Pride has never looked like this before. Parades are canceled. Gatherings are a public health concern. But that hardly means that Pride is canceled; scores of people have taken to the street in protest for Black Lives Matter. For those who can’t, celebrating Pride in quarantine is a protest itself. This month, Esquire is examining what Pride means now, beyond the parade and for the next 50 years—whether it’s advocating for justice over Zoom, discovering the intersectionality too often missing from Pride, or simply existing as a trans father. The protest continues.
There was a woman named Emerald who lived in Montgomery, Alabama, for a good part of her 31 years, but she’s gone now. If you Google her name, there is only one result about her—a Facebook post from her church about a memorial service following her suicide this past January. The results are instead flooded with stories about 31-year-old Dana Martin, because, as misfortune would have it, Dana was murdered in Montgomery the January before. That’s two years in a row that Montgomery women were the nation’s first trans casualties. In a queer community as small as Montgomery’s, that echoes like a firecracker in an oil barrel.
Echoes ring in your ear for months to come. That’s evident as about 10 of Montgomery Pride United’s 50 or so members gather on a Zoom call in late May for a monthly storytelling event that is usually held in person. One of the advocacy group’s founders talks about growing up in Montgomery, recalling a memory of herself as a girl, when she laid on the ground and poured her energy into the earth. One member decides to read a couple passages from his journal about Emerald. His camera jostles a bit as he struggles to hold it and the journal and his tears. Jose Vazquez, the organization’s president, sends me a private message to explain that Emerald was beloved among MPU. Frankly, this is a very intimate Zoom call for a stranger to join. But to read a description of an MPU storytelling hour is one thing. To join in is to be immediately engulfed in the community.
Montgomery, a city of nearly 200,000, has just one Pride organization. Meta Ellis and her wife Emma McDaniel-Ellis brought it to life only five years ago along with the community center that houses it, which has been around for three. They use a lot of hard work, small donations, and relentless passion to keep the program going. The year started with Emerald’s passing, and with COVID-19—in a city where being queer can already be isolating—the distance that the coronavirus quarantine has put between members feels so far and so thick and so incredibly lonely at times.
For MPU, this Pride month is the most important protest it—and the rest of the country—has championed in a while. Those members who can are hitting the streets of Montgomery to fight for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the reality is, high-risk members simply can’t take the chance; due to workplace and healthcare discrimination, COVID-19 disproportionately affects queer people. So MPU is also pushing ahead with #PrideInPlace, an initiative that encourages people to still celebrate Pride from home. For some in MPU’s community, protecting themselves from disease exposure is a political act in itself. For others, the acts of defiance are happening among protesters in public. Like Meta and Emma say, Pride was never just about a parade. It was and is a protest—even if it’s a protest of one.
You might not expect a queer reckoning in Montgomery, Alabama. “There’s a lot of good people here,” Meta tells me over the phone, “but it is still such an uphill battle when it comes to just about everything, because people really do want to just throw us under the rug and not have to deal with us, period.” That’s evident in a lot of ways. Currently, the state of Alabama is trying to block gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors. Last year in Montgomery specifically, the police stopped into a restaurant hosting a Pride after-party for a “routine inspection” at 10:45 p.m., shut the party down before it started, and said the restaurant did not have a license to operate past midnight. Mind you, this message was delivered by about a dozen officers—yet another story of excess in police recourse.
That might intimidate some, but not veterans to the fight. The two women who lead MPU are both in their 60s. Meta is a petite woman whose long gray hair is perpetually in a braid. Her father, Reverend Robert Graetz, was one of the few white pastors who openly supported the Montgomery bus boycotts. Her childhood home was bombed by the KKK, so she’s seen worse. Emma, slightly taller, has a pair of rectangular glasses and fine brown hair. A trans woman, she has championed LGBTQ rights for years. Emma, sincerely blunt in tone, tells me, “Justin, we met on the steps of the Alabama Supreme Court fighting for marriage equality.” That’s a story you couldn’t write any better if you wanted.
Five years later, Meta and Emma are married and facing a new hurdle for their community. When COVID-19 got serious, “we cancelled all of our events and let people know that we would still be available for food and clothing supplies, and that we would get back with everybody,” says Meta. Focus and support groups were moved online. Decreased hours for community outreach were implemented. Members were encouraged to contact the team directly for assistance while it continued to assess who might be in danger of losing employment and housing. Meta and Ellis began taking calls from members looking for companionship. “We had a young person who desperately needed to just be with somebody,” Meta explains. “We called up somebody to see if they would be willing to go to the park and take walks with this person, still distancing.”
