I have the privilege of serving the bi community as Executive Director of the American Institute of Bisexuality, a nonprofit with its headquarters located in downtown Los Angeles. Our office, which doubles as an event space, is known locally as “The Bi Loft.” It is only steps from the former location of Cooper Do-nuts, site of America’s first uprising against police mistreatment of LGBTI people - all the way back in May of 1959.
That historic shop on Main Street, which was wedged between two gay bars, has long since been razed and replaced with a huge parking lot. Still, when I pass by I often wonder to myself: could the queer men, trans women, and street hustlers who threw donuts, coffee, trash, sugar packets, mugs, and anything else they could find as they fought back against the police have foreseen the revolution that was coming? Could they have imagined entire communities of out, proud LGBTI people across the globe? Did they dare to dream big enough to think that America (and 28 additional countries as of this moment) would have same-sex marriage? How about nationwide, federal employment protections for America’s LGBTI people, which we have as of June 15th?
This year, with the 50th anniversary of Pride, I thought I would look back at the history of Pride, briefly ponder how it's evolved, and imagine where it might go in the future. With no tradition of passing on knowledge, and having lost so many of our elders to AIDS, our community's understanding of its own history is often incomplete and distorted. In the interest of exploring some of those gaps, I'd like to challenge the dominant narrative that the origins of Pride, and even of the entire LGBTI movement, were Stonewall. Because the simple fact of the matter is, countless thousands of unsung heroes around the world had been fighting for our rights long before that night in New York.
51 years ago today, on June 28, 1969, riots broke out at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. While it wasn't the first, second, or even third LGBTI uprising against police brutality, much like today, the world was in a moment of tremendous cultural shift. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement (lead in part by a Black and (closeted) gay man named Bayard Rustin), the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and the nearly global protests against oppression and injustice that erupted in 1968, the patrons of Stonewall were in no mood to passively comply with homophobic harassment by the NYPD.
What came next has become the stuff of legend, though concrete details about who did what, and who showed up when are murky at best. What we do know for sure is that the patrons of the Stonewall Inn refused to comply with the police’s demand that everyone provide ID and that anyone who appeared to be cross-dressing submit to genital inspections by a female officer. Unable to handle the situation, the police called for backup and tried to keep the crowd waiting around to be processed until more cops arrived. Instead, what they got was nights of rioting, demonstrations, and destruction of property that didn’t end until 6 days later.
As a riot in the middle of Manhattan — the very heart of NYC — the Stonewall uprising made front-page news. Not only did that bring even more queer people to the protests over the following nights, but the press coverage also spread a new image across the world of bold, LGBTI people who weren’t afraid to stand up for their rights.
In 1969, the gay cause quickly became a cause célèbre among the American Left. Emboldened by the sudden surge in public support, new, more audacious organizations like the Gay Liberation Front — which defined itself as "the militant arm of the gay movement" — sprung up all over the country.
Like that night at Stonewall, the history of Pride is surrounded by myth and conflicting stories. Contrary to a lot of popular lore, Stonewall was not the start of the LGBTI movement. Nor did Pride or the LGBTI movement as we know it even come out of New York. Instead, Stonewall was a tipping point that, as a result of all the press coverage and the general zeitgeist, took the existing, over 100-year-old “gay rights” movement to new levels of visibility unimaginable just months earlier.
By the 1960s, a century of LGBTI activism had already given us the concept of sexual orientation; awareness of gender diversity; terms such as heterosexual and homosexual to describe our behavior in scientific, morally neutral terms in order to fight criminalization; and had developed services for our trans siblings such as hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery. Granted, many of these advancements happened in Europe, where vibrant pockets of LGBTI life suffered tragic setbacks with the rise of fascism.
In the United States, on the other hand, pre-Stonewall LGBTI activism tended to be a more assimilationist and timid scene. But there were exceptions: LA-based artists Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer created a new paradigm that cast aside stereotypes of the sad, tragic gay man in favor of the proud, happy gay man. In the process, they also sparked a new community of admirers of the male physique, men who were drawn to other men but not necessarily to activism — men who wanted to consume gay-oriented goods and services.
Also in Los Angeles, Steve Ginsberg founded PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) in 1966.
So yes, the term "Pride" itself came from Los Angeles.
In direct contrast to America’s existing homophile (a preferred term in the 1950s) scene which was reserved and avoided drawing attention to itself, PRIDE was loud and in your face. Its members shocked the gay establishment by showing up in full leather gear, dressing provocatively, and celebrating their sexuality in public. They called their meetings “Pride Night” and gave The Hub, the gay bar in which they met, the nickname “Pride Hall”. In 1967, PRIDE helped protest police abuses at the LA's Black Cat gay bar. In May 1968, PRIDE co-hosted the first “Gay-In” at Griffith Park. It was designed as a bold celebration of acceptance and living LGBTI life out in the open. Billed as fun and educational, it began with a primer on police harassment and ended with a bar crawl. It was so popular, it was followed by a second Gay-In in July.
