriously, because I was just told it could happen. I tried to avoid overexcitement, but it was hard because the mere fact that I was even thought of [as a grand marshal] was great for me. So my efforts to hide the excitement didn’t [quit]. I screamed and actually scared my dog away! The world was paying attention to our struggle. New York City—where 50 years ago it all started—was paying attention. So I read about the past Pride grand marshals—and that’s when it struck me that they had never had an international grand marshal. Then it all began to sink in—this was huge. To seal the excitement, the announcement came and I saw the other grand marshals. Not only was I (and my struggle) being recognized, but I was to stand side by side with great actors. I could write a whole book about NYC Pride and my experience. I will forever be grateful. I can’t wait for the 50 years of our struggle to be celebrated, where our founding fathers and mothers and others said, “Enough is enough.”

Rugby Coach Todd Maria, 
Dallas Pride GM, 2016

Todd Maria is the head coach, current president and community outreach coordinator for the Lost Souls Rugby Club (RFC), an inclusive social club deeply involved in the Dallas LGBTQ community. For the fifth year in a row, the Lost Souls were voted Best Local LGBT Sports Organization in the Dallas Voice Readers Voice Awards 2018.

Photo courtesy of Todd Maria.

Nordstrom: Can you tell us how it felt to be asked to take on the role of grand marshal for Dallas and what you did to prepare for it?

Todd: I was overwhelmed with humility and pride. It was a tremendous honor. In fact, to say I was honored to be a part of the Pride celebration is an understatement. To be among the many community leaders represented is more than I thought possible.

I’m the head coach and a founder of the Lost Souls Rugby Football Club. The Lost Souls was founded on the principles of inclusion and empowerment. For us, rugby has been a vehicle to bring communities together by cultivating an environment where anyone is welcomed into the sport, regardless of background or skill. Off the pitch, we foster an environment that embraces community service and promotes social acceptance. I’ve been fortunate to have a supportive network of family and friends, but some don’t have that. Therefore, I wanted to continue to be a part of the change that recognizes the measure of one’s character is defined by their contribution to society rather than solely on whom they love. I have watched and been inspired by those who take a stand as beacons of truth, lighting the way for others to follow. We need to focus that light on love, not hate; on acceptance, not judgment. It is this light that illuminates the best part of all of us.

How do you think the nation’s Pride festivities have evolved over the years since their inception in 1970 in New York City? Are we in a more educated, more tolerant place or are we still struggling with a lot of the same oppressive issues?

I think, as a society, we are more educated, but we need to continue to come together as a community with a focus on relationship building, especially because the current political climate can be so divisive. Some love, humility, respect and tolerance can really go a long way. I’d love to see us all work on understanding one another’s differences rather than criticize or tear each other down.

Filmmaker Robert Camina,
New Orleans GM, 2016

Robert Camina is a nationally renowned filmmaker whose LGBTQ-focused documentaries UpStairs Inferno and Raid of the Rainbow Lounge have won numerous film-festival awards across the country.

Photo courtesy of Robert Camina.

Nordstrom: How did it feel to be named grand marshal of New Orleans Pride?

Robert: It was a tremendous honor. It also came as a complete surprise.

In June of the previous year, New Orleans had been the home of the world premiere of my documentary UpStairs Inferno, a comprehensive, compassionate look at the UpStairs Lounge arson in New Orleans on June 24, 1973, which [at that time] was considered the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history. When I set out to make the film, I knew I would be asking survivors and members of the New Orleans community to talk about a very sensitive, guarded and painful time in their lives. I’m grateful that so many people trusted me with their memories, and it was my privilege to tell this story. As the names and pictures of the victims appeared on the screen at the end of the film, audience members stood up in respect. That was followed by a standing ovation, tears, hugs and thank-yous. I’m incredibly grateful for how much the New Orleans LGBTQ community embraced me and the film. I never imagined that would extend to the honor of a New Orleans Pride grand marshal.

To me, being grand marshal meant serving as an ambassador for the LGBTQ community.  A grand marshal is a face of Pride, serving as a liaison between the hosts of the festivities and the public, including media. The role often includes being a spokesperson for Pride. Little did I know how much that responsibility would play a role during my reign.

Was there anything you did to prepare for the role?

Nothing could prepare me—or anybody else, for that matter—for Pride 2016. Only five days before the New Orleans Pride festivities, Omar Mateen entered Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, killing 49 members of our community. The world was still in shock, struggling with grief, anger and fear. Gay Pride celebrations are opportunities to revel in our diversity and accomplishments, but the LGBTQ community didn’t even have an entire year to breathe in the victory of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage before it was forced to face the deadliest single attack against the gay community in American history.

Because I was grand marshal, reporters turned to me to get my thoughts about New Orleans Pride, the Pulse massacre and the impact of the shooting on the local celebration. Appearing on a morning talk show, I served to ease fears, provide information about safety and let everyone know that Pride was still happening. It was important to emphasize that everyone was invited to the festivities, no matter their background.

There’s no denying that the Pride parties and riding in the parade were incredibly fun, but during that crucial time, I felt being grand marshal meant doing a lot more for our community. It was an honor and a privilege to use that opportunity to speak to the media and festival crowds about unity, love and equality—and, hopefully, provide some reassurance and comfort to those grieving or living in fear in the immediate wake of Pulse.

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HIV/AIDS Activist Krishna Stone,
New York City GM, 2017

Krishna Stone is the director of community relations for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which works on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy; she also has volunteered as an announcer along the NYC Pride March route for many years.

Photo courtesy of NYC Pride.

Nordstrom: Can you tell us how it felt to be asked to take on the role of grand marshal for NYC? What does it entail to be GM in one of the world’s greatest annual marches? 

Krishna: The day of the 2017 Pride March was probably one of the best days of my adult life—next to giving birth to my daughter, Parade, who is now 23 years old. She rode in the convertible car with me along the Pride march route. I cried, laughed and waved to thousands of people. It was a tremendous experience to absorb and embrace. My outfit was especially fantastic! I wore a wedding dress that used to belong to comedian Lisa Lampanelli, a bedazzled GMHC T-shirt that was decorated by a friend who is a remarkable artist and art teacher, and the grand marshal sash. I was proud to represent GMHC, Heritage of Pride/NYC Pride, and mothers who are loving and empowering their children to be who they want to be.

While the LGBTQ community is diverse and the needs are wide ranging, what do you see as the biggest issue facing the LGBTQ movement right now? And what can each of us do to help support the cause?

I don’t think there is one issue that is the biggest for the LGBTQ community. There are many complex issues. What I hope that each of us can continue to do is to volunteer, donate funds to non-profit organizations that work with the LGBTQ community, vote for elected officials that are supportive of LGBTQ people, attend Pride events, attend marches and rallies, support documentaries, films, theater, music, literature, dance and art that focus on the lives of LGBTQ people—and more. I also think we need to have more conversations that may be uncomfortable but necessary, particularly about sexual and gender identities, in safe and nonjudgmental places.

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