The thing about Meta and Emma’s work is that it encompasses the hospitality of the South. “Meta and Emma are amazing at understanding people and knowing when they need support,” says board member Lucia Hermo, who recently relocated to New York. “Right when you come in, you’re brought in. You’re welcomed with open arms, because that’s the purpose of Montgomery Pride.”
More than two months after the shutdown started, the entirely volunteer-run MPU staff is offering online services—like support groups and trans-visibility nights for isolated members—to about 100 people a week. COVID-19 closed the city’s one gay bar, so MPU serves as the digital stomping ground. For those in desperate need, the community center remains open on Tuesdays and Fridays to distribute food and clothing.
While there are some gay social groups in Montgomery, MPU is the only organization looking out for the welfare of LGBTQ people. And as Pride month approached, it knew that even if it were able to congregate for its regular Pride festivities, resources should continue to go toward caring for its people. “We’re worried,” says Hermo. “We’re worried about our community members getting access to food and people paying their rent. We really wanted to make sure we weren’t pulled away from that community support work.”
So instead of doing the march in Montgomery followed by a street fair, MPU decided to highlight how people celebrate Pride at home. Vazquez notes that for a lot of queer, rural Americans, celebrating alone and from a distance is the reality of Pride anyway. In a small town of 500, one gay man or woman may feel like the world’s most obvious sore thumb. Imagine being trans in that town. With #PrideInPlace, MPU wants to bring those rural queer folk into the fold by reaching out beyond even the city limits of Montgomery to invite them to participate in a June slate of online storytelling hours, support groups, performances, and social hangouts.
Vazquez, who moved to Montgomery a couple years ago (he previously worked at Google in San Francisco, bringing Pride experiences to people across the country via virtual reality), helped to transition the team online for Pride 2020, knowing that the most important goal was to show community members and outsiders that the events would be available. “I tell people to go to every event in Montgomery, because your presence is felt,” he says.
MPU then kicked off this year’s Pride month with posts honoring Marsha P. Johnson and links to donate to Montgomery-area bail funds after the protests against police brutality started. Members of MPU have been out rallying in recent weeks, and it’s a daunting balancing act: prioritizing personal health or necessary social justice activism. They are admittedly exhausted. But three hours away in Emma’s hometown of Hunstville, a three-year-old was tear gassed by police. These protests are always personal.
When I had first spoken with Meta and Emma, before the protests spread, they had been quick to note that an organization like theirs cannot exist without intersectionality. It’s quite literally in the mission of their name: Montgomery Pride United. “We’re hoping that this becomes, that the world at large becomes, a safe place for all people to grow up, and not be bullied or made to feel less than simply for their sexuality or any differences. In fact, it would be wonderful if people’s differences were celebrated,” Meta said. “I see so much division between races, between countries, between people of different sexualities. I would wish for a world where people were excited to meet folks that were different from them.”
Until Montgomery becomes the kind of place where all people have the access and acceptance they need to feel protected, especially in times of crisis, MPU will stand for them. “When we opened our first community center years ago, our research found that there were only three counselors in the entire city of Montgomery who [indicated] they would treat or consult with LGBTQ clients,” Emma explains. “Only three in the whole city.” With advocacy, that number is up to seven. Emma and Meta also say that it’s a similar struggle to get church groups to outright state that they are LGBTQ-affirming and will offer assistance to queer folk. That small indication can mean everything to struggling LGBTQ people in their city and the rural areas around it.
Some people in MPU are tethered to Montgomery in a way; there’s really no other place for them to be. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” Vazquez says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten that feeling, where your body just tells you this is where you’re supposed to be.” Montgomery is the state capital, yes, but compared to major cities, it’s small. A protest in Montgomery does not have the luxury of thousands, so every voice, every body, every attendee who calls it home feels bigger.
That makes this all the more complicated—stay home or rally in public; donate or volunteer; stay in your lane or venture out. Members of Montgomery Pride United might be finding ways to protest and contribute out of the way of COVID-19’s blind wrath, and they might be masking up and taking to the streets. But the endgame is the same: equality and stability. If those become the norm, then maybe the unthinkable moments like Dana and Emerald’s passings become less and less frequent. The echoes aren’t quite as painful. The community heals. And to quote Emma, “differences are celebrated instead of criticized.” For that to happen though, the work must continue, opposition and pandemic be damned.
So, perhaps Emerald is not gone. Emerald comes along for walks in the park. She lingers in Zoom calls. She exists in the protests that will happen in individual homes across Montgomery and beyond. And now, I suppose she’s with you, too.
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