Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) pride marches have been held annually in the United States since the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which are considered the starting point of the modern LGB movement. This article offers a brief chronological history of LGB protest politics through the major periods of modern LGB political history: the Stonewall period, the gay liberation era of the 1970s, the AIDS activism of the 1980s, and the turn to the mainstream of the 1990s. This article was adapted from chapter 2 of the book Gay and Lesbian Americans and Political Participation by Raymond A. Smith and Donald P. Haider-Markel (ABC-CLIO Publishers, 2001).
Although many of the historical details of the Stonewall Riots are disputed, the essential facts were captured in the New York Times of June 28, 1969: "Hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3am yesterday after a force of plainsclothes men raided a bar that the police said was well known for its homosexual clientele ... The young men threw bricks, bottles, garbage, pennies and a parking meter at the policemen, who had a search warrant authorizing them to investigate reports that liquor was sold illegally at the bar, the Stonewall Inn, 53 Christopher Street just off Sheridan Square."
While the Times's version is factually accurate, it provides no sense of the historic import of the event. Ironically, the mocking coverage of the same day's New York Daily News actually captured the event more accurately: "Queen power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot. ... The crowd began to get out of hand, eye witnesses said. Then, without warning, a gay atomic bomb. Queens, princesses, and ladies in waiting began hurling anything they could lay their polished, manicured finger nails on. ... The war was on. The lilies of the valley had become carnivorous jungle plants."
Gay bar patrons had previously resisted police, notably in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley, all to little lasting effect. By contrast, the Stonewall Riots provoked three additional nights of clashes with police, and, most importantly, galvanized an LGB population already radicalized by the black, women's, anti-war, and New Left movements of the 1960s. Unlike any previous event in LGB history, the riots led to a cascade of organized activities that quickly radiated out from the New York epicenter, due in part to the concentration of the U.S. media in New York.
Thus, in the waning months of the 1960s, the movement for "gay liberation" was begun. In a precursor of future LGB pride marches, a group of 500 demonstrators marched down Christopher Street on July 2 to protest the raid of the Stonewall. The radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in New York, rejecting the conciliatory incrementalism of the old homophile groups. In November, Gay Liberation Front activists joined hundreds of thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Washington, DC. December brought the launching of a Gay Liberation Front chapter in Chicago, even as the new movement's first schism occurred when the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) split off from GLF.
When New York police raided another gay bar, the Snake Pit, a mere nine months after Stonewall, some 500 GLF activists gathered almost immediately to protest. In April, the GAA sponsored its first "zap" (i.e., disruption of a political event) by heckling New York Mayor John Lindsay, while the GLF protested the presentation of a paper at the American Psychiatric Association meeting on the use of electroshock aversion therapy to treat homosexuality. In May, at the Second Congress to Unite Women, lesbian feminists protested homophobia in the National Organization for Women, and a newly formed group called "Radicalesbians" issued a manifesto on "woman-identified woman."
In all, less than a year had passed since the Stonewall Riots, but a decisive break with the closeted, clandestine past had occurred throughout the LGB movement. Another major development occurred when, on the first anniversary of Stonewall, LGB activists in New York, and to a less extent Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, held commemorative street marches. Although generally referred to as "liberation" or "freedom" marches at the time, they evolved into the pride marches that are held annually throughout the nation since 1970.
For the LGB community, the 1970s was a heady period, and the pride marches of the day reflected the priorities and perspective of the times. At least in certain enclaves in the largest cities, a public LGB community emerged which could wield a degree of both political and economic clout. Gay men, in particular, formed a new sexual culture built around bars and bathhouses that pushed the possibilities of the sexual revolution to its bacchanalic heights (or depths, depending upon one's perspective). Lesbians remained a cornerstone of a burgeoning feminist movement which it seemed might actually "level the patriarchy" and achieve the full emancipation of women.
Amidst such feelings of both confidence and celebration, LGB protest politics took on an increasingly outrageous tone, pushing sexual and gender boundaries and violating taboos as an end in itself. The staid picket lines of the early homophile movement had required men to don business suits and women to wear long-hemmed dresses, but pride marches and other forms of protest politics encouraged the shocking, uninhibited, and exhibitionistic.
