Being unapologetic with NYC Pride
Being unapologetic with NYC Pride
Heritage of Pride, a nonprofit born from the events of the Stonewall Uprising, has cemented itself over the last 30+ years as the foremost LGBTQIA+ Pride organization. In this episode, we talk to NYC Pride Co-Chair André Thomas about the significance of this year’s theme ‘Unapologetically Us,’ their new inclusive brand identity, designed by Lippincott, and how brands can authentically show up in June—and beyond.
Heather: Heritage of Pride, a nonprofit born from the events of the Stonewall Uprising, has cemented itself over the last 30+ years as the foremost LGBTQIA+ pride organization. The organizer of the iconic NYC Pride March, the rally and other marquee events, NYC Pride creates powerful experiences that unite the community in activism, in protest, in celebration, and in advocacy. Today, I am so honored to be speaking with André Thomas, co-chair of the organization. André has an incredibly rich and impressive background. He was born in the Caribbean and is a decorated United States Marine Corps veteran. He studied neurobiology at Yale and is the first African-American male elected as co-chair of NYC Pride. André said that there are no questions that are off limits. So. I am excited to dive in and welcome you to Icons in the Making. Hi André, Happy Pride Month!
André: Happy Pride! Thank you so much for having me, Heather.
Heather: Absolutely. I’m so thrilled, and there are so many places that I want to dive into and get your perspectives on. But, I thought I would start with a story that you shared with me and that I would love for you to share with our listeners. It was your first exposure to pride and the parade that was being played on CBS Evening News. Describe that for us and how it had a lasting impression on you.
André: Sure. As a kid, I immigrated to Miami from Trinidad—and then, every evening, we’d watch the evening news with Dan Rather on CBS. I remember just sitting there, then seeing the news come on and seeing, ‘New York City holds its annual gay pride parade.’ For a moment, I was like, ‘Wait, that’s me,’ not necessarily even having the words or the courage or the ability to identify what that was but thinking, ‘Hey, this is resonating with me in some way. I don’t know what that is, but that’s me somehow.’ And I remember feeling guilt, because that’s what I’m not supposed to be, that’s what I’ve been warned about sometimes or had seen as not really a good thing—but feeling that thing that I just saw on the news for like 30 seconds, I think I’m a part of that. I think I was probably seven or eight back then. This is why visibility’s important, because when there’s a young kid somewhere who may see an LGBT person on TV or on the internet, that may be their first exposure to that identity. And being able to connect with that can give them the courage to really face who they really are. People always ask, when did you know? I think that was the first time, when I saw it on TV. And that was the first time that I knew…‘Oh, wait, there’s something on TV that shows that’s me and identifies with this feeling of difference that’d I always kind of knew was there but didn’t necessarily have the framework put around it.’ I think that was really part of the beginning journey for me.
Heather: So, seven-year-old André is sitting, watching the television. What image, what feeling was conveyed that allowed you to identify with it?
André: Of course, I’m used to seeing parades—Macy’s, the Thanksgiving Day parade—all the time, but seeing people who were of the same sex, celebrating with each other in a joyous way that didn’t have a negative connotation (because it was still in the height of the AIDs crisis) and seeing that kind of joy…that really was like, ‘Oh, maybe it might be okay to be this thing that I think I am but I’m not supposed to be, that I’m still trying to figure out; but it might be okay, because there seem to be other people up there who are thriving, surviving, enjoying their lives with the same kind of thing that I am. And maybe one day I could be there and get to experience it.’ I’m looking now, like, oh my God. Now I’m the person in charge of it, which is not even just a full circle. It feels destined in some way but also a culmination of a lot of different experiences that I’ve been through in my life that have allowed me to kind of bring me to where I’m at today.
Heather: I mentioned in the introduction what an impressive and varied background you have and can only imagine the stories behind each of those experiences. Tell me about your experience prior to NYC Pride, what inspired you to join and how you’ve taken some of those experiences and applied them to the role.
