Does Pride still matter?
June 15, 2011 | 7:00 am
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 6:22 pm)
Pride has come a long way from its conception in the Fall of 1969, when a group of organizers from New York City drafted a resolution for a demonstration the following June. The event would honor the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a violent clash between patrons of a gay bar and New York police earlier that year.
Ellen Broidy, a young lesbian activist in her early 20s, presented the resolution for a “Christopher Street Liberation Day March” to the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations in Philadelphia in November 1969. Lesbians and gays had organized demonstrations in Philadelphia in years past, but they were restrained; women were required to wear skirts and men wore suits and ties. In the wake of Stonewall, gay activist Craig Rodwell, his partner Fred Seargent, Broidy and her then-partner Linda Rhodes were dissatisfied.
“We gave some thought to doing another kind of public performance movement,” Broidy said.
The protest they called for would be born of the revolutionary spirit of 1960s America, and would become a tradition and evolve into today’s Pride parades and festivals.
Now Pride gatherings take place around the world, from Johannesburg to Istanbul. In the U.S., outdoor parties can incorporate vendors, concerts and corporate sponsors.
But, Pride has continued to be a point of contention among some in the LGBT community who claim it is now too commercial or has lost the confrontational nature of its origins in the ’60s.
Our memory of the ’60s is upheaval and protest, with examples of momentous change. The decade began amidst a long struggle to end segregation and disenfranchisement for blacks in the South. That effort was marked by iconic speeches, and famous demonstrations that faced jeering white Southerners, political murders and police brutality that shocked the nation.
At the same time, demographic changes in America were fueling social movements; immigration from Latin America first outpaced immigration from Europe in the ’60s, while women reached a third of the American workforce. Puerto Ricans raised in New York City – after an earlier wave of migration – were reaching maturity and organized a confrontational group that famously burned trash in the street to protest neglected city services and took over a church to start a community center. Cesar Chavez was leading rallies in the West for better wages for farm workers, and the women’s movement fought not only against laws limiting reproductive options but against their sexual and domestic roles altogether.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War draft was causing even white, middle-class Americans who were of eligible age to oppose the authority of government, and student protests boiled on college campuses across the nation.
“It was a good time to kid ourselves that there was going to be a revolution,” Broidy said.
Amidst all that transformation and struggle, gay people in New York City were suffering police raids on gay bars and risked being charged with soliciting prostitution for flirting in public. Gay establishments were denied liquor licenses, so bars were mafia-owned. Lesbian and gay “rights” were unheard of and psychiatry still considered homosexuality a mental illness.
“We didn’t control our own spaces,” Broidy said. “They were controlled by the mafia and could be raided at will. There were all kinds of reasons you could lose your job, your housing, or even your child – everything the younger generation of Glee and Ellen may take for granted.”
During a violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn – a bar frequented by racially-diverse, working-class and often homeless young gay people – the patrons spontaneously fought back and started a riot that escalated to consume the neighborhood and turned the tide against the cops.
It was June 28, 1969.
Michael Dimond, a 65-year-old gay man who now lives on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, was stationed on a Navy ship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when he first heard about the Stonewall Riots in 1969. He read about them in The Los Angeles Free Press, an anti-war newspaper that was smuggled on to the ship. Word of the rising movement inspired him to come out to the ship’s captain in a letter.
“I came out because of Stonewall,” he said. Six weeks later, Dimond was in San Francisco being discharged from the military for his homosexuality.
Soon after Stonewall, Rodwell was planning the Liberation Day March from the site of the Stonewall Riots to an open field in Central Park for the anniversary. The resolution he drafted with Broidy and their small group of activists encouraged simultaneous demonstrations in other cities.
Rodwell was an outspoken leader favoring confrontational activism, and had generated controversy among lesbian and gay organizations. The group decided that Broidy and Rhodes would be the representatives at the Philadelphia conference of gay organizations, instead of Rodwell, to correspond for the plan.
“Craig [Rodwell] was a bit of a lightning rod,” Broidy said. At the conference, the Mattachine Society, the leading gay men’s political group of the time that preferred more conservative demonstrations, opposed the drafted resolution. However, all other groups supported it, thus activists made plans for the march, acquiring a protest permit and sending announcements.
