On June 17, 2017, a small group of queer Black trans protesters and allies blocked my hometown’s pride parade. The plan was to “silently block the [Stonewall Columbus Pride] parade for seven minutes to hold space for Black and brown queer and trans people.” The seven minutes corresponded to the seven bullets police officer Jeronimo Yanez fired at Philando Castile at close range, killing him, an act Yanez was charged for, but acquitted of the day before Columbus Pride. Nothing like those seven bullet minutes passed before Columbus police swiftly and forcefully stopped the protest, arresting “four Black queer and trans folks” on various charges. Those arrested became famous as the “Black Pride 4.”
Five years later, the Black Pride 4’s protest—along with pride-timed and other protests elsewhere, and marches, conversations, and community work in their wake—has precipitated a reckoning in Columbus’s and other LGBTQ communities across the nation. LGBTQ individuals and leaders—not themselves queer, Black, or trans—and many LGBTQ organizations are finally grappling with the violent realities and material privations queer Black trans people regularly suffer, along with whether and how to center queer Black trans people and their liberation as key to LGBTQ politics.
Despite the path the Black Pride 4’s 2017 Columbus Pride protest has forged inside LGBTQ communities, it has not generated widespread academic engagement—yet. Zane McNeill and Kyra Smith’s Whose Pride Is This Anyway? The Quare Performance of the #Black Pride4 promises to help change that.
McNeill and Smith build on earlier work, including McNeill’s with Blu Buchanan, to theorize the Black Pride 4’s protest in novel terms. Seeking to discern what may “be gained by reconceptualizing political actions and social movements as dialogic art practices,” McNeill and Smith venture the Black Pride 4’s protest need not be understood as a conventional political intervention on conventional political terrain. (P. 210.) They feature the protest instead as “socially engaged art,” “carefully constructed performance, each element imbued with meaning.” (P. 204.) Framed this way, this “Black-centric performance of protest,” which showed Columbus Pride’s slide from original moments of creative and rebellious invention into a predictable ritual for defined and closed audiences in partnership with state-based order-keeping and police violence, was still politically drenched. (P. 204.) What McNeill and Smith’s aesthetic-political accounting risks by abandoning standard materialist arguments focused on the violences, harms, and traumas associated with the protest, are reconfigured, if not overcome, by fresh understandings of the protest’s dynamics and how art-politics may yield meaningful material social transformations, including transformations flowing from a key moment of liberatory practice others have widely missed.
Following Jose Muñoz, McNeill and Smith figure the Black Pride 4’s artistic intervention at 2017’s Columbus pride as “disidentificatory performance.” (P. 204.) Meaning: The protest was a “performative act” “present in and reacting against existing spaces”—here Pride and its organization—a performative act that opened onto social dialogue that has been “‘an integral part of the work’” ever since. (Pp. 204, 211.) Responsive to queer Black trans exclusion from Columbus Pride and its planning, and other centers of local and larger LGBTQ politics long dominated by cis and white leadership and values, the Black Pride 4’s performance art has generated vital social discussions in various LGBTQ quarters on the lived conditions and futures of queer Black trans life and politics.
The different ways McNeill and Smith describe the protest’s performativity will lead many readers to regard it as protest theater, a term they never use. Even cast this way, McNeill and Smith intend no disparagement. Emphasizing the protest’s performative dimensions enables McNeill and Smith to expose and engage the artwork’s relations to larger social conditions—including conditions of Black, including queer Black trans, precarity and necropolitics that urgently demand change.
McNeill and Smith’s depiction of the Black Pride 4’s protest as artistic performance refutes those understandings of the protest that imagine it was over nearly as quickly as it began. Expanding the protest’s timeline beyond protesters seizing the street and then being violently arrested, McNeill and Smith show the protest’s dynamics were moving both before the protest formally began and long after initial audiences—folks in the parade, parade-watchers, and Columbus police (along with, presumably, others working the parade)—dispersed.
