Organizing the First Pride March
June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots that are largely credited as the beginning of the “gay pride” movement. Every June, queer organizations and individuals recount the story of Stonewall, or at least evoke the powerful images of Black and Brown transwomen and gangs of young gay runaways finally refusing to accept the constant and targeted harassment they had previously endured from both the police and the public. But our annual observance of Pride today was not an inevitability; Stonewall was not the first “gay” riot, and it could have been buried under the homophobic hegemony like other ones that preceded it. Instead, several queer groups already operating in New York City and around the United States made Stonewall the catalyst to join together, to articulate a new vision of queer liberation, and to act to manifest it.
By so many measures, 1969 was a watershed year: no less so in queer circles across the United States. Organizations of “homophiles” had existed for some years before, especially in the major cities, but were largely led by an older generation. In 1962, groups like the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and the Janus Society formed the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) and, later, the larger Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) to coordinate their political efforts. One such effort was the Annual Reminder: a silent picket held on July 4, 1965-1969 outside Liberty Hall, Philadelphia to remind the country that queer people were still denied the most basic rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At the insistence of one of the organizers, Frank Kemeny, there would be a strict, gendered, formal dress code and any behavior that might be “shocking” to the public was forbidden. But by 1969, a new generation of queer people were less interested in silent pickets and trying to prove their respectability, but was instead looking to the dramatic actions of the antiwar, feminist, and civil rights movements — the “counterculture.” Even before the Stonewall Riots began, this mostly younger generation of radicals started forming small, independent queer groups like the Mattachine Action Group with the intention to “spark public consciousness.”
Then, in the early hours of June 28, 1969, somebody fought back during a police-raid of the popular Manhattan gay bar Stonewall Inn and riots mostly led by transwomen broke out for the next several days. Those small groups of queer radicals started organizing, producing leaflets and flyers exposing the bar’s Mafia owners as well as the corrupt deal they had with the police. Then they began organizing public meetings and merged to eventually form new groups like the militant New Left-oriented Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and eventually the more moderate single-issue Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). These new groups were much more diverse than many previous groups, with many more Asians, Latinx, and Blacks as well as more trans people. Over the next several months, these groups would develop “zaps” as a direct action tactic to force important figures to publicly address the issue of queer oppression.
After the riots had ended, some ERCHO members who had been radicalized by Stonewall, including organizer Craig Rodwell, went down to Philadelphia to participate in what would be the final Annual Reminder. There, a lesbian couple purposely defied the order for “lawful, orderly, dignified” behavior and broke ranks to hold hands. When Frank Kemeny tried to separate them, Rodwell became furious; and when Kemeny was later speaking to the press, Rodwell interrupted to denounce the “gay” leadership’s meek pleas for acceptance, pointing to Stonewall as evidence. The Annual Reminder was over, but in the next few months, Craig would join with others to convince ERCHO to endorse the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee (CSLDC, named for the street where the Stonewall Inn was), which was to organize a commemorative celebration of the Stonewall Riots.
Announcements were made to the various ERCHO groups, as well as sister groups across the country encouraging them to organize their own festivities in tandem. It was decided that the celebration would not have any commercial ties, but that it would be permitted and well-organized. The CSLDC began monthly meetings in January 1970, but moved to weekly meetings in April. They raised the money, appointed marshals, planned a route for a “march for freedom” through midtown Manhattan up to Central Park, and organized events at the march’s end. They produced and distributed advertisements, bulletins, and press releases to every publication that would print them. A sister celebration was announced in Los Angeles. And they got the permits, even if the last of them arrived just hours before the opening march was to begin.
On June 28, 1970, exactly one year after the beginning of the Stonewall Riots, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day was celebrated. A delightful, colorful procession of fabulous drag queens and transwomen, members of GAA and GLF holding banners, and gaggles of gay men and women marched up the center of New York City unharassed. The New York Times reported on its front page the next day that the march extended about 15 blocks. Thousands took part; for some, this was the first time that they had ever expressed their queer identity publicly in daylight. The cathartic, catalytic rage from one year prior had been forged into comradery, hope, and joy. And the changes in queer communities stemming from the 1960s counterculture that inspired the formation of new action groups and spurred the Stonewall Riots was now undeniable. Now, through the work of all those queer people radicalized one year before, more people than ever could feel it, too.
Over the next few years, the GLF would collapse and more white and trans-exclusionary elements would come to dominate the Christopher Street Liberation Day celebrations (which would later be renamed Gay Pride), leading prominent trans members of the NYC queer community like Marsha P. Johnson to publicly break with the group in 1973. And although Pride celebrations are now generally as inclusive as possible, racism and trans-exclusionary prejudice are still major problems in many queer communities today. Despite these obstacles, as well as the devastation of the AIDS epidemic years later, the movement that started 52 years ago has accomplished an incredible amount in a relatively short period. And much of what has been accomplished owes a great debt to those small initial groups of young queer radicals who defied the prescribed wisdom and boldly asserted their right not just to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not just to acceptance, but to PRIDE.
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Baumann, Jason, ed. The Stonewall Reader. Penguin Books, 2019.
Clendinen, Dudley and Adam Nagourney. Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Duberman, Martin B. Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America. Plume, 2019.
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