Following successful negotiations with the National Park Service, the fifth annual Pride in the City, New York City’s official black pride event, drew thousands to a ball field adjacent to Jacob Riis Beach at Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn on August 6.
“This year’s outdoor festival best illustrated the true pride, power, and love of the LGBT community of color from across the nation who refuse to let politics and homophobia get in the way of their celebration,” said Gary English, executive director of People of Color in Crisis (POCC), in a press statement.
POCC, a Brooklyn AIDS group, produces Pride in the City, which also includes an opening awards ceremony, an arts series, and a group picnic. In an interview, English estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 people attended this year’s closing beach event.
The beach event features performances and music, but organizers also stressed that HIV prevention is a large part of Pride in the City. In a tent at the beach, POCC tested 336 people for HIV, with 17 positive test results, while the city health department screened 30 for sexually transmitted diseases. POCC also distributed 5,000 packs that contained condoms and safe sex information.
“Those are good numbers and this is how you do innovative HIV prevention with a population that is very hard hit by HIV,” English said. “This is one of the ways Pride in the City reaches folks who won’t come into POCC and won’t go to a doctor’s office.”
POCC tested 86 people for HIV at last year’s beach event. Another 11 AIDS and LGBT community groups also delivered services in the tent.
This year’s beach event may not have happened but for some last minute pressure by POCC and other Pride in the City sponsors, and help from Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who represents portions of Brooklyn and Queens.
“He was good,” English said referring to Weiner. “He was really clear.”
POCC applied for a permit to hold the event at Gateway in January of this year and it was rejected by the park service on February 21. The two agencies carried on intermittent negotiations that appeared to grow more heated.
In an August 1 letter to POCC from Lisa Eckert, superintendent of the Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway park, the group was informed that the event could go forward on August 6, but without live performances and amplified music, and the crowd had to be limited to 200, a limit that Eckert later said was a “misclarification.” Last year’s event drew thousands to Gateway. The park service reluctantly agreed to the HIV testing.
“Because of the short lead time between now and August 6, we would prefer that you hold the testing event some time later in the month,” Eckert wrote. “However, if you feel strongly about doing the testing on August 6, we will accommodate this request.”
The park service said that last year’s event had drawn 3,500 attendees more than the 1,500 allowed by its permit, that the amplified sound was a safety hazard, that organizers had failed to pick up trash, and the event failed to end at its required 9 p.m. deadline. Organizers said that none of these concerns was mentioned last year. Eckert did not respond to a call seeking comment.
At an August 3 press conference, POCC and event sponsors pounced on the park service for its stance.
“This decision amounts to, without question, a full-throated attack on community-based HIV testing,” said Mark McLaurin, executive director of the New York State Black Gay Network, which also sponsored Pride in the City. “There are people who despite our best efforts will not be reached the other 364 days a year.”
Similarly, Tokes Osubu, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent, also an event sponsor, denounced the park service.
“For three years we have been holding events at Riis Beach,” he said. “The decision by the park service not to grant a permit smacks of discrimination.”
Michael Roberson, POCC’s director of services, was particularly harsh in his critique.
“For us, it appears there is an underpinning of racism and homophobia,” he said.
Letitia James, a city councilwoman who represents part of Brooklyn, and Gwen Carter, a representative from Life Force, a Brooklyn AIDS group, also spoke at the press conference.
At a meeting between Pride in the City sponsors and the park service later on August 3, Gateway officials relented and okayed the sound system, allowing performers including Kevin Aviance to appear at the event.
“This was a good exercise in civic rights and how to stand up for yourself,” English said on August 9. “We pushed back to let them know that this is not only a fight of the Black LGBT community, but of the entire LGBT community.”