Jalika T Raine remembers it as one of the best moments of her life. A decade-long drag performer, Raine was asked to perform before the 2017 Pride parade.

“I stepped out, and I performed Rather Be in a sea of people I couldn’t even see past,” she said. “…I get a little choked up every time I talk about it because in that moment I was just feeling all of the love and energy. It was crazy. It’s a high that I want to go back to.

“There’s nothing like stepping out and just seeing the sea of people literally up and down 39th Street.”

Pride month is typically busy for drag artists like Raine. This year is different. Instead of headliners entertaining thousands of people, they will perform on screens across the state.

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened throughout the beginning of the year, Pride organizers were forced to pivot from festivals and parades to virtual events.

Pride goes digital, but message remains

Allie Shinn, front, executive director of local advocacy organization Freedom Oklahoma, marches with members and supporters in the 2019 Oklahoma City Pride parade. (Steph Montelongo)

For the first time in decades, the Oklahoma City Pride parade, the state’s largest, won’t march down 39th Street.

“It’s an unprecedented time,” said Hannah Royce, president of the OKC Pride Alliance. 

“So often we think we’re just Oklahoma City Pride, when really, people do travel from all over the state — and sometimes surrounding states — to come to this event to feel surrounded by people who look like them and love them for who they are.”

The nonprofit initially postponed its event, but as the pandemic worsened, Royce said the best solution was to take the festival online. Virtual Pride Week launched Monday and features several Oklahoma artists, musicians, performers and LGBTQ+ resources.

Royce said the Pride Alliance is also working to support and uplift Black Lives Matter demonstrations after its vice president was asked to resign earlier this month for including “Blue Lives Matter” on his Facebook profile. The group is creating racial sensitivity coursework for its members and hoping to diversify its board, Royce said.

“Last year was the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, but this year we’re actually able to see it in front of our faces,” she said, citing the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

“This is the truest Pride we’ve had in a long time. It’s not just a parade and glitter. It’s about the hard work that has to be done.”

James Cooper, who was sworn in as the Oklahoma City’s first openly gay council member in 2019, said it is important to remember and honor those who fought for LGBTQ+ equality. (Steph Montelongo)

James Cooper, Ward 2 representative for Oklahoma City, said the LGBTQ+ community has made significant strides in recent decades thanks to hard work and resilience, but he knows there’s still work to do. He’s been encouraged by developments in Oklahoma City, including new street improvements planned for the 39th Street District, historically home to the Pride festival and parade and most of the city’s gay bars and nightclubs.

Cooper, who was sworn in as the city’s first openly gay council member in 2019, said it’s more important now than ever to remember those who fought for LGBTQ+ equality, especially as the coronavirus spreads and Black Lives Matter protests continue in the U.S.

“The first Pride at Stonewall was LGBTQ+ people putting their literal bodies on the line in protest because their bodies were already on the line, their livelihoods were on the line already,” Cooper said, noting that many gay and lesbian people were shamed in newspapers, forced out of the closet and fired from their jobs — something LGBTQ+ people in many states, including Oklahoma, faced until 2020.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a 1964 civil rights law barring workplace discrimination based on sex extends to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. The ruling came days after the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era health care protections for transgender Americans on the anniversary of the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

The Stonewall Riots, commonly seen as the inception of Pride, were about fighting back against a police force that attacked people for simply being LGBTQ+, said Allie Shinn, executive director of local advocacy organization Freedom Oklahoma.

“So many of the reasons that folks started throwing those bricks at Stonewall are still happening today on a wide scale, and that’s just not acceptable,” she said. 

“This is really an appropriate year to take a step back and think through what Pride really means and how we keep that spirit alive. Frankly, the BLM movement, the young Black, POC kids on the streets in Oklahoma City and every major city in this country right now are doing a much better job carrying the spirit of pride ahead than any LGBTQ+ organization could do.”

Providing resources

Pride organizers say people typically come from all over the state and even other states to celebrate in Oklahoma City.  (Nick Marek Photography)

Brandi Davis, founder of Urban Pride Events, said she’s worked for years to create a more inclusive community for LGBTQ+ Oklahomans of color. She said Black, Native American and Hispanic LGBTQ+ people often face more difficulty when coming out, including a lack of family support — something Davis has experienced firsthand.

“Some people are so hidden and not accepted that (Pride) is the only time that they can be themselves. We lose the chance to save someone or help someone” when those events are canceled or postponed, Davis said.

In the face of COVID-19, Davis has worked to adapt upcoming Urban Pride events to ensure attendees feel safe. Her group is planning an event at Oklahoma City’s Lost Lakes outdoor water complex in late June, which Davis hopes will foster a sense of community for those who still want to celebrate Pride.

