Life

Resistance and joy: Iowa City Pride marks 50 years while remembering history of protest

A.J. #x201c;Hollywood#x201d; Adorien performs to te song #x201c;Post Malone#x201d; by DJ Sam Feldt featuring singer RANI
A.J. “Hollywood” Adorien performs to te song “Post Malone” by DJ Sam Feldt featuring singer RANI during the May 22 “Quarantine and Chill” virtual drag show at Studio 13 in Iowa City. It was a livestreamed show with no audience present, but allowed the performers to be on stage and receive tips on the mobile payment app, Venmo. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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When Tyrek Allen heard about Black Lives Matter protests in Iowa City, they knew they had to get involved.

Allen — who identifies as transfeminine nonbinary and prefers they/them or she/her pronouns — said as a biracial person who has experienced racism, participating in the protest didn’t feel like a choice.

“Being half Black, I felt like this is what I have to do,” they said. “This is my time to jump in. There’s power in numbers, so here we go.”

That the protests are happening in June, Pride month, added another layer of significance.

“I think it’s great that it happened when it happened. It just feels that the spirit of Pride is part of it,” Allen said. “I feel really great, because within the protest, I see a lot of advocacy for Black Lives Matter and also LGBTQ and trans Black lives matter and nonbinary Black lives matter. It’s not something I expected to see.”

This year was meant to be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Pride in Iowa City. Though the coronavirus pandemic has scuttled plans for a two-day event to mark the milestone, organizers and community members said that’s OK.

In a summer of protest, for many, it even feels appropriate.

“The first Pride was a riot. It was a transgender African-American who started Pride, basically. Everything we have, we owe to that. People have to remember that,” said Jason Zeman, who co-owns Iowa City gay bar Studio 13.

“It takes someone who has that voice to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to take that anymore.’”

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That’s what happened in 1969 when gay, lesbian and transgender community members rioted in New York City after police raided and arrested staff and patrons at the Stonewall Inn, an underground bar serving the gay community. Leaders of the movement included transgender women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

A year later, activists gathered again in New York City for the Christopher Street Liberation March, the first Pride parade. Iowa City also saw its first Pride parade appearance that year — a float by the student group the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970 Homecoming parade.

Gay Liberation Front chapters had sprung up across the country after Stonewall, as people organized and fought for their rights.

Over the years, Pride has encompassed those fights, and it also has been a celebration.

Iowa City drag queen Steven Reeder, who performs as Ophelia Belle, compared Pride to doing drag — both an act of resistance and one of joy.

“Drag is inherently political. It’s kind of breaking the social norms of everyday, normal life,” he said. “We’re conditioned to follow social norms, and drag is breaking out of that and letting people know you can be yourself.”

Allen, who performs as a drag queen named Doja, expressed the same sentiment They were in the middle of preparing for a show in Des Moines when they spoke with The Gazette, planning the songs they would perform and deciding which wig, heels and makeup to wear.

“It just feels different than putting on a pair of sneakers. I feel empowered, I feel invigorated. It’s almost like I have my armor on,” the 23-year-old said.

Reeder said he’s been participating with the Black Lives Matter protesters as much as possible and loves that they’ve been happening in June.

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“I think it’s beautifully poetic in its own way. Pride initially started out as a riot against police brutality. History always has its way of repeating itself,” he said.

“We’re fighting for our Black brothers and sisters out there who are being killed by police brutality. We can kind of combine our forces and now use it for the Black Lives Matter movement . As an Asian American, I want to make sure I stand with my fellow people of color and protect them in any way I can. Ultimately, this is about them.”

At Studio 13, Zeman hosted a Black Lives Matter drag show to raise money for the movement.

“About 60 percent of our staff are people of color, and I thought it was just really important,” he said.

In early June, before he had officially reopened his bars Studio 13 and the Yacht Club from the coronavirus shutdown — he since has temporarily shut them again due to a spike in cases in Johnson County — Zeman posted on Facebook he would open the doors during the protests for people to use the bathroom, get water and escape the heat.

He said when he asked staff if any of them would come in to work so he could do so, the response was immediate.

“The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I was shocked, everybody stepped up to work right away,” he said.

Tony Sivanthaphanith, Iowa City Pride president, said he hopes the major in-person celebrations return next year. This year, they’ve moved to an online format with a few forums, online shows and a socially distanced parade that went by Iowa City houses where the residents had signed up.

The organization also has been highlighting Black Lives Matter, adding the words to its logo and posting links to Black Queer Town Hall events and other resources on Facebook.

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“We’re in this together. We have to continue to fight for human rights in general because we have Black and brown people in our family, in our community. Whenever we see injustices against anyone, we need to stand up and speak out against those,” Sivanthaphanith said.

He said board members are taking this slower time to think about how they can restructure the organization to be more active beyond one annual event. They’re launching a scholarship this fall and planning for activism and programming throughout the year.

They are also changing what they call their main event, from a parade to a march, he said, trying to get back to its roots.

“We have a lot of good fight in us as a community. We rally around each other when we need to and support each other,” he said. “I want to see more community involvement, more of us being out there and active.

“Seeing what’s happening now has made me see a different light. There is so much more we can do for our community.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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