In other words, the makings of Pride as we know it were already established before Stonewall. Oh, and PRIDE, the organization? Its newsletter became The Advocate magazine and lives on to this day.
In 1968, and also in Los Angeles, Reverend Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). He drew attendees to his first service by advertising in PRIDE’s newsletter. Demand for an LGBTI-affirming Christianity proved so large that within months he had to move MCC from his modest living room to a 600-seat church.
On June 28th, 1970 activists in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago commemorated the Stonewall riots with “Christopher Street Day” — what we would now call Pride.
When LA activists started planning to commemorate the Stonewall riots, Reverend Perry took the bold move of applying for a parade permit for “Christopher Street West”. He felt that the local culture of Los Angeles, and Hollywood in particular, called for a jubilant and visible celebration with floats and banners rather than the protest marches planned in other U.S. cities.
LA Police Chief Ed Davis told newspaper reporters that he would rather approve a march of "thieves and burglars" than homosexuals (homosexuality was illegal in California until 1976). The LA Police Commission voted 4 to 1 to place deliberately impossible conditions on the parade permit: 1) a bond for a million dollars to pay out the businesses damaged by the rocks they imagined people would throw at the paraders 2) a cash bond of $500,000, and 3) at least 5000 people marching. But Perry and the activists prevailed when they managed to convince the ACLU — which had refused to come to the aid of LGBTI organizations in the 1950s — to help. The same day, the California Superior Court ordered the Police Commission to issue a permit to the organizers with the receipt of a $1,500 security payment. All other requirements were dropped.
Thankfully, the parade itself was a success with a large crowd and no significant problems.
The first Pride parade was accompanied by, you guessed it, another Gay-In.
So the first Pride (at least in LA) had all the ingredients we have come to expect, but how has Pride changed over the past five decades?
It's almost unimaginable now, but the rainbow flag we have come to consider synonymous with Pride and the LGBTI community in general wasn't invented until 1978, when Gilbert Baker shared his flag with the world for the first time in San Francisco.
Of the four "Christopher Street" marches that took place in 1970, three were un-permitted, guerrilla, protest marches. Organizers in LA had to sue the city for the right to a parade permit. Since then, the situation in North America has changed rather dramatically. Hosting a Pride seems to have become a right of passage for many cities, a sign of cosmopolitanism, inclusivity and, let's face it, a way to bring in tourist dollars. In LA County alone, we now have over 6 Pride festivals plus at least a half-dozen more in neighboring counties.
For better or worse, companies that once wouldn't serve or hire us, now spend a lot of money advertising to us and help pay for the cost of organizing Pride. That said, many Prides have become so large and commercial that they can feel very corporate and distant from their grassroots.
A Global Phenomenon
From its humble beginnings in four cities, Pride has spread around the world. From Amsterdam, to Taipei, to Johannesburg, Pride has become a huge event. There is even a "World Pride", held each year in a different host city, that is awarded in a bidding process somewhat reminiscent of the Olympics. São Paulo currently holds the record for the largest pride ever with over 5,000,000 people in attendance.
At my first Pride (San Diego in 2001), I remember seeing several people wearing brown paper bags over their heads. The sight of them was jarring, but I immediately knew what it meant: They wanted to stand up for their rights and their community, but didn't dare be public about it because they feared losing their jobs, their families, and more. In the 70s and 80s, that was a pretty common sight in many Pride parades. Although there is no shortage of people who have to hide their sexuality in this world, Pride has helped remove stigmas and created a sense that being part of the LGBTI community can be cool and fun. In fact, many straight people now attend Pride in order to enjoy the party.
The Future of Pride
Pride is not without its shortcomings. There have been many criticisms of Pride festivities being dominated by financially well-off, conventionally attractive, white, gay men. The bi community is too often neglected, excluded, or even shunned at these events — this can be especially true of bi people with different-sex partners. Many of us are lucky enough to live in countries where it is safe to be out about our sexualities, but this is not a universal truth. There are still countries where the LGBTI community still struggles for basic human rights, let alone the ability to come together, build community, and celebrate.
This year there have been a lot of discussions about the origins of Pride, many of which delve into new mythologies and project current themes onto the past. I think it helps to remember that even though the fight for LGBTI rights did not start at Stonewall, those nights of rioting changed the conversation dramatically. They brought decades of difficult, often thankless LGBTI activism out of the shadows and into the daylight where it could finally grow into its potential and bear fruit. For many reasons, Pride is going to look different this year, but I hope this can serve as an opportunity to address some of the shortcomings of what Pride has become. Let's use this time to celebrate our queerness and wave our flags. But let's also take this year to reflect on the legacy of the long, hard battles that generations of our predecessors fought on our behalf and, in their honor, figure out how to continue to make Pride more accessible and inclusive for everyone.