“There is love here. If you don’t have family, you can come to Pride and there is love,” she said.

At Freedom Oklahoma, the focus has also shifted in response to the pandemic. Shinn said it was crucial to identify community needs and find affirming providers early on to address the fact that COVID-19 affects the LGBTQ+ community disproportionately.

“Freedom Oklahoma has really been trying to think of how this affects LGBTQ+ folks differently than it affects the rest of the population,” she said.

The LGBTQ+ community has a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus and suffering disproportionately due to its economic impact, Shinn said.

“We know that we have a high rate of immunocompromised folks in our community,” she said. “We know that the sheer trauma of being LGBTQ+ in America means that we have a higher rate of addiction to tobacco products and cigarettes, and this is a disease that is attacking folks in their lungs. Then we also just think about the fact that this pandemic is going to affect people economically for the foreseeable future, for the years to come.”

Because of that, Shinn said the organization worked to create a comprehensive list of affirming resources for mental and physical health, financial aid and food. 

“We compiled a list of food pantries in all 77 counties because we knew that it was going to be crucial that people have immediate access to getting their most immediate needs met: food, shelter, water,” she said. “We had to call every single food pantry in Oklahoma to ask if they serve LGBTQ+ folks because we live in a time in 2020 America where a lot of places still will not serve LGBTQ+ folks.”

CORONAVIRUS STORYTELLING PROJECT

Entertainers Affected

The pandemic presented a unique opportunity for local drag artist Jak’kay Monroe. For years, Monroe hosted a competition for young performers at the Wreck Room, an all-ages venue along 39th Street, before the space closed a few years ago.

When other businesses and nightclubs shut down earlier this year to slow the spread of coronavirus, many entertainers in Oklahoma and around the nation were left without stages, so Monroe decided to create one.

“As a drag artist, that’s your life, that’s your battery — entertaining people, getting all that attention.”

Encouraged by friends and social media followers, Monroe revived the Wreck Room contest online. In April, “Jak’kay’s Idol” welcomed 21 new competitors, including drag artists from as far away as Oregon and Florida. Each week, contestants face off in different creative categories, fashioning photos, videos, garments and more before the best are selected.

Monroe, who has been nicknamed GG — “great grandma” — by younger drag artists, said moving the show online has helped connect LGBTQ+ Oklahomans during the pandemic, especially since many won’t experience Pride as usual this year.

“It’s kind of become better than our live seasons because you can get more audience reach (on social media),” Monroe said. “It sparked an interest in our show and resparked new ideas and concepts. It’s been pretty cool.”

Jalika T Raine has not hosted virtual events but said watching others do so helped boost her mood during tough times.

“It was very entertaining to watch live broadcasts, whether it be someone performing in their living room or whatever,” Raine said. “Watching everyone else find ways to be creative and cope with this helped me connect with them.”

The pandemic has also provided Raine with more time to dedicate to her drag, which in turn has made her more passionate about the art form.

“It definitely benefited my creativity,” she said. “I’ve sown a lot of costumes, I’ve ordered some hair, all kinds of stuff. It helped me get my love for the art form back because I miss it so much.”

‘Shoulders of giants’

While Oklahomans adapt to Pride month in a pandemic, Cooper said it’s critical to honor the sacrifices made by the everyday leaders of LGBTQ+ rights movement — from activists to entertainers — as progress is made today. He recounted stories of advocate Larry Kramer, who fought the CDC during the HIV/AIDS crisis, and other LGBTQ+ trailblazers like Marsha P. Johnson.

“We’ve lost too many leaders in the LGBTQ+ movement — not just to HIV/AIDS, but to discrimination and bigotry, to violence,” Cooper said.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants. The first people who stood up for themselves at Stonewall were black and brown, they were drag queens, they were transgender. Remember they were at the forefront of Pride. They said, ‘It’s time to be as brave and courageous as we can be’ — and that is Pride.”

Miguel Rios most recently led Oklahoma Gazette’s news section, focusing on local issues that affect marginalized communities. After being laid off, Rios leveraged his communications skills to join Oklahoma Policy Institute’s communications department as its storybanker. Contact him at miguelrios780@gmail.com

Siali Siaosi has been an online editor for The Oklahoman since 2015. A native New Mexican, Siali got his start in journalism at the Pioneer, Oklahoma City Community College’s student newspaper, before earning his mass communication degree from the University of Central Oklahoma. Contact him at ssiaosi@oklahoman.com

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at msherman@oklahomawatch.org.


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