André: Part of my issue is that I have trouble saying ‘no.’ So it’s always been, ‘Oh, I’ll join.’ I started doing a lot of theater as a kid. So, I have a big production background experience. I was the head of operations for the Yale Dramatic, Association, which is like the second-oldest college theater association, and did eight years in the Marines. That really gave me a lot of challenges in a way that I’d never seen for myself. And then, going through life, going through college, going through the military but also still feeling that like there was still more that I can do and more that I can give. I was always raised by my parents, my grandparents, to have a real desire to be of service, to always know that I may have unique abilities and skills that I should use to help others. And for a while I worked in clinical research. But then, when I moved to DC, I missed being able to be creative and applying all the lessons I’d learned working in theater throughout my life. So I started volunteering with DC Pride and ended up running the Sunset Dance Party, a big dance party in front of The Capitol at the end of Pride in DC. My career, my day job, continued, and I moved to New York and just kind of showed up at a meeting of Heritage of Pride. Then I became the volunteer captain for Pride Fest, which is the largest LGBTQIA+ street festival in the world. I was elected to become the Pride Island director— Pride Island is our large dance party. We internally call it a dance in protest, because it was illegal for many, many years for the LGBT community to dance in public together. Then I got elected to do the position of co-chair, pretty much right in the middle of the pandemic. So, I’ve been really kind of holding down the fort with my other co-chair in the past couple of years and really excited to bring back Pride this year—the first real-life Pride since 2019. So that’s something that we’re really looking forward to and excited about.
Heather: You certainly had your work cut out for you, as all of this was taking place throughout the pandemic on top of so many historic moments in our own society and trying to grapple with those and to have a voice around those. So, let’s talk about Pride Month. This year’s theme is ‘Unapologetically Us.’ Tell me about the inspiration for the concept. Tell me what you are most excited and hopeful for. And tell me if you have any fears going into the month.
André: Sure. We decide our themes in December. This year, ‘Unapologetically Us’ really encapsulates what’s going on right now in the world. There are more anti-LGBT bills that have been passing or being proposed in state legislatures than there ever have been before. I think, at the last count that I saw in April, at least 300 bills are anti-LGBT. And I’d say a good half of those are targeting the trans community and, specifically, trans kids. So we are even more under attack than we’ve ever been before in different ways. Our theme shows that we have to stand up and be us. If we don’t, then those attacks are just going to keep coming. And they’re not just coming from the right, unfortunately. They’re even coming from sometimes the left, people who think we may have gone too far. They say we might be too ‘woke.’ There’s a lot of people that you would think would be allies. There are always issues when you hear about comedians, for example, who are targeting the trans community. The theme shows that we need to keep standing up for who we are, being proud of who we are and showing who we are, and not necessarily apologizing for who we are. And so, we have a lot of anticipation for being live and in person—but we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. And there’s still a lot of fear that goes around it. We’re still being very cognizant of how we can be safe and protect our community in the ways that we need to. But also, people are missing that connection. The LGBT community, for many years, had to center themselves around these events. There are bars, there are social gatherings, too—because those are the only places they could be themselves, not have to apologize and be out and open. We’ve been able to achieve a lot of things and blend more into society. But with a lot of these attacks, we know we still have to have moments like Pride to show the world we know who we are.
Heather: I really have a lot of empathy for the position that you’re in and trying to be the voice of a community and raise it up but also know that you are not going to always make everybody happy. You had made some tough decisions, particularly as it relates to uniformed police officers marching in the events. There was some backlash. Tell me about that experience and about what you’ve learned standing behind your convictions—even if that doesn’t please everybody.
André: The one thing you definitely learn, especially running events, is that not everybody’s going to be happy. It shows us the importance of not just education, but re-education. People forgot that the Pride movement began with the Stonewall riots, which was standing up against police brutality. The relationship between our community and the police has evolved over many years, and progress has been made—but part of our decision is highlighting that there are communities that are still facing those attacks. In New York, for example, there was a law, called the ‘Walking While Trans law, that allowed officers to basically harass or arrest any person who was trans if they weren’t wearing the clothing that the officer felt that they should be wearing. And that was only repealed in February of last year.
André: People don’t realize that we’re still on the books. Part of our response actually happened because there were peaceful protests during Pride in 2020 and peaceful protests in Washington Square Park here in New York. There were some very aggressive actions that the NYPD had taken toward those protesters, and our community said to us, ‘What are you doing? How can you just sit back and not say anything and not respond?’ I want to make it clear that our ban was on uniformed police officers.
Heather: I think that’s important, because it isn’t a rejection of the individual but, specifically, on the institution—which is not the same thing.
