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The First New York Pride March Was an Act of ‘Desperate Courage’

It wasn’t always feathers, floats and celebrities.

To view the images cited in this article, please visit The New York Times.

The first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, New York City, June 28, 1970. Film by Clifton R. Witt and Lilli M. Vincenz. Source: Library of Congress.

When we hear of Pride marches today, we tend to think of fuss and feathers, of men more than half-naked waving from rainbow-hued, Lurex-draped parade floats, of Dykes on Bikes who gun their motors in defiance of gender norms, of waving gay and trans celebrities. They are fiestas that percolate through the cities and sometimes small towns of the developed world, as well as some parts of the rest of the world, and they mark the fact that gay people exist in numbers, provide documentary evidence that we have more fun and are more fabulous than anyone else, that we are gay in the old sense of the word. The drag queens and gender-nonbinary youth at such events can appear preoccupied with their own ecstatic exhibitionism.

But Pride was not always so unabashedly celebratory; for a long time, it was a radical assault on mainstream values, a means to defy the belief that homosexuality was a sin, an illness and a crime, that gay people were subhuman. Declaring yourself is now so routine (at least among people in more liberal communities) that we forget the desperation in Harvey Milk’s 1978 entreaty that everyone who was gay come out if any progress was to be made. The flier that announced the first Pride march in New York, the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in 1970, said in part: “What it will all come to no one can tell. It is our hope that the day will come when homosexuals will be an integral part of society — being treated as human beings.” The flier added that such a change “can only be the result of a long hard struggle against bigotry, prejudice, persecution, exploitation — even genocide.” It further read, “Gay Liberation is for the homosexual who stands up, and fights back.”

Harvey Milk implores the crowd to come out. Eighth annual Gay Pride Parade, Los Angeles, July 2, 1978. Film by Pat Rocco. Source: UCLAFilmTVArchive.

The people gathered in these photos reflect a time when it took tremendous courage to march. They were breaking the only tested model then available for queers (the word was still an insult at that time), which was secrecy. Look at these marchers, some with faces upturned with wonderment and discovery, some with arms raised to clap, some scowling and angry; some seeking militant visibility and some turning bashfully from the camera. Look at the number of people marching: A year after Stonewall, a great crowd accrued, reportedly as many as 5,000 people speaking the name of the love that dared not speak its name. They are mostly young and garbed for late spring weather rather than for show (there are no feathers). This was serious business.

What is most striking in these photographs is the expression of relief the marchers seem to emanate. A firsthand account described how the parade started as a gathering of a thousand or so people at Sheridan Square and then swelled steadily as it headed up Sixth Avenue; many seemed to hang back until they realized it was a happening thing, then joined the throng as it went past. Some members of the parade saw compatriots standing on the sidelines, watching; one proclaimed that he would call out on the spot the gay friends he saw who weren’t participating. The burgeoning numbers offered a kind of invisibility to those who joined; in history, they are more a mass than they are individuals — but in some of these photos the specificity of individual people is reaffirmed. My favorite photo is the one of people involved in a sort of line dance, presumably in Sheep Meadow, where the parade wound up as what the organizers called a “Gay-In.”

It’s not that the people in these photos had never been open before; many were open at the bars and clubs that catered to them and on the late-night piers of the Hudson River, open with anyone who asked, a few open even with their families. But they had never before conquered so much new ground; they hadn’t declared themselves anywhere as public as Central Park, where befuddled onlookers gathered to witness their approximation of freedom. There had never been enough of them to allow this luxury of blatant selfhood.

One of the earliest Gay Pride demonstration marches, “Reminder Day Picket,” Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 4, 1968. Photography and editing: Lilli M. Vincenz. Source: Library of Congress.

The police who had been sent to protect the marchers turned their backs on them to signal their disdain, but the march went on protected nonetheless. Fred Sargeant wrote in The Village Voice: “Before Stonewall, gay leaders had primarily promoted silent vigils and polite pickets, such as the ‘Annual Reminder’ in Philadelphia. Since 1965, a small, polite group of gays and lesbians had been picketing outside Liberty Hall. The walk would occur in silence. Required dress on men was jackets and ties; for women, only dresses. We were supposed to be unthreatening.” He added that “Washington Mattachine’s Frank Kameny told two women holding hands that there would be ‘none of that’ and broke them apart.” Kameny and his Mattachine Society, long the loudest and most prominent voice of homosexual advancement, had been gradualists who tried to work from within. Stonewall and this parade represent the phase of the fight when niceties were put aside and progress was sought through riotous battle.

