How Did Pride Become a Parade?
June is Pride Month and if not for coronavirus streets around the world would be filled with the LGBTQIA Community living loud and proud. But how did the New York City Stonewall Riots turn into a month-long celebration? And specifically, how did we get from picketed protests like the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia to massive parades and parties around the world?
June is Pride Month. Yes, it’s a time to wave the rainbow flag and celebrate the activism,
resilience, and history of the LGBTQ+ community. Each year, a growing number of cities hold
their annual Pride Parade, a march that often features floats, protests, and crowds of supporters
living loud and proud.
You might already be familiar with the history of the New York City Stonewall Riots, the
tinderbox that ignited the modern LGBTQ movement in the United States as we know it, and the
reason Pride Month is still celebrated in June. Less familiar, however, is the history
of the Pride Parade.
So how exactly did a Manhattan riot become a march, and how did a march become the international
occasion we have today? Let’s dig into those questions and see what they have to tell us
about Pride, politics, and the ongoing evolution of community action.
But before we can start waving to crowds from floats, we’re going to have to look back
at the history before Stonewall. While the riots were a milestone in LGBTQ activism,
there were a lot of activities and events leading up to it.
One important milestone was the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia, which provided a kind of
blueprint for LGBTQ public gatherings moving forward. On July 4th, 1965, somewhere around
40 people gathered outside Independence Hall. Dressed in professional attire, they picketed
for gay rights, becoming one of the largest known demonstrations for homosexual issues
in the United States at that time.
Organized by the East Coast Homophile Organization, two of its most prominent leaders, Frank Kameny
and Barbara Gittings, placed an emphasis on assimilation. Kameny had been dismissed from
public service for his sexual orientation, and wanted to prove to all who attended the
Annual Reminder that gay people could be just as professional and acceptable as anyone else.
The Annual Reminder became the first gay rights event to be repeated, and continued until
1969, the year of the Stonewall riots. Commemorating Stonewall would replace it from then on.
The Annual Reminder wasn’t without its critics inside the movement, however, as many wondered
if the event’s emphasis on “normalness” left out transgender and gender-variant members
of the community. Still, with the crowds it drew and the message it conveyed, the Annual
Reminder showed that public community demonstrations, while risky, were worth considering as a tactic.
Which brings us to Stonewall. The bar in Greenwich Village, New York, became the site of a clash
between patrons and the police on June 28, 1969. It was a long time coming, as police
had been regularly harassing bar-goers at LGBTQ meeting places like Stonewall for years.
That morning was no different as police entered the Stonewall Inn, arrested employees for
selling liquor without a license, and cleared out the bar, the second time in just a few
days. Only, this time, the patrons waiting outside didn’t clear and scatter. They heckled
the police, threw bottles at them, and made their anger loud and clear.
The police, who weren’t used to this kind of behavior, asked for reinforcements to barricade
themselves inside the bar while around 400 people rioted outside. The barricade was breached,
the bar was set on fire, and all in all the riots went on, stopping and starting, for
several more days.
The late 1960s was a time of social upheaval, as other communities were also fighting for
racial and gender equality. Stonewall was part of that revolutionary moment in history,
and asserted the LGBTQ movement as a force to be reckoned with. Stonewall became the
rallying cry for change, and the riots were commemorated the very next year in what was
called the Christopher Street Liberation March, named after the location of the Stonewall
Inn. We recognize it today as the very first Pride Parade.
We actually have some accounts from the organizers of the first Liberation March. In The Village
Voice, Fred Sargeant, who’d been present at the Stonewall riots, wrote about using
the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop as a hub for the nascent movement.
The bookshop became a busy intersection for budding young activist groups like the Lavender
Menace and the Gay Liberation Front. It was these thinkers and activists who decided to
keep the momentum of Stonewall going, and who would begin the tradition of the Pride
But it was no easy task to get all the new LGBTQ advocacy groups on the same page, and
organizing the first march was a massive undertaking. Brenda Howard, sometimes called the “Mother
of Pride” and (later) the founder of the New York Area Bisexual Network, rose to the
challenge. Howard is credited with turning the march into a week-long series of activities,
including a dance. This component would ultimately guide the march toward its evolution into
a month-long event.
One year after Stonewall, the first Pride march in New York City took place on June
28, 1970. It began on Washington Place and traveled along Sixth Avenue before ending
with a “Gay-In” in Central Park. The main goal was visibility: for a community that
had been pushed to the margins of society, being out and proud was a revolutionary act.
It was a huge success, drawing over 5,000 attendees, five times more than the organizers
expected. And a new tradition was born, one that would last through the decades.
Concurrent marches commemorated Stonewall in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago
(which actually beat NYC to the punch by one day). In the beginning, most attendees wore
their everyday clothes, but some began to wear elaborate costumes to punctuate the radical
act of being seen.
Over time, the event took on a more celebratory tone, with Los Angeles becoming the first
city to incorporate a festival component in 1974, a move credited to gay filmmaker Pat
Rocco. And Gilbert Baker’s rainbow Pride flag, first flew in San Francisco in 1978.
Music and floats were added as well.
When the organizers of the first Pride march gathered together, they couldn’t have known
what their event would grow into. Today, Pride parades are held around the world, and June
remains not only a month to celebrate, but also to educate the next generation of LGBTQ+
people and allies on their history. Today, there are too many Pride parades to count,
and some are even held in countries where lawmakers have attempted to stop them, like
in Poland, Turkey, and even a refugee camp in Kenya.
The legacy of Pride has helped keep alive the stories of movement legends like Marsha
P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both of whom are only now being commemorated with a monument
in New York City. Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, and later went
on to establish the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries alongside Rivera. The group
was dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens, gay youth, and trans women and anyone
else who needed help.
But now, just as back then, there are debates over what Pride should be. Some have criticized
the corporatization of Pride, with companies participating in sponsored floats and events,
while others say the parade should go back to its roots as purely a protest.
There are also lingering questions as to the inclusiveness of the Pride parade. UK Black
Pride, for example, was created due to the historic exclusion of black people at Pride.
A rainbow flag with a black and brown stripe was created to emphasize the inclusion of
LGBTQ+ people of color, and was met with both support and controversy.
No matter what the future holds, one thing remains abundantly clear: the Pride parade
was born out of the bravery and activism of organizers who wanted to change the world,
and it’s here to stay.
So, Happy Pride everyone!