André: Sure. And we gave the NYPD, the Gay Officers Action League, the option of marching out of uniform. That was something that they said they didn’t want to exercise. They wanted to be in uniform, and they sued to win that right back in the ’80s and won that suit. But for us, is the uniform their identity or is their being a member of the community their real identity? I can’t change the color of my skin. I can’t change my sexuality. I know the value of a uniform. I wore a uniform for eight years, I know how to take it off and what parts still stay with me or not. We’re saying, you can take off your uniform and be like every other person and other law enforcement agencies who are in the parade. You can be like everybody else and participate in a celebration out of love and acceptance. And, you know, we’re not the only Pride organization that has made these steps. Toronto did this, also San Francisco has done it, San Diego. Lots of other local Prides are coming out, too. We’ve also seen that there are Pride organizations that haven’t been responsive to the communities and now are no longer there. Boston and Philly Prides no longer exist, because they didn’t make the changes that were responsive to the outcry from the community. And so, it was definitely surprising that a lot of the backlash that we faced was from gay white men. They’re the ones who have really gained most of the benefits of a lot of the rights that we’ve won, and it amplifies the fact that there are others in the community who have been left behind by Pride movements, by the rights that we’ve won. The trans community, people of color, do not share the same level of power and privilege that gay white men do. It kind of really showed where the work needs to be done. It’s a commitment that we’ve made to the work. We always say that we have an open-door policy toward anyone who wants to come to us and talk about how they can work hand-in-hand and doing this work of really uplifting everyone. We don’t want any special treatment. We want to be treated just the same. And so that’s what we were really, really aiming to do.
Heather: Thank you for those words and comments. As you said, some of this is around redefining, re-educating for the good of rising all of us—especially those who are most marginalized. Let’s pivot a little bit, because this is a month where a lot of businesses and brands really embrace the community, want to celebrate and take part in it. You have an incredible roster of sponsors, some of which have been with you through the ups and downs that you’ve just described. There is also some talk about brands being disingenuous—and June comes around, and social media avatars become Pride flags. Tell me your perspective on the role that businesses and brands need to be playing, not just this month but throughout the year.
André: I’ve seen this with my own day job. Are you turning your brand logo into a rainbow flag? But are you also providing partner benefits? It comes down to the practical things that affect people’s day-to-day lives. The brands that we align with are brands that are doing the work with us, too. They may show up at the March and have a contingent there and a float; but we’re also working with them throughout the year and giving them advice and support, feedback, and holding them accountable when some of these brands make missteps. I think it is good for us to be able to engage with them and say, ‘Hey, you want to be able to cater to our community, but this is where you aren’t in alignment with our values. And if we’re going to be able to continue this relationship, then we’re going to have to work with you to make those steps.” I think people have a nose for brands that are not authentic. They can really see when a brand is not living up to its own values. We have an initiative that we call Pride 365, to look at not just what happens during June but how can we engage our partners on all the things that we’re doing all throughout the year.
I remember my company, for example, was like, ‘Hey, we can put you on a LinkedIn post as a member of ERG. I was like, ‘Well wait. We don’t have X, X, X, and X. So you can’t use my picture until we do this.’ It goes, part and parcel, with being authentic, with being true to the values, because all corporations have their own missions and their own values that they want to try to uphold. And we also want to help them make sure that they’re living up to those values.
Heather: Right now, there is so much talk about the war for talent and how challenging it is to find well-rounded, diverse candidates to be attracted to and join an organization and then feel like they want to stay. I think the work that you’re doing is really important there. There’s a lot of talk about boards and the representation of different backgrounds on corporate boards. I know that New York City Pride’s executive board is now the most diverse in the organization’s history—but you’ve said there is still work to be done. Tell me about how the board has been architected and where you see the challenges in continuing to show that representation both for your organization and more broadly.
André: It really starts in what pipeline is there to give people access to the upper tiers of management of these types of organizations. You’ve seen these changes in many of these LGBT charities themselves too, who have not had diverse representation and then what they prioritize, how it changes or when that representation actually becomes more diverse. You can see that, for us, it’s taking a look at, structurally, how we create methods for people. I think the pandemic really taught us a lot about accessibility and how we make everything accessible to anyone. We were structured so that you had to be in-person at a meeting for so many hours in order to be able to become a member…and then serve this much time, X, X, X in order to be elected…and then be able to actually get to our physical locationswith access on a regular basis, too. That takes someone who has free time on their hands and the money to be able to travel back and forth throughout the city. That already sets a limitation on people who are out in the boroughs, people who don’t have the funds to be able to access transportation. So, taking a look at how we build our membership, which feeds into our board, our board (like you said) is the most diverse it has been; but our organization still does not have enough trans representation as we would like. And so, how do we highlight those voices in our events? Because we don’t have the representation. Our diversity, accessibility and inclusion committee wasn’t an actual committee with voting rights until last year. If you think about that, that seems like it’s an obvious fix. But these are things that were structurally in place that prevented a lot of changes from happening, too. It takes a lot of slow work to make some of those changes happen. But once you identify these pain points that are like—Why is it that the same people are always in the same positions of power? How do we change that, too—once you can identify that and work to change those things, then you can start to see the real changes happen.