It is in this context that LGB pride marches became entrenched as fixtures in the major cities of the United States. On the last weekend of each June, marches have been launched in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other of the largest cities. For instance, from humble beginnings in 1970, the San Francisco "Gay Freedom Day" march grew to 50,000 in 1972, then to an estimated 200,000 in 1977 and 350,000 in 1978, by which time it was the largest LGB march in the U.S. (as well as the largest parade in San Francisco). By the late 1970s, LGB communities in many smaller cities and states began a new tradition of separate, smaller marches on other weekends in June.
Of course, LGB protest was not limited to one day a year. Throughout the decade, smaller demonstrations and direct actions were carried out which were often stunning in their boldness. Prior to Stonewall, perhaps the largest-scale forms of LGB political protest had been the small, orderly picket lines held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia each July 4. But over the course of the 1970s, LGB protest became increasingly bold. In March 1971, some 2000 activists protested anti-LGB New York State laws in a rally in Albany, NY; the battle shifted to the New York City Council in 1974, which would remain the target of protests until 1985. These and dozens of other small protests had a powerful impact, as a series of anti-LGB laws and policies are overturned throughout the decade, including the decriminalization of consensual same-sex acts in a dozen states; passage of the first laws prohibiting anti-LGB discrimination; the election of the first openly LGB political figures; and the launching of numerous new LGB political groups, including the National Gay (later: and Lesbian) Task Force.
Still, one of the most painful and best documented protests occurred in the waning months of the decade, when, Dan White, the murderer of openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk was convicted only of manslaughter rather than murder. White had clearly premeditated the murder of two of his political opponents, Mayor George Moscone and Milk, and deprived the LGB community of perhaps its single most important leader. A massive spontaneous candlelight march is organized from the LGB neighborhood, the Castro, to City Hall where rioting broke out through the night, with windows smashed and fires set.
Following on the heels of the Milk murder and a vociferous anti-LGB "Save Our Children" campaign headed by the singer Anita Bryant there came in 1979 an entirely new type of LGB protest drawing upon the archetype of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At this event, tens of thousands of African Americans and other supporters of the civil rights movement had amassed on the National Mall to hear speakers including, most notably, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. While protest marches and demonstrations had been a mainstay of the civil rights movement in cities throughout the segregated South, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was an event of a distinct kind, designed expressly to mobilize massive numbers to converge simultaneously at one location.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a galvanizing event in the struggle for civil rights and also a profound influence on other major movements of the decade. The 1960s would later see marches for women's liberation, which created momentum for the ultimately failed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Likewise, marches against the Vietnam War rallies were integral components of the decade's larger New Left and youth empowerment movements, which resulted, for instance, in the lowering of the voting age to 18 through the enactment of the 26th Amendment in 1971.
Thus, it was perhaps inevitable that the model of LGB pride marches as well as other civil rights marches would eventually be merged into an LGB March on Washington. Organized by numerous and fractious grassroots committees, the 1979 March may well have been made possible by the galvanizing effect of the Milk assassination. In the end, that October over 100,000 protestors, from every state and ten foreign countries, descended upon Washington, DC to mark what was only the tenth anniversary of Stonewall. In retrospect, the 1979 march represented the high-point of pre-AIDS LGB political activism. The wholly unexpected emergence of the AIDS epidemic a mere 20 months later would radically re-shape LGB politics.
In the first editorial of 1980 in the LGB newsmagazine The Advocate, editor David Goodstein could write, "I foresee that the next ten years will be the best in the history of humankind." Such optimism would prove to be unfounded, particularly for the many gay men who by the summer of 1981 had begun to take sick and die of a previously unknown immune disorder. The disease soon named Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was to make an indelible impact on the course of the LGB movement, marked most of all by a quickly mounting death toll. As of mid-June 1982, 184 people had died of AIDS; by the end of 1984, the number was 7,699, by June 1987 the number had reached 20,849. The large majority of those dying were gay or bisexual men, many from the urban neighborhoods which were the mainstays of the gay movement. Although lesbians had not been infected with HIV in comparably large numbers, they shared a great deal of the stigma of AIDS while seeing much of the earlier promise of the women's movement dashed by the "Reagan revolution" of the early 1980s.