McNeill and Smith say the protest and its audiences “spool[ed] out” across time, space, and membership. (P. 210.) Before long, the protest included responses by “media, the criminal justice system, and the ripple-effect political actions and artistic responses that [the protest] inspired.” (P. 204.) McNeill and Smith’s work demonstrates the performance continues to spool.
Describing this spooling another way, McNeill and Smith indicate the Black Pride 4’s protest performance functioned partly by dismantling the fourth wall separating protesters from early audiences. If the Black Pride 4 were the protest’s key actors, they were also its co-authors, writing knowledgeably about realities and traumas of living as queer, Black, and trans inside, at the margins, and outside hostile, overlapping cisheteronormative and cishomonormative social orders. Their protest script did not allow white, cis, LGB, and straight audiences passively to watch a show. Audience members were “pulled…into” the performance, becoming actors on a stage that expanded as the Black Pride 4 rewrote the parade’s script into one that centered queer Black trans lives and violences that Black people inside and outside LGBTQ communities suffer. (P. 214.) Rescripted, the parade temporarily ceased marginalizing or erasing them.
As the protest’s initial shocks wore off, audience members, regaining their composures and usual ways of being, transformed into at least partially willing actors, if not always fully self-conscious ones, inside the unfolding play. This scripting process—which may surface memories of civil rights protests in the South that scripted and conscripted police like Bull Conner and others into protest performances—was one that Columbus police ostensibly took charge of, responding to events by forcefully blocking, encircling, and violently holding and arresting the Black Pride 4.
This turn of events left many supposing Columbus police acted entirely autonomously when shutting the protest down. McNeill and Smith suggest this is mistaken, given how the arrests prolonged the performance, shifting its stage while opening new scenes and acts. The conventional assessment of police achievement also errs, according to McNeill and Smith, given how it confuses police actions with a wall-to-wall takeover of the protest scene—a takeover regularly imagined as blotting out protesters’ subjectivity.
In some ways, that happened. The force—the reported brutality—of police actions were not the Black Pride 4’s chosen scripts. But this does not mean police sole-authored the arrests, which were “expected” as the “antagonistic response” to the creative civil disobedience. (P. 213.) The police’s response was notably conditioned by the Black Pride 4. Without forgetting that the arrests disserved and harmed the Black Pride 4 in body, minds, and other terms, McNeill and Smith trace how the arrests furthered the Black Pride 4’s artistic-political project. The police themselves, after all, showcased lived conditions of queer Black trans life, including police domination, in bright daylight. The idea is that the Black Pride 4 retained a measure of agency throughout the performance, even when under arrest. It was regrettable—some insist, avoidable—that some actors that day, including protesters and police officers, were injured in the making of this art.
While the Black Pride 4 shaped events and politically-choreographed police, it was not by using physical force like that exercised by police. It was, rather, through artistic leveraging of rote social scripts that structure “the invisible system of violence created and supported by both straight and gay white society.” (P. 208.) Ultimately, the Black Pride 4’s protest performance brought this system into relief, managing without creating it whole cloth. It was also this system that complexly reduced police into performers whose anti-queer-Black-and-trans scripts appeared neither unfamiliar to, nor uncomfortable for, them.
No less predictable than police actions were the social subroutines that some pride-watchers played out.
This iconic photo, snapshotting what happened at Pride, encapsulates larger social realities queer Black trans people live day-to-day—realities the Black Pride 4 were protesting. Beyond the white-over-black color drama amidst police subjugation of a queer Black trans person, standing in here for other queer Black trans people also arrested on that and other days, the photo portrays the blithe indifference and active support of cis white people inside LGBTQ communities for state practices that bespeak ongoing authority involving “‘control, ownership, and manipulation of Black bodies.’” (P. 207.)
On one interpretation, the photo centers Wriply Bennet—queer Black trans protester-actor and co-author of the Black Pride 4’s protest—being arrested and handled by three Columbus police. If this muscular exercise, removing Bennet, meant to restore the parade’s “order,” that order—an “LGBT utopian imagining of Stonewall Columbus”—didn’t make space center-stage for queer Black and trans people like Bennet. (Pp. 217, 212.)
