In previous years, a vibrantly colored sea of members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community created a powerful presence as they paraded down Norman's Main Street during Pride Month. The sounds of cars passing on the street near crowds of people were easily masked by the joyous cries and celebratory dances of participants.
Police officers waved rainbow-colored flags as they passed, the fur of participants' dogs bore the bright hues of Pride, and representatives from Norman’s Free Mom Hugs embraced on-lookers — all in honor of the battles members of the LGBTQ+ community have fought for acceptance and the ones that have not yet been fought.
Now, because of COVID-19, downtown Norman is eerily quiet. The only time its streets experience crowds similar to ones of past Pride celebrations is when protesters marching for social justice pass through them.
Despite a lack of in-person events, members of the OU and Norman community are adapting their celebrations of Pride Month and focusing on advocating for members of all communities.
'It is good to celebrate the progress we have made'
OU’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is hosting webinars to highlight different populations on campus. June 10, the office honored Pride Month by focusing on the LGBTQ+ community with a History of Pride webinar.
“In line with one of our pillars — awareness — we are hosting a series of webinars to include … ways we can make our spaces more accessible,” Teara Flagg Lander, the office’s director, said in an email. “I think attending and supporting the many virtual Pride events is one way (to show allyship in these unique times).”
The Gender + Equality Center has also planned celebratory events during Pride Month, such as LGBTQ+ aspiring ally training. As the U.S. enters into a civil rights revolution, however, Quan Phan — the center’s LGBTQ+ program coordinator — said in an email it seems inappropriate to celebrate Pride without addressing current injustices.
“We adjusted our course to provide more training opportunities for people who are wanting to expand their perspectives and be better-aspiring allies,” Phan said in the email. “We also want to shine the light on the racial inequity within the LGBTQ+ community, as we are not a homogenous group, and discuss how we can move forward as a community to fight for the rights and freedom for everyone within our community.”
Although Pride is now a celebration, Phan said in the email it is important to observe the history of Pride, which was built on a foundation of protest and riots. Just as inequity has forced Black people to continue fighting for equality, Phan said LGBTQ+ people have historically turned to acts of civil disobedience in response to the harassment they faced.
The Stonewall riots were a pivotal instance of persecution within the LGBTQ+ community, and an uprising, Phan said, that served as a turning point for the LGBTQ+ movement.
In June 1969, Phan said in the webinar, police raided Stonewall Inn — historically defined as a gay bar — and incited brutality against patrons. The raid sparked violent demonstrations from members of the gay and trans communities as they protested the actions of the police.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — both gay liberation and transgender activists of color — were two among many who were inspired to use Stonewall as a gathering point where information spreading and LGBTQ+ community building could occur, Phan said in the webinar. He said in the email Pride started with the Stonewall riots and, without them, the community would not be able to express itself as freely as it does now.
“It is good to celebrate the progress we have made,” Phan said in the email. “We must, (however), remember the pain and sacrifice of community activists and leaders before us have made … (so we can) publicly celebrate and affirm our identities. We must also remember there are intra-community issues such as racism, sexism, ableism, etc. within our own community, and there is still work to be done.”
'Celebrating Pride means finding what you can do to contribute in a positive way to the world around you'
The LGBTQ+ community’s ability to proudly wave multicolored flags, carry vibrant balloons and adorn their faces with rainbows during a month dedicated to them is a mark of progress that holds immense significance to members. Olivia Bicknell, a Russian language senior at OU, said she didn’t realize how vital her first celebration of Pride truly was until years later.
“It was probably in 2008 when I went to my first Pride (in Oklahoma City) … with my best friend at the time as an ally,” Bicknell said. “I kind of knew then that I liked girls … but I had never dated one. … Seeing Queer people in Oklahoma and support from the community (became) really important to me.”
Watching crowds advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Oklahoma is something Bicknell said gave her the confidence to come out, despite a lack of support from her family. She is now able to celebrate Pride openly with her girlfriend.
“(Amid the pandemic), I have learned celebrating Pride doesn’t have to be big or public — you don't have to have a huge crowd,” Bicknell said. “To me, celebrating Pride means finding what you can do to contribute in a positive way to the world around you … especially within the Queer community.”
Astrophysics and mathematics senior London Wilson said social media provides ample ways to celebrate Pride Month during the pandemic safely. Right now, however, she believes it is more important for people to stand in solidarity with the Black community.
