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At Pride marches this year, Pro-Palestinian protests have been a constant presence

Rainbow flags typically go unrivaled at the nation’s LGBTQ Pride marches. But this year, another symbol has played an outsize role in the annual celebrations: the Palestinian flag.

Waving red, white, green and black, hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists have disrupted some of the nation’s largest Pride parades this month in protest of the Israel-Hamas war and the tens of thousands of deaths and untold suffering it has caused since October.

In Philadelphia, pro-Palestinian demonstrators temporarily blocked the city’s June 2 march, confronting participants with placards that read “no pride in genocide.” In Boston, hostile clashes with police broke out during the city’s annual parade on June 8, leading to the arrest of three protesters. And in Denver, dozens of protesters bypassed SWAT teams to make their way onto the street designated for the city’s annual PrideFest this past weekend.

Pro-Palestinian protesters
Police officers stand watch as pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest during the Boston Pride march on June 8. Joseph Prezioso / AFP – Getty Images

Protests against the monthslong war have occurred across the country, including at college campuses, NFL games and the White House. The demonstrations at Pride marches underscore how the conflict has divided the LGBTQ community, which is typically unified on divisive political issues.

For some queer people, the protests have called into question the meaning of Pride Month and why it is celebrated worldwide every June. The country’s first Pride marches were held on June 28, 1970, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which are credited as a turning point in the modern gay rights movement. The uprising was in response to a police raid of a New York City gay bar, the Stonewall Inn.

“Pride always goes back to the words of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the veterans of Stonewall, that, ‘There’s no Pride for some without liberation for all,’” said Violet, an LGBTQ organizer of the pro-Palestinian protest at Boston’s Pride march who asked that their full name not be published due to fears of employment retaliation. “In this case, Palestinians do not have liberation. They barely have anything at all right now.”

The Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, which killed about 1,200 people in Israel and resulted in 250 others being taken hostage, and the Israeli military’s subsequent killing of more than 37,000 Palestinians and wide-scale displacement of people living in Gaza, has been increasingly dividing the LGBTQ community.

Supporters of Israel and the government’s military actions in Gaza argue that the queer community should back the country, because Israel is far more tolerant and accepting of LGBTQ people than Hamas, which governs Gaza.

An activist holding a sign with "Black Dykes For A Palestine"
The theme of this year’s Dyke March in Washington, D.C., was Dykes Against Genocide.Probal Rashid / LightRocket via Getty Images

Israel is perhaps the most LGBTQ-friendly nation in the Middle East, with its most populous city, Tel Aviv, hosting one of the world’s largest annual Pride celebrations. Consensual sex between gay men has been criminalized in Gaza since 1936, with a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, and queer Palestinians are often subjected to a hostile living environment and sometimes face violence, according to U.K.-based LGBTQ advocacy group Human Dignity Trust.

But critics of Israel have accused it of using its record on LGBTQ issues to gloss over, or “pinkwash,” its treatment of Palestinians.

The groups that run the United States’ largest Pride parades have largely refrained from entering the fray. Nonetheless, they have drawn the ire of many pro-Palestinian activists.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have called on the nonprofits that lead the country’s established Pride parades to reject donations and sponsorships from corporations with financial ties to Israel. Since the war began, activists have made similar demands to universities, museums and other nonprofits, including two of the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy groups, GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign.

The groups that have led pro-Palestinian protests at Pride marches also asked that march organizers ban police at the celebrations, pointing to the events that led to the inception of Pride Month, namely the 1969 police raid that ignited the Stonewall riots.

The groups that staged protests at Pride parades in Boston, Philadelphia and Denver all issued public letters with similar demands.

An activist holding a sign with No Pride in Genocide
An activist at the Dyke March in Washington, D.C., on June 7. Probal Rashid / LightRocket via Getty Images

Rex Fuller, the chief executive of The Center on Colfax, the nonprofit that organizes Denver’s Pride parade, said that while he supports freedom of speech, his group was focused on bettering the lives of LGBTQ Coloradans.

“If President Biden wants advice on the Middle East conflict, he’ll call,” Fuller said. “But really, that isn’t part of our mission at the center.”

The group behind Boston’s march, Boston Pride for the People, did not return NBC News’ requests for comment. However, the group issued a statement this month defending the funding it receives from corporations and its reliance on the police, while also calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Philly Pride 365, which organized Philadelphia’s Pride parade this year, did not return requests for comment.

Just as fiercely as they have angered pro-Palestinian LGBTQ people, this year’s Pride marches have raised concerns among some LGBTQ Jewish Americans.

Ethan Felson, the executive director of A Wider Bridge, a nonprofit that connects LGBTQ communities in North America and Israel, said his group has received hundreds of calls from concerned members asking for guidance as to whether they should participate in Pride events this year or not.

“We in the LGBTQ community have a rich tradition of protest, and so it is fine and expected for people to bring their important issues into these conversations,” Felson said. “What’s not OK is to take Pride away from others. That is what is happening for a lot of particularly queer Jews.”

At Fire Island Pines, a gay beach enclave about 60 miles east of New York City, a flag honoring Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., was torn down by pro-Palestinian activists this month. Torres, who is the first openly gay Afro-Latino person elected to Congress, has been an outspoken supporter of Israel.

Torres said the episode on Fire Island and the broader protests playing out at Pride events across the country are “driving a wedge through the LGBTQ community.”

“The anti-Israel wing of the LGBTQ community is essentially telling pro-Israel Jews that if you wish to be a part of the LGBTQ community then you have to be in the closet about your Zionism, you have to be ashamed of your Zionism,” Torres said. “That to me is not Pride. That’s a perversion of Pride.”

Pro-Palestinian activists march holding signs
Pro-Palestinian activists at the WeHo Pride Parade in West Hollywood, Calif., on June 2.Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images

Several of the nation’s largest Pride marches, including those in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, are set to take place this weekend.

“My hope, as always, is that people will abide by the rules of conduct we’ve laid out and not allow their own moment of self-expression to drown out the other voices that also want to be heard,” Sandra Perez, the executive director of NYC Pride, said.

Perez also confirmed that the Israeli Consulate of New York will have a float in the march on Saturday, as it has in prior years.

“It’s not to say that we didn’t weigh it as a board. We did,” Perez said. “And, again, we invite everybody to the table. That’s where we landed. This has always been a march for inclusion and acceptance.”

The Israeli Consulate of New York told NBC News on Thursday that it would be slimming down its presence at the NYC Pride march due to safety concerns and the solemn mood in Israel. 

The groups organizing and running San Francisco’s and Chicago’s parades, SF Pride and Pride Chicago, did not return requests for comment about how they would handle possible disruptions.

SF Pride said in a June 4 statement that an Israeli float would not be in the parade and that it welcomed pro-Palestinian groups to participate in the event, prompting criticism from the city’s Jewish community. Two days later, SF Pride issued another statement saying that no organizations or groups were explicitly prohibited from participating in the parade and that it welcomes both Israelis and Palestinians.

Felson, of A Wider Bridge, was not convinced that all participants would feel welcomed at Pride events this weekend.

“Is somebody safe to go to Pride wearing a hijab or a yarmulke? Are they safe to carry a Palestinian flag or an Israeli flag? Will Jews have to put a part of their identity into a closet in order to feel safe?” Felson asked. “That’s the challenge for Pride organizers and our elected officials and public safety officials: to ensure that Pride is there for all of us.”

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