The parade’s proper subjects, and what its utopian imagining involved, are photographically represented by those on the street’s far side. Stated provisionally, all those people, except perhaps one, appear white. Some are paying attention to what police are doing to Bennet. One is photographing or videographing the action as others look on or away. Visually prominent, two women who could themselves be cis lesbians, if not straight allies standing in, are tracking Bennet’s arrest. Their bodily energy registers delight over Bennet’s removal. The woman on the left, looking cis and white, is mid-handclap. She and the woman to her right, also pallid—whose age, gender identity, and relation to the first are wonderfully unclear—stand mouths agape, evoking noise-making in Bennet’s direction. If shouting, or “cackling,” it’s at, not with—or for—Bennet.
The photo’s us-them configurations—and who’s on which side—are unmistakable, as is how outflanked Bennet is, the lone queer Black trans body in the frame, a “threat” despite showing no signs of resistance. (But that’s only because of state might, right?)
All these features of the scene convey the familiar story of the basic political alignments of “mainstream” LGBTQ politics, which McNeill and Smith dub “lesbian and gay assimilationist politics.” (P. 205.) McNeill and Smith say these politics entail—as the photo represents—the forced, controlled “erasure of BTQPOC queers.” (Id.) At scale, this erasure translates into material conditions of queer Black trans social, political, and legal expendability—up to and including death.
Deeper into the Black Pride 4’s performance, McNeill and Smith open a possible explanation why this protest has, for many, been an enduring object of interest. Their assessment practically bespeaks the “aura” of this performance artwork, which others have widely missed. This aura may yet cause the art to travel as a pivot in LGBTQ politics.
Unlike those who have condemned the Black Pride 4’s protest for starkly repudiating Pride and local LGBTQ communities and institutions, McNeill and Smith insist the protest entailed no simple condemnation of the parade, nor, by implication, local communities or institutions. McNeill and Smith see and describe the protest as homage expressing a radical hope.
Partly, this hope involved a reformist impulse, saying: This pride parade and the utopian community it imagines and builds “does not yet include me, but one day or in some way it could.” (P. 214.) More radically, the protest performance—like similar pride protests elsewhere—manifested that hoped-for future in the then-present tense.
Toward that radicalism, McNeill and Smith propose that right there, on that street, during 2017 Columbus Pride, the Black Pride 4—if only for an instant—subverted an ultimately “state-controlled space.” (P. 214.) As McNeill and Smith observe, the Black Pride 4 accomplished their subversion of the parade by transforming “the white gay pride parade into an experiment of afro-futurism and Black trans liberation.” (Id.)
This expression is allusive, but highly significant. Initially, it figures the protest theater as an “act of culture jamming, the act of disrupting the normative … to reveal methods of domination.” (P. 208.) On a deeper level, however, figuring the Black Pride 4’s protest theater as an experiment of afro-futurity and Black trans liberation simultaneously means to claim the Black Pride 4 “transformed…Stonewall Pride…into a contested ‘quared’ space of resistance,” “quared” being a way of talking about “the unique intersection of Blackness and queerness” that arose within a performance at “the intersections of the aesthetic and the political.” (P. 208, 211.)
Momentarily subverting the “power hierarchies” and “jamm[ing]” their conventional arrangements, including “the association of (white) LGBT rights with US nationalism, white supremacy in gay spaces, and white gay complicity in Black trans death,” the Black Pride 4’s protest theater brought afro-futurity and Black trans liberation to social life inside its performative space. (P. 208.) What audiences witnessed—before police intervened—was an agentic moment of queer Black trans liberation. Giving radical hope life like this, the moment exclaimed queer Black trans people’s right to exist, to be, to protest, to be free, to ask for silence honoring their dead, and to take center-stage as equals to others in LGBTQ-identified space and the forms of consciousness that pervaded it. Rethink in these terms what the arrests—and pride-goers’ indifference and cheering—thwarted.
