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As LGBTQ visibility increases, so does the backlash

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's the final day of LGBTQ Pride Month. But for some, this year's pride was a complicated one. On the one hand, there's increased visibility for the community, but some say there is a backlash to this visibility. This spring, South Carolina became the 25th state to ban gender-affirming care for minors, as one example, continuing a major recent trend in statehouses. And this year, there's been a pullback from pride merchandising from brands like Target and Bud Light after pushback from working with LGBTQ influencers.

So how do we square these two realities? For that, we called Eric Marcus, who is the founder and host of the "Making Gay History" podcast. He says that LGBTQ history is filled with moments of progress and backlash. And he began by telling me about the very first pride parade.

ERIC MARCUS: Well, the first march in 1970, which took nearly a year of planning, it was a protest march. It was not a celebration. It was mostly a protest march marking the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, of gay people fighting back against oppression. And the people who organized it had no idea how many people would actually show up for it. It was a very different time. People were afraid of being visible.

And I remember interviewing one man who had been there, and he said he was terrified that it would be five of them or 10 of them marching up Sixth Avenue from Greenwich Village. And he said he looked back at one point, and there were hundreds. And then there were thousands. People came in from the sidelines, and people cheered.

And by the time they reached Central Park, there were thousands and thousands of what we would call today LGBTQ people. And they were shocked. They didn't expect it to go as well as it did. They were so scared, actually, that they joked that it was called not a march but a run because they moved so quickly up Sixth Avenue. And today, to bring it up to the present day, in New York, we have two marches. One is the sort of classic Pride march, which is now - has got a lot of corporate sponsors, and...

DETROW: Yeah.

MARCUS: It's the music and the kind of thing you see on the news. And a few years back, one of my friends helped organize what's now called the Queer Liberation March, which was meant to echo those original protest marches because there are things to protest. And they were not so happy with the corporate sponsorships.

DETROW: Yeah. And I've had so many conversations and heard so many different views on that. On one hand, it is a sign of progress that so many big companies feel like the thing they need to do is take part in the Pride parade. Another, it feels cynical, it feels pandering. It feels like it takes the authenticity off of it. How have you thought about this?

MARCUS: I think it's both. Some of the comments I've heard over the years about corporate sponsorship have made me laugh because I'm old enough to remember when the idea that a corporation would associate itself with homosexuals was absolutely ridiculous.

DETROW: Right.

MARCUS: We were considered a marginal group of people and certainly not well respected. We were sick, sinful and criminal. So a corporation wasn't going to sponsor one of our marches.

DETROW: Target wasn't cozying up.

MARCUS: No, no. In the earliest days, it was Subaru and American Airlines that took the leap to be sponsors, to be supportive. But it didn't just come from the outside and the idea or the belief that there was a significant market out there of LGBTQ people to market to. A lot of the pressure came from inside, from employees. Most major corporations now have employee resource groups for LGBTQ people. So when Target decided to pull back their Pride displays, they also had to deal with employees on the inside who would not be happy with that.

So I think it goes both ways. I remember a few years ago, I live in a neighborhood in New York City where a lot of the floats were set up prior to the march, and I walked around the corner and there was a float for patio furniture in rainbow colors, and I thought, I think this has gone a step too far. And you know, what is the relationship between patio furniture and LGBTQ people?

DETROW: Let me ask that - the public perception of LGBTQ issues has changed so dramatically in so many different ways in recent days.

MARCUS: Oh my goodness. Yes.

DETROW: ...Just talking about both of our lifetimes. Are there - whether it's forward progress or backsliding, what are the 1 or 2 moments that really stick out to you, where it was just crystal clear in your mind, something's different here.

MARCUS: Oh, God, that's a very good question. The world has changed so dramatically. And I can look back now - I'm 65 - and I can see key moments. I really wasn't very familiar with the history before I started my work in the late 1980s. But I was very aware of the movement in 1977, when Anita Bryant, who was a popular singer, launched an anti-gay campaign. It was the first national anti-gay campaign called Save Our Children, and she worked at rolling back the newly passed gay rights bill in Dade County, Fla., and then took her campaign across the country. She used to say homosexuals can't reproduce, so they recruit.

So now we're back to that language again, except it's slightly altered. Now the accusation is that gay people are groomers and pedophiles. That's such old stuff. So a key moment for me was that turning point because it compelled me to come out and be visible because I heard these people saying terrible things about me as a teenager. The AIDS crisis as well, as painful as that was, and as much of a backlash that inspired at the time, it made us visible in a way that I don't think we could have ever imagined, and what people got to see was a community coming together to take care of each other.

DETROW: What's the best way that you explain it? Because I'm thinking about milestone moments where I saw something and felt something was different, right? And I was a reporter in California in - when the 2013 Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage in California, a few years before the national ruling. And I remember that outpouring of emotion...

MARCUS: Yes.

DETROW: ...And pop-up marriages in San Francisco and Sacramento and covering that. Then, 10 years later, you know, this year I've been I'm just curious. Every time a pro sports team posts a Pride post on social media about, you know, Pride night at the stadium, going to the comments and seeing not only the backlash but people just saying statements that you would think, just a few years ago, people would never say in public, just the anti-gay slurs...

MARCUS: Yeah.

DETROW: ...And attacks of how dare you do this for a pretty innocuous...

MARCUS: Yeah, it's...

DETROW: Like, somebody throwing a first pitch type outing?

MARCUS: Yeah. We live in a moment when people, I think, feel perfectly privileged to say whatever they feel, even if it's awful. And it's not just about gay people.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARCUS: But I also lived through a time when I first was out promoting my first book, "The Male Couple's Guide To Living Together," in 1988, a rather innocuous book. I was on CNN "NewsNight Update," an overnight call-in show, and I had people call up and call me [expletive] on the air, and one person called up and said, I have my rights. I have the right to be chained to their truck and dragged down the highway. Another caller said I had my rights to serve as target practice in his backyard.

DETROW: Wow.

MARCUS: So - we're not used to it because things have changed so much. But what the people who lead these backlashes don't understand is that every time they go after us, it inspires more people to come out and be visible. But I'm hopeful. I'm actually hopeful. It's easy for me, as a white, cisgender, gay man of a certain age living in New York City, to say that - I also hear from kids who live in places where it's really rough.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARCUS: But I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful.

DETROW: That's Eric Marcus, host and founder of the "Making Gay History" podcast. Thank you so much.

MARCUS: My delight. Very glad to speak with you. Happy Pride.

DETROW: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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