The first time, they marched in suits.
Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who was always more staid Washington than bohemian Greenwich Village, organized an annual Fourth of July demonstration in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia starting in 1964.
A few dozen people attended the “Annual Reminder” demonstration each year. Under Kameny’s direction, they all wore business attire and carried signs with sedate messages such as “Homosexuals deserve equal empowerment.”
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Kameny, a Harvard PhD who lived in the nation’s capital until his death in 2011, was ousted from his federal government job in 1957 because of his homosexuality. He led demonstrations in Washington, New York and Philadelphia, and in the 1960s his message was always more about gays and lesbians being accepted in the eyes of the law rather than the more edgy “gay power” message.
But today, the celebratory and sometimes raucous international Pride celebrations in June, which attract hundreds of thousands of people in cities worldwide, can be traced back to Kameny’s modest and decorous demonstrations in Philadelphia.
“The Annual Reminder was meant to remind the nation on its birthday of the promise of rights, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that had been denied to gay people,” said George Chauncey, a history professor at Yale University who has written extensively about LGBTQ history.
Everything in gay activism though, including the Annual Reminder, changed after the June 29, 1969, Stonewall riots — the unrest that occurred after police raided a gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City.
Just days after Stonewall, Craig Rodwell, the owner of Greenwich Village’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the country’s first gay bookstore, organized a bus of about 30 young gay and lesbian activists to join the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia.
The protesters from New York were dressed in stylish jeans and shirts, while those affiliated with Kameny were dressed in their traditional suits, according to Lillian Faderman, the author of “The Gay Revolution.” Still, Kameny let them join in.
But then, according to Faderman, Kameny spotted two female protesters holding hands and ordered them to stop the public display of affection during the protest. Annoyed, the New York protesters rebelled against Kameny’s caution. They scribbled over the signs that Kameny had provided, writing things such as “Stop Sexual Fascism” and “Gay Power Now.”
Rodwell decided the Annual Reminder was ineffective — drowned out by all the other Fourth of July protests — and, along with other prominent activists, organized a more radical demonstration the following year. In 1970, the “Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade” marked the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. That parade, which attracted thousands of people in New York City, has morphed into today’s Pride Parade.
“Eventually Kameny really loved those Pride marches, and he stopped wearing the suit and tie,” Faderman said. “In the beginning, he wasn’t happy that his demonstration was taken over by jeans and T-shirts. But eventually he came to know that it was a good thing.”
During that first protest in New York, a few thousand people marched from Greenwich Village to Central Park. And a large Christopher Street West Liberation Day Parade unfolded in Los Angeles. About 30 people also held a march in San Francisco.
Faderman said she stood on the sidelines in Los Angeles and watched in awe as thousands of people marched by her. In 1970, it was unusual — and even dangerous — for people to be so public about their sexuality.
“It was totally incredible,” Faderman said. “I came out into the gay girls bar scene in 1956. We had to hide. It was scary. You didn’t march down Hollywood Boulevard — you hid.”
The mood at those first marches in 1970 could be described as “radical celebration,” according to Chauncey. More cities started hosting gatherings each year, with Washington holding its first in 1972. The marches eventually came to be known as “Pride” parades or festivals sometime in the mid-1970s, taking the name from a gay rights advocacy organization called Personal Rights in Defense and Education, which is known by its acronym, PRIDE.
“Instead of asking to be admitted into American society and be granted civil rights, this was initially a much more radical celebration — a celebration not on the nation’s birthday but on the birthday of gay liberation,” Chauncey said. “The arc of the gay movement in the 1960s followed the arc of the civil rights movement, moving from a very significant demand at its time of black civil rights in the ’50s and ’60s to a more militant demand of black power.”
Chauncey acknowledged some of the recent criticisms lodged against Pride and said that it has become a marketing opportunity for big businesses. To the consternation of many local D.C. activists, for instance, one of the main sponsors of the Pride Parade in the nation’s capital is Wells Fargo, which has lent money to private prisons.
But, according to Chauncey, the Pride festivities often rise to the occasion. In the ’80s and ’90s, the festivities were angrier and rebuked the government’s lack of response to the AIDs crisis. And, he said, it still remains an empowering event for young people who are just coming out.
“These marches don’t bear any resemblance at all to the radical politics of the early marches, but certainly at times of crisis the marches have become more militant again and politicized again,” Chauncey said. “And they continue to be what they were at the beginning — an important place for people who are just coming out to have the courage to march in the street. Only now there are hundreds of thousands people.”
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