The Liberation Day march – on June 28, 1970 – had a similar format to famous civil rights marches and political marches of the time. New York City demonstrators walked alongside cars on the avenue that was still open to traffic, and left the bohemian East Village and moved through less-friendly Midtown Manhattan.
“[The march] looked wonderfully home-grown and handmade,” Broidy said. “We were screaming, ‘Join us! Join us!’ and people were coming off the sidewalks and joining.”
The river of protesters ended at a “Gay-In” gathering in Central Park. The name was a play on the famous “Human Be-In” gathering of “hippies” in San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967, which quickly spread to New York.
Chicago held a march the same year as New York’s first march, and soon large cities across the U.S. began hosting liberation or “freedom” marches annually. After his dismissal from the military in San Francisco, Dimond went home to Boston, where he saw his first gay liberation march through a window on Commonwealth Avenue in the early ’70s.
“There were a couple hundred people going down the sidewalk, chanting and raising their fists,” Dimond said. “We waved and blew kisses.”
A decade later, Dimond moved to New York, where marches had grown. The first march he saw in Manhattan “was huge,” he said. “It took hours to go by. It was very exciting.”
Dimond said some of the early significance has been lost since those days. Marches were eventually re-named parades and floats with commercial advertising now fills them. “It’s gotten worse and worse every year,” he said.
But Dimond said he understands the reasons why things changed – it became safer and easier for gay people to come out without serious personal and professional consequences. “People aren’t going to march with anger,” he said. “The [gay] white middle class who have good jobs don’t worry about being consumers.”
Broidy also said that change was inevitable – and it’s something she accepts.
“It’s not my revolution anymore, and I’m smart enough to know it’s no longer my time,” she said. “Even if it were 40,000 people dressed like Lady Gaga, that’s what needs to happen.”
Broidy, now 65, later moved to California and earned advanced degrees including a PhD in U.S. History from UC Irvine. She worked as a librarian in the university system for years and teaches in Womens’ Studies at UC Los Angeles, near where she lives in Santa Barbara. She spoke about the social and political changes that have affected the LGBT community.
“We had AIDS, and that created a different kind of focus, and other things have overtaken the liberation nature,” Broidy said.
She admitted she hasn’t been to a Pride celebration in years, though she would consider it. She said that Pride is still important, and will continue to be, even though it has changed.
“I think it has a different meaning. A large portion of the things the community thinks are important are still not available.” She pointed out that some states are still passing laws against lesbian and gay adoptions, and same-sex couples are still fighting for equality on one of the top social issues – marriage. When same-sex marriages briefly became legal in California before the passage of Proposition 8, she legally married her partner, Joan Ariel.
“We were heavily into smashing the patriarchal, warmongering, racist state,” she said. “Now we’ve kind of embraced the state.”
Mike Newlands, 29, of Boulder, said he thinks the revolutionary and political message of the early Pride gatherings has been completely lost.
“I think it’s just an excuse for a whole bunch of gay people to get drunk in public,” he said. “It doesn’t feel as though there’s a goal or mission.”
Newlands said he will still likely go to PrideFest this summer, yet he feels it doesn’t truly benefit the LBGT cause.
Newlands also pointed out that many of the political issues LGBT people were facing in the late ’60s and early ’70s have gone away. Lesbians and gays are more accepted in the workplace, and in Colorado some laws already exist that recognize same-sex couples and protect the LGBT community from discrimination.
“To be gay in 2011 is not a huge issue anymore,” he said.
However, he said he thought Pride could still be meaningful if it were geared towards some more concrete good – like rallying around a particular piece of legislation, or doing a community service project.
Newlands offered hope by saying, “I think we need to look at ourselves, and say ‘how can we make the community better and the communities we live in better?’” He also added that some people might still find value in the chance to go out in public completely unashamed of sexuality – especially those who had a much tougher time growing up than he did.
One such person is Michael Dimond. He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic household, and said that for many in his generation the movement is not about marriage or normalcy but sexual empowerment and identity. “I literally didn’t think there was another gay person in the world until I was in high school,” he said. “It’s inevitable that we