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Defiantly Different: How NYC Celebrates Pride

July 23, 2018

by Maria Polychronis

Every year in June, New Yorkers come together under a rainbow banner to kick off summer with the annual Pride Parade, the largest assembly of sequins and glitter under the sun. People of all walks of life flood the streets of lower Manhattan to celebrate love and equality, and stay on for the non-stop dancing and best people watching of the year. Part march, part fashion show – the event is unmissable and brings out a kinder side of New York not often seen.

This year in its 49th iteration, a staggering two million people cheered on as the six-hour-long Parade turned dance party made its way up and down Fifth and Seventh Avenues. Along the route, storefronts displayed rainbow stickers in solidarity, and residents lucky enough to have West Village apartments perched out their windows to wave at revellers below. Crowds on both sides of the procession were loud, unencumbered and in the highest of spirits; costumed performers slipped on and off of floats, couples puckered up for selfies, and tourists looked a little overwhelmed. Children, captivated by the barrage of unusual sights and sounds, wore the biggest smiles and clutched their Pride flags tightly.

Pride, which started as a series of protests against homophobia and police brutality, has changed dramatically over the years. Now fully mainstreamed, the march had no less than 106 corporate sponsors. Their heavily branded (and often controversial) floats joined the ranks of over 150 marching contingents that included everyone from Catholic ministers to nonprofits to the New York Police Department. The corporate floats did add an element of dazzle to the event. The rideshare app Lyft even held a floating wedding ceremony wherein a couple was married by a TV star in front of their closest friends and family, and several thousand New Yorkers who went wild at the sight.

Businesses of all types spared no expense to showcase their Pride this year. Jessica Tang, who lives in Chelsea and works for a global bank that sponsors the parade, enjoyed the festivities from her company’s official float. “The turnout really mirrors the diversity I see every day at the office”, she said, “and we are celebrating that diversity here with our neighbours, colleagues and friends”.

Pride is a place to catch up with friends or make new ones, as chances are you’ve lost some of the people you came within the maze of police barriers and street closures. The mid-day sun is dizzying and the rhythms echoing from the floats make it impossible not to dance. This year’s crowd-pleasing mix of pop and hip-hop classics hit the mark, and every other tune paid tribute to iconic allies Lady Gaga (who was in attendance) and Whitney Houston. Unsurprisingly, the Broadway troupes drew the biggest applause as absolutely no one could resist a sing-along to “Mamma Mia”.

In typical New York fashion, the real spectacle was found on the sidewalks. On a normal day, the city has an “anything goes” approach to style; however, Pride turns up the sartorial dial, with all its ingenuity and colour, to unimaginable heights. Streets were a riot of strange and beautiful costumes – mermaids, fairies, comic book heroes, a fair amount of sailors and all manner of nearly naked creatures; many of whom arrived wearing nothing but bikini bottoms and a light coat of sunscreen. The street fashion in itself is always a triumph of diversity, individuality and body positivity, and the casual nudity is something you can only get away with in New York.

The parade eventually wound past the iconic Stonewall Inn to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which birthed the modern LGBTQ movement as we know it. In line with this year’s “Defiantly Different” theme, activists and public figures gave impassioned speeches, undoubtedly emboldened by current events. Yet despite the country’s polarized politic environment, the ethos on the ground was one of joy and exuberance. In fact, all the camaraderie and positive energy made emotional saps of otherwise steely-eyed New Yorkers (I lost track of how many hugs I got while taking people’s photos).

“Pride in New York is like no other place in the world,” said Will Allen, a Manhattan resident who works in fashion marketing. “You are surrounded by people who are so free, open and loving of everything and everyone around them. Being in the heart of it leaves you no choice but to embrace and celebrate others – differences, similarities, the good, the bad, and yourself. For me, that is what Pride is all about.”

Moving past this joyful feeling seemed daunting once the festivities wound down, so those who still had energy faded into the night to continue the party elsewhere. In Manhattan, revellers trickled into the swanky ACE hotel for a party hosted by Bust Magazine, while the Brooklyn set “vogued” the house down at buzzy House of Yes, Bushwick’s premier safe haven for bad behaviour and multi-sensory experiences.

As the night officially came to a close and photos and messages streamed in from the day, a fellow attendee reached out to remind me that “love will always win”. While we can’t speak for the rest of the country, in New York City this will always be the case.

Maria Polychronis is a Brooklyn-based aid worker turned Wall Street advisor. She has spent the past seven years living and working across the US, Europe and West Africa. She writes about international development and takes photos on beat-up old cameras she finds at flea markets while traveling.

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