The newfound pride — often a brittle veneer over profound self-doubt — was not welcomed by many of those who encountered it. A new movement for civil rights is seldom greeted with rapture, and the mainstream fought back hard. A few months after Stonewall, Time magazine wrote, “The ‘homosexual subculture’ is, without question, shallow and unstable.” This was not a new position for the magazine. In 1966, it published a piece that said, “Even in purely nonreligious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty.” The piece argued that homosexuality, “is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life,” adding that “it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste — and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”

You can’t be gay today without reference to this time. Although I was a small child when the march took place, the images of it feel like documents of my own ancestry. I came out gradually and anxiously: moved in with my first boyfriend when I was 23 in 1987, and thereby grew honest with friends and family; wrote a novel with gay themes that was published when I was 31; joined the board of the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force only in my early 40s, around the time I married and had children and realized that gay pride had become a personal imperative. I’ve been an activist since, but I didn’t ascend into radicalism as a student, and I can only think that if I had been 20 when that first march took place, I’d have been peering at it anxiously from a distance, a pusillanimous stance I now regret. Pride is an internal and an external state, a sense of self and an outlook on the world. It comes with both privileges and obligations.

“Who threw the first brick at Stonewall?” (Maybe no one.) Source: The New York Times.

A few years ago, I was contacted by a reporter from my high school paper who was writing an article with the working title “Gay at Horace Mann: A Historical Perspective.” That made me feel as if I were 108 years old. But the nature of generational change was evident when the student journalist asked me why I hadn’t come out in high school, and seemed unable to parse my response. I patiently explained that in the 1970s, no one came out in my high school, that, indeed, most people didn’t come out even when they were no longer in high school, that I would have feared the response from my parents and my peers, that I would have been a social outcast and a laughingstock. I said that when I played Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest my senior year, it was pretty obvious to everyone that my most terrifying secret was essentially common knowledge, but the idea of talking about it in high school no more crossed my mind than did the possibility of dropping out and becoming a professional surf instructor on Oahu.

So I come to these photographs abashed. I admire the people, braver than I, who were out for the first march. I feel such gratitude that these men and women had the wherewithal to declare themselves when doing so was still so acutely dangerous. I have benefited from their willingness to fight scorn with scorn. There is a righteousness even in the photos of people who seem to be there for a good time. The presumption that gay people were emasculated, weak, impotent had been defied by the Stonewall uprising, but this was something new: not people cornered by the police who fought back, but an open and immediate assertion by people who unprovoked declared their identity.

This paper covered the march, writing, “Thousands of young men and women homosexuals from all over the Northeast marched from Greenwich Village to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park yesterday proclaiming ‘the new strength and pride of the gay people.’” The emergent rhetoric of pride was already strong. The Times quoted Michael Brown, then 29 and a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front: “We have to come out into the open and stop being ashamed, or else people will go on treating us as freaks. This march is an affirmation and declaration of our new pride.” “New pride” — the very idea is so fresh, the word not yet hackneyed, the declaration audacious.

The article went on: “Michael Kotis, president of the Mattachine Society, which has about 1,000 members around the country, said that ‘the gay people have discovered their potential strength and gained a new pride’ since a battle on June 29, 1969, between a crowd of homosexuals and policemen who raided the Stonewall Inn, a place frequented by homosexuals at 53 Christopher Street. ‘The main thing we have to understand,’ he added, holding a yellow silk banner high in the air, ‘is that we’re different, but we’re not inferior.’”

Mark Segal recalls the 1969 police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn that sparked one of the most significant events in gay history. Source: Smithsonian Channel.

It seems safe to assume that many of the men who marched in 1970 succumbed to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, but some of those men and some of the women are still among us. I wish someone were organizing a first march reunion for them; I’d love to hear what they think about the changes they spearheaded, and I hope they feel pride (that word, again) in the scale of transformation they helped to initiate. I think they must be unsurprised by how fragility still cleaves to the gains, how much it takes to defend them. Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, activists must run fast to stay in place, and doubly fast to make progress.

Anyone who reads the news today knows that there have been remarkable strides in L.G.B.T.Q. rights in a short time — witness gay marriage, witness the presidential candidacy of Pete Buttigieg. That progress has been significantly eroded by the current administration, with its support of religious exemptions that allow people to deny service to gay people, with its attempts to oust trans people from the military, with its instruction to embassies not to fly the rainbow flag for Pride month. This year’s marches fly in the face of a vice president who, the president joked, would like to hang all gay people; of the ongoing use of conversion therapies; of the continued executions of gay people in Iran and in Islamic State-controlled territories. Some of the movement’s radicalism is resurfacing in this year’s march, and if it is no longer “new pride” it is at the very least “reawakened pride.”

I have never marched for Pride before, but I am joining this year’s parade. Numbers matter more than ever. I engage in the movement; I speak every year at Creating Change, the national conference on L.G.B.T.Q. equality; I write and lecture regularly about gay issues and rights. As president of PEN America, I explored the connection between L.G.B.T.Q. rights and free speech. None of it feels like enough anymore. We owe something to the men and women in these photos, who were unafraid to resist what seemed like an intractable bigotry, and whose desperate courage won us the better world in which we go forth today. If the embassies won’t hang our flag, then we’ll think of those original marchers, and hang it ourselves from every available flagpole.

Organizers of the first gay pride march had low expectations. Here, they remember the march, held in New York City, one year after the Stonewall riots. Source: PBS.

To view the images cited in this article, please visit The New York Times.