At LGB pride marches, the confident and celebratory mood of the 1970s soon gave way to a siege mentality in which the LGB community felt attacked not only by the AIDS virus but also by an increasingly homophobic general population. Inevitably, the epidemic added a somber new note to the annual pride events: "AIDS service and volunteer organizations are featured prominently in the floats and walking contingents in most of these parades. Protest groups carry placards and banners with AIDS slogans, adding a militant dimension to the events. In many parades, it has been customary to include a moment of silence in memory of those who have died of AIDS, sometimes followed by a 'moment of rage' designed as a cathartic release of anger and sorrow."
Likewise, the second LGB March on Washington, held on October 11, 1987, took as its theme the need for action around the AIDS epidemic and featured the largest mass civil disobedience event since the Vietnam War, as well as the first unfolding of the full AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall. The placement of that March in October led to the designation of that month as Lesbian and Gay History Month on many colleges and universities, and of October 11 as "National Coming Out Day." (Some cities, particularly in areas with hot summers, also choose to hold their pride events in October rather than June.) Yet if pride marches were the pre-eminent form of LGB protest expression in the 1970s, it was undoubtedly targeted AIDS demonstrations and direct actions that best characterize the 1980s. Indeed, throughout the decade, LGB protest was essentially synonymous with AIDS protest, which was itself virtually synonymous with one group, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP.
Into the 1990s, AIDS remained a major theme at LGB demonstrations and marches, but by 1993 ACT UP had peaked, as evidenced by the creation of a less militant splinter group called the Treatment Action Group (TAG). Likewise, dramatic advances in anti-HIV medications after 1996 led to declining death rates and a lifting of much of the sense of communal calamity among LGB people. Although some subgroups, particularly gay men of color, remained disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, as the so-called early crisis" phase of AIDS in the LGB community appeared to pass, attention returned to more general issues. Other than important AIDS demonstrations held in the 1990s, for instance, one of the decade's most significant moments of LGB political protest followed the murder in 1998 of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepherd. The young, frail Shepherd had been violently attacked, tied to a fence, and left to die at least in part because of his sexual orientation. There ensued a wave of candlelight vigils, memorial services, and even a raucous street demonstration calling for hate-crimes legislation that snarled traffic in Lower Manhattan, protests held with an intensity unseen since the height of AIDS activism.
Similarly, most pride marches in the 1990s no longer carried on the outrageousness of the 1970s or the somberness of the 1980s. Writing in 1998 about pride marches, Philadelphia Gay News Associate Editor Kevin D. Melrose wrote that "Nearly three decades after the fight for civil rights became a full-fledged movement, gays and lesbians are still grappling with the significance of pride and, perhaps more importantly how it should be expressed. In some respects, a need for visibility has been replaced by a desire for acceptance, and a demonstration of outrage by a celebration of culture." Gay cultural commentator Daniel Harris has complained that the events have lost touch with their protest roots, with the San Francisco march becoming "this sort of civic procession for all these city councilmen and the mayor, and all of these people who want to assure gay people how much they liked us." Urvashi Vaid of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force urges a reorientation of the events towards transformative politics: "I think there's a need for a political action that's focused around lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans realities. The vision that we have for the society -- those are the things I'd like to see at pride celebrations." Yet in the 1990s, pride marches have often lacked any such coherent vision or purpose, and attempts to imbue them with one have often failed, as was the case with a 1994 march for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, the intended focus on which on international LGB rights was lost in a wash of consumer items and the quadrennial Olympics-style "Gay Games."
In all, the topics of the highest profile LGB protests in the mid- to late-1990s involved attempts by LGB individuals to gain access to some of the most conservative institutions in mainstream society. A Christian LGB group called Soul Force exhorted the Rev. Jerry Falwell to moderate his homophobic rhetoric while protestors within mainline Protestant denominations called for ordination of openly LGB ministers and recognition of committed same-sex unions. Picketers visited offices of the Boy Scouts of America after that organization went all the way to the Supreme Court to successfully enforce a policy excluding openly gay scouts and scoutmasters. Perhaps most acrimonious of all were the debate over allowing lesbians and gay men to serve openly in the U.S. military and over opening the institution of marriage to same-sex couples.
