I woke up Sunday morning to the horrible, alarmingly common news of an incident of gun violence and terrorism. But this one was different: The shooter’s target was the LGBT community. I learned about the incident as I was getting ready to march in Philadelphia’s Gay Pride Parade. I never questioned whether I would march, but it took me hours to realize why.
The thousands of people who gathered for the Philadelphia parade were joyous, not sober, even as news began to stream out: The Orlando shooting left 50 dead, 53 more wounded and was now the worse mass shouting in U.S. history.
As the parade moved forward, I was confronted with images of the past, of the very first gay pride march, in New York on June 28, 1970. It was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, and I was there. We didn’t know what to expect, as no group of “known homosexuals” had ever gathered and marched across Manhattan to proclaim their pride in who they were. At first, the city wouldn’t give us a permit to march, but we were going to do so with or without it. Because LGBT people didn’t unusually leave Greenwich Village, as an openly out group, we expected violence and we prepared for it by taking lessons in passive resistance. At 18 years old, I was one of the youngest marshals.
Until that June 28, no more than 100 or so openly gay people had ever been organized in a march, picket or protest. But this was one year after the Stonewall riots, and we wanted to celebrate our pride in our community, in the youth and trans organizations we’d build. We’d put together legal and medical support systems and even the world’s first LGBT community center. We wanted to celebrate.
On the day, we didn’t know if there would be many more than 100 people brave enough to march with us. But when we got to 23rd Street, I looked back to see a line of people still coming our from the village. That sent chills down my back. The final participation counts in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March range from 5,000 to 15,000 people.
As it was then, Sunday’s parade was no longer a mere celebration, it was a march of defiance. It was the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. The past few decades have seen success after success for our community, but those of us who were there in those early days recall the violence. We recall Stonewall, and the Compton’s riots in San Francisco. We recall the numerous firebombs at our churches; we recall the arrests, the incarcerations, the nickel rides in police wagons; we recall Mathew Shepard; we recall the tens of thousands who were lobotomized; we recall a nation and its president turning its back as a plague killed hundreds of thousand. In 1973, an LGBT club called the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans was firebombed, and 34 people died.
This is the violent history against our community that has been ignored for the sake of celebration. Orlando is proof that what we started in 1969, then again in 1981, is still true today. We are not just fighting for our lives, we are fighting to have a life, a life beyond the silence, beyond what was expected of us before the movement took off.
What has saved us all these years, through all the horrors that our community has faced, is our sense of pride. All of us marching in events this pride month will be doing so in honor of those killed not only in Orlando, but nationwide. Our community has lived with this violence for all these decades. It has taken a mass shooting to shift the news media’s attention back to the real issue: hatred for who we are and how we live; hatred for our efforts to carve out a more inclusive world for ourselves.
Nothing will replace the lives that were lost in Orlando; it will take time to close the fractures. But our community will endure. Our triumphs and our tragedies make us who we are. We who march with pride and joy in our hearts make a pledge that was made at Stonewall and at that first gay pride event: We will be out and proud and there is nothing you can do to force us back into silence.