Heather: Well, it’s great that you are making that progress. And, as you said, the work isn’t done. You talk a little bit about your partners. Lippincott is a proud partner of NYC Pride, and we worked together to develop and introduce a new identity for an organization that is all about being a place where people can embrace their truth. Tell me what the new identity means to you and how it’s helping further your vision and your goals for growth.
André: Everyone has been taking a hard look in the mirror and saying, ‘Who are we? Who do we want to be? And how do we represent that visually? How do we represent that in our core mission? How do we represent that to allof the different voices who have opinions?’ Working with you all and being able to get feedback for how people see us was a critique that…you know, I think we kind of knew some of the parts that were there, but seeing it is like, ‘Okay, so some of these things are painful to hear but necessary for us to be able to think about where we want to be as an organization 10 years from now.’ And I think, for us, working on this new identity shows us how we are attempting to be more of everything to everybody. We know that our community is multifaceted and is growing. It represents so much more to so many people, and we know we need to be able to be flexible with it and to allow for growth. I know that the things that weren’t acceptable 10 years ago are now norms. So, we need to be able to really have an identity and a branding that allows us to move along with that±to show that, hopefully in 10 years, we won’t be having these trans rights issues. Hopefully, we will have moved on from those. That’s my hope. And I think being able to have the tools to be able to really identify and hone in on and be flexible about that, too, were things that we didn’t have before. We hadn’t thought about ourselves as a brand in that way. It really forced those among us who are working on it to really take a look and figure out: How does this live past our tenure here? How does this live for the kids who are in high school or in college now who haven’t had a full-life Pride. And so, how does this live for them—because they’re going to be the ones who have to pick up the mantle and keep the movement going.
Heather: Yes, it was an amazing partnership. And seeing the results, I know we were so proud and honored to play that role. And building within the design strategy is the notion of inclusivity, in that the gradient within the flag is ever-changing and ever-evolving and can be used to represent a lot of different subgroups and contingencies. I’m curious, though. Broadly, what has the reaction been? Has the branding achieved the platform that you were hoping it would achieve?
André: I think one of the volunteers, when he saw the new logo—and how the flag also has the hidden NYC in it, too—the phrase that he came up with was ‘surprise and delight,’ because it’s not in your face. But when you realize it’s there, it’s ‘Oh, wait.’ The flag is such an iconic symbol for us; but, also, we need to capture part of being New York. How do you do that? And how are you flexible with that? Right after we revealed the new logo was when the Ukraine crisis happened. We immediately were able to flex the logo into branding with those colors. And we have a program called Pride Gives Back, where we partner with and give grants to local organizations who are doing small grassroots work. One of them is an organization for people who are Russian-speaking and LGBTQ and headed by a Ukrainian lesbian. Her being able to see, our Pride flag logo in Ukrainian colors—and just identifying with that, too—is so meaningful to someone like her, because she sees that in, you know, a community that is really in many ways very homophobic. But now she has that representation, that kind of symbol to use. And, I think, it’s the use cases of it that we see, too, and knowing that it’s going to evolve and grow throughout time. That’s really exciting for us too. And being able to play within it and show it on a billboard on the way to the airport…I was just of like, ‘Tthat’s us.’ It really identifies us in a way that we hadn’t really done before.
Heather: There’s nothing like the symbol really being up there for millions of people to see and to connect with in their own way. I mean, that’s the goal to build meaning into what these identities are and mean to people. One of the questions I like to close with is more of a personal question, and it’s the acknowledgement that this is about icons in the making. And NYC, and NYC Pride, and you all are iconic in your own ways. Do you have an icon? And, if so, tell me about someone in your life or someone who is a public figure that you look to as an icon.
André: I think it’s really very personal for me. My grandmother on my mother’s side has always been my icon. She raised 13 kids—nine girls and twins twice, of which my mother is one. She’s no longer with us, but she was one of the first people who knew about me and took me aside and said, ‘I love you no matter what.’ She knew before my parents, before anybody. I was sitting at her feet watching that CBS Evening News. She taught me a lot. She was a wedding-dress designer. So, I kind of learned a lot of my creativity from her—but also just perseverance and drive and passion—and also taking care of people, because that’s what she always did. That’s really how I learned how to take care of people, how to look out for other people. And that’s really, for me, where it all started.
Heather: Thank you so much, André, for your honesty and your openness and for all of the really important work that you’re doing. It’s going to be a month filled with advocacy and celebration, and we’re excited. Here’s to a great month!
André: Thank you so much, and Happy Pride.
Heather: Happy Pride.
I think people have a nose for brands that are not authentic. They can really see when a brand is not living up to its own values.