The question of "gays in the military" and "gay marriage" were major focuses of the 1993 and 2000 Marches on Washington. The 1993 March on Washington was held just six years after the 1987 march, but circumstances had changed markedly. Perhaps most importantly, twelve years of rule by the Republican Reagan and Bush administrations, which had been perceived as highly hostile to LGB rights, had given way to the much friendlier Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. Further, much of the hysteria around AIDS had peaked in the late 1980s, and activists had succeeded to a striking degree in achieving their goals, including legal protection of people with HIV/AIDS from discrimination through the Americans with Disabilities Act and funding for HIV/AIDS treatment through the Ryan White CARE Act.
Nonetheless, there was frustration in some quarters that after more than a decade or rear-guard actions, forward progress on LGB issues could not be more quickly achieved. Clinton pleased many activists by including mention of LGB people in his campaign, including even the speech accepting his nomination as president by the Democratic Party, and appointed a number of LGB individuals to high positions in the federal government. However, Clinton's attempt to reverse the military policy that prohibited openly LGB people from serving in the U.S. armed forces ignited a firestorm of protest from conservatives inside and outside the military. Congress, although controlled by Democrats, threatened to write the ban directly into federal law and there was no comparable groundswell of support from a left wing that was ambivalent in its feelings about the armed forces in general.
Thus the 1993 March turned out to be neither a celebration of advances nor a condemnation of Clinton, who was out of Washington that day. At the time of the March, the final "don't ask, don't tell" policy had not yet been decided, and so the mood of the entire event was tentative. Of course, AIDS issues were addressed, and the March reportedly had an important galvanizing effect for many individuals and small LGB organizations, especially those from outside the largest cities. But the focus fostered by the Anita Bryant campaign and Harvey Milk assassination in 1979 and the AIDS epidemic in 1987 was not recaptured in 1993.
Far more contentious was the next LGB March on Washington, dubbed the "Millennium March" of April 2000. Although never adopted formally as a theme, "Faith and Family" was widely circulated as the slogan for the event. Given that many LGB people have felt rejected by and are estranged from both their faiths and their families, this initial emphasis inflicted damage on the Millennium March from which it would never recover. The damage was compounded when the two lead organizations, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), an LGB Christian denomination, and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) were perceived as imposing the agenda for the march from the "top down" in contrast to the more disorganized but genuinely grassroots organizing for the previous marches.
Early in the process, a number of other organizations, including some representing LGB ethnic/racial minorities, were asked to sign on as co-sponsors of the event but then felt that they had been added as "tokens" to demonstrate wide-ranging support. An overly assimilationist approach was seen in the decision to exclude even the words "lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender" from the official title of the March, which it was at one point planned not as a march at all, but simply a mass rally on the National Mall. Perhaps the most serious blow came when HRC, a Washington, DC-based national lobby, endorsed the Republican U.S. Senator from New York, Alphonse D'Amato, for re-election despite strong opposition from within the New York LGB community. An "Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process" developed at first to protest, and later to outright call for a boycott of, the Millennium March.
Deprived of the support of New York City, one of the most important bases for any LGB action on the East Coast, the Millennium March suffered further by contrast with, and to some extent competition with, a 1999 event called "Equality Begins at Home." Held in March 1999 under the leadership of the more left-leaning and grassroots National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Equality Begins at Home events included lobbying, socializing, educational, or other events chosen by local activists in the capital city and/or major city of every U.S. state.
The Millennium March did ultimately take place, and had a respectable attendance level, particularly among people from outside the largest cities. Nonetheless, the rifts between the national level sponsors and many state and local organizations were not easily healed, and the situation was complicated by a money embezzlement scandal after the Millennium March. One common critique after the event was that it might be the last national march of its type, that state and local level action might henceforth be more appropriate given the expansion and diversification of LGB communities of the nation. Other lessons regarded the continuing need for broad and deep support for coordinated national-level action, as well as a compelling cause around which LGB people might develop a consensus for action.
Despite the AIDS epidemic and the gradual turn towards conservatism in society as a whole, pride marches have not only continued in the largest cities but also proliferated in smaller cities and even some suburban and rural areas in the U.S. and abroad. Indeed, by 1983, LGB pride marches had spread far enough to warrant the creation of the International Association of Lesbian/Gay Pride Coordinators (IAL/GPC), a non-profit organization of representatives of 60 cities worldwide which sponsor pride events. The group has sponsored an international conference each October to "conduct corporate business, discuss future plans, political concerns, merchandising, operations, logistics, for the planning of a variety of Gay Pride events that are held around the globe."