If ordinary forms of white cisheteronormative and cishomonormative life aligned against queer Black trans people were fleetingly suspended at the 2017 Pride parade—if the Black Pride 4 did co-create a moment manifesting afro-futurity and queer Black trans liberation that defined a slice of social life—the moment…was it real, performance, both?, does it matter how we describe it?, can it be reduced to description?…came and went so quickly that many then and since did not catch it. Returning to that moment, McNeill and Smith hold space for it in present tense, ensuring nobody else need miss it again.
McNeill and Smith teach: In the Black Pride 4’s great, socially engaged, and still-reverberating political performance artwork—work built from the pains, harms, traumas, experiences, and witnesses of wanton malformations of social life that could and should be free—the Black Pride 4, somehow, improbably, may have produced and lived an actual moment of queer Black trans liberation in 2017. Perhaps, then, if only (borrowing from Catharine MacKinnon) in “truly rare and contrapuntal glimpses,” queer Black trans liberation is not what many believe: an impossible dream that cannot ever be socially realized. As a practice of claiming and inhabiting the social world, queer Black trans liberation has existed, and may thus be returned to, recreated, amplified, and sustained. It might even be scaled in ways that arc toward the kinds of individual and collective life queer Black trans politics are regularly mobilizing for. Within those politics, queer Black trans freedom is in the heart and on the mind, as is freedom from all oppressions, including for all LGBTQ people—and others.
Realizing these larger hopes may be aided by LGBTQ communities generally recognizing what the Black Pride 4’s “Black-centric” “socially engaged art” lit up as it “disrupted the expectation of white gay bodies in celebration by forcing attention to the invisible system of violence created and supported by both straight and gay white society.” (Pp. 206, 208.) LGBTQ communities’ realignments—standing as, with, and for queer Black trans people—may be as simple and complex as ever-increasing numbers of LGBTQ people confronting how heteronormative and homonormative ways of being have lined up over and against queer Black trans life—alignments that, as “man’s creation,” in Ralph Ellison’s words, in that instant at 2017 Columbus Pride, may be suspended and collectively overcome.
Contrasted with pro-LGBTQ political impulses that center law reform and constitutional courts as linchpins for LGBTQ liberation, the Black Pride 4’s creative political world-making at Columbus’s 2017 Pride demonstrated, once again, that great protest art forges a mirror of reflection. Observing, what some LGBTQ people may see is how their identities and social positions depend on queer Black trans subordination and erasure. If with effort, staring in the mirror, those old forms of living may change. They may become newer forms of being, outlooks, affiliations, aspirations, and politics inside social worlds that many, striving for queer Black trans liberation, are working to build. As projects of self-fashioning, the practices—never easy, recognizing the pains attendant on realizing pro-LGBTQ social worlds many have been dreaming about aren’t so singularly glorious as widely supposed—may be understood queerly, as a dimension of Michel Foucault’s project of self-fashioning as a work of art. Beyond Foucault, this project engages histories of the figure of the Dandy, also a facet of Black diasporic identity, as Monica Miller’s work has shown.
The Black Pride 4’s political art protest delivered more than a mirror for self-reflective introspection. This performance art was—and is—an occasion for apprehending and experiencing the beauty of generally distant, but not unknown or never-lived dreams of queer Black trans liberation, part of a wide LGBTQ freedom, amidst the ugly, even grotesque, social truths of queer Black trans precarity and death that persist and must be faced. And faced—being on the level—as realities that many inside LGBTQ communities have also supported and helped co-create.
The Black Pride 4 never got the seven silent minutes for reflection on the conditions of queer Black trans life they asked for at the 2017 Columbus Pride parade. McNeill and Smith’s work, however, leaves room for the possibility that, with time, the Black Pride 4 may get something else they deserve, something even grander and more enduring: the serious and widespread consideration of what an afro-futurist social landscape that itself centers queer Black trans liberation might look like and be like as a liberationist landscape that builds out from the radical hope the Black Pride 4’s performance theater staged at Columbus, Ohio’s 2017 Stonewall Pride parade.
This hope is still traveling and taking root. Like maybe right here—and maybe starting right now—with you.