“We have to remember that the first Pride was a riot started by transwomen of color against police brutality,” Wilson said. “I think that is the Pride we should be focusing on right now, by supporting the people (of color) in our community that need our support.”
Wilson said she has devoted much of her Pride Month to showing allyship by donating to Black Lives Matter funds, attending city council meetings and emailing local Norman representatives in hopes of educating them on issues of race. In educating others, Wilson said it is also important to be willing to learn.
“It's still important to educate yourself on these matters so that whenever you come in conflict with other people in your circle that are … not being supportive of the movements … you can change that person’s perspective,” Wilson said.
As Norman’s LGBTQ+ community stands in solidarity with the Black community, Pride Month has also seen LGBTQ+ people continue to experience oppression, Phan said in the webinar.
June 12, President Donald Trump finalized a rule that would remove non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in healthcare and health insurance. Although a coalition of LGBTQ+ clinics plans to sue Trump’s administration on the grounds of discrimination, Bicknell said the idea of reduced access to healthcare during a pandemic is challenging to consider.
“I cannot even begin to describe how appalling it is that our president would do this, especially during a pandemic,” Bicknell said. “Discrimination based on sex, gender identity or orientation is not OK. … I am hoping to see it struck down.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 15 decision to protect LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination based on sex through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, however, is a signal of hope for the LGBTQ+ community. Phan said in the email this nondiscrimination policy is strong at OU, and he is excited to see it backed by federal law.
“I am hoping this creates a greater (sense) of belonging for our LGBTQ+ employees at OU,” Lander said in the email. “I think it speaks volumes that the Supreme Court has ruled to support the rights of LGBTQ+ employees across the country.”
While the Supreme Court’s decision has seen positive responses, Trump’s decision has been heavily disputed across the nation. Amid immense political conflict, Samantha Howard said she is glad to be in Norman.
“We are personally still trying to build our network of doctors and other providers that are LGBTQ+ friendly,” Howard, president of the Norman chapter of PFLAG, said. “We’re very thankful to be in Norman where we do have protections outside of those the state of Oklahoma has passed, making it a friendly town for all people.”
'What we need to do is earn back the trust of the communities that we've ignored for so long'
OU’s School of Medicine has also been a pioneer in creating safe healthcare environments for LGBTQ+ people. Riley Darby-McClure, a third-year medical student, developed a workshop in April 2019 to help his peers better understand and accommodate the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Starting medical school, I realized there was a huge opportunity for growth in this area,” Darby-McClure said. “I think a significant portion of the patients we see are from the LGBTQ+ community, and we know that there’s a lot of health disparities there. … We really have to consider how we might be contributing to those health disparities based on (if) we are educating ourselves enough to take care of this community.”
The workshop itself includes education sessions, patient-actor encounters and group discussions following those simulations. Darby-McClure said feedback from students was positive — they found it challenging, but also helpful in understanding LGBTQ+ experiences.
“As a trans person myself, I know seeking health care can be really scary and when you (do) … providers might not be educated (and) make hurtful comments either intentionally or unintentionally,” Darby-McClure said. “What we need to do is earn back the trust of the communities that we've ignored for so long.”
Darby-McClure said the College of Medicine’s Academy of Teaching Scholars is generously supporting his workshops with grants. He said seeing so many people unite in support of the LGBTQ+ community is very special.
“The patient-actors actually volunteered their time to be trained by the testing center … to learn their cases and to be there with the students sharing their experiences,” Darby-McClure said. “We were really fortunate to get this grant … to provide the community members compensation for their efforts. … I think a lot of people in minority communities who are constantly advocating don't often receive compensation for their efforts.”
Amid the possible finalization of Trump’s LGBTQ+ policy, OU’s School of Medicine plans to turn Darby-McClure’s workshop into a class. Darby-McClure said this is a sign of progress, as the curriculum will teach medical students to examine their biases and assume cultural humility.
“I think there's huge opportunities here to grow and be a leader within Oklahoma,” Darby-McClure said. “I (believe) this program and other programs like this are a first step to showing our values through action.”
The fight for total equity, however, does not end with Pride Month, Phan said in the email. As Pride Month comes to an end, Phan said he encourages people to continue educating themselves on how to be effective allies of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Allyship is not a destination where we can just arrive or a finish line that we can cross,” Phan said in an email. “As (poet and civil rights activist) Maya (Angelou) said, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’ … It will be hard work, (as) equity and justice will not be done overnight, but we must continue to be willing to learn and change our perspectives so we can humanize ourselves and others.”