The IAL/GPC's official listings of pride events indicated that in 1998 such events were scheduled for 203 locations throughout the world. More then half of these events (116) were scheduled for sites in the United States. These events range enormously in size, from large estimates of about half a million or more in the biggest cities to just a few hundred participants in the smallest locales. Most, although not all, of these events are scheduled during June and involve an actual march through the streets of the city. However, an unspecified number occur in other months and may involve rallies, festivals, and other activities without an actual processional-type march. In addition, it is possible that additional events have been held which for some reason have not been included on the IAL/GPC list. Therefore, a complete listing of pride events might be larger than this list. Overall, the IAL/GPC estimated that, in 1996, some 10 to 12 million people worldwide participated in LGB pride events.
In the U.S., the truly nationwide scope of LGB Pride Marches can be seen by the fact that a total of 45 states were represented on the listing, every state except three sparsely populated plains states (Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota) and two Southern states (Virginia and Mississippi). Among the states, the largest number of events was scheduled for California (25), followed by New York (10), Florida (9), and Massachusetts (7).
The list of U.S. locations includes many of the urban locales which might be expected. Indeed, pride events were scheduled for all but five of the largest 40 cities in the U.S., the exceptions being Tulsa, Oklahoma; Memphis, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Ft. Worth, Texas. (Of these five cities, four were within same-day driving distance to pride events in other cities in the same state.) Also of note is that nearly half (23) of state capitals were the site of a pride march, including such small cities as Boise, Idaho; Augusta, Maine; Salem, Oregon; Charleston, West Virginia; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. In addition, events were listed for the nation's capital, Washington DC, and San Juan, capital of the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Among U.S. metropolitan areas, as designated by the U.S. census, all 21 areas with a population over 2 million hosted a pride event. Of the 22 areas with between one and two million residents, 17 (77%) sponsored a pride event. In addition, of the 26 metropolitan areas between 600,000 and 1 million in population, 15 (58%) sponsored pride events. A number of metropolitan areas sponsored more than one pride event, including four separate marches in the New York City area (in the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Bronx); six in Greater Los Angeles (Claremont, Long Beach, Los Angeles/West Hollywood, Orange County, Riverside/San Bernardino, and Simi Valley); and four in the San Francisco Bay area (Berkeley, Marin County, Oakland, and San Francisco).
Less extensive, but still striking has been the spread of pride marches to other countries. Canada leads the rest of the world with pride marches in 15 cities in five of the ten provinces, including five provincial capitals. Europe was led by Germany (11 events), followed by France (10) and the United Kingdom (8). Overall, thirteen of the 15 members of the European Union hold pride events (all except Luxembourg and Greece), with the capital city of each of the 13 hosting an event. Four other European countries host pride events, as do five cities in Australia, three in Israel, three in Argentina two in New Zealand, and two in Mexico. In addition, pride events are held in five other countries in Latin America and two countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
While the specifics vary, the typical march involves a line-up of different types of LGB groups, each composing a separate contingent that may carry banners or placards. The larger marches also include parade-type floats, often featuring performers. The march usually sets off around noon, or another predetermined time, and generally proceeds either out of or towards an established LGB neighborhood, passing spectators and sometimes a formal reviewing stand along the way. Most marches end near a festival, street fair, or other gathering where participants can spend the rest of the afternoon.
A wide variety of different groups participate, for example: community groups, including community centers, which are designed to serve the entire LGB population in a given area; constituency groups, which serve only some subpopulation, particularly ethnic or racial groups; religious groups; health concerns groups, including those focused on HIV/AIDS; overtly political groups; social groups, built around common recreational activities; and arts and entertainment groups. While these groups do overlap considerably (e.g., many HIV/AIDS groups target specific ethnicities; many constituency groups are also partly social or political), these categories provide a sense of the makeup of the overall marches.
Much like an ethnic group which has come of age, LGB people have begun to seek a "place at the table" of the political process. LGB pride marches may be communal cultural celebrations, but they are also incontrovertibly political events. At the most basic level, LGB marches forcefully assert the community's fundamental right to a public presence. A community that has traditionally been rendered invisible is in full view on at least this one day; individuals who have historically been forced into isolation gather together in solidarity. In this regard, LGB people are much like any other minority group seeking to make claims on the dominant culture, a slot on the agenda of the larger society.
Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D., is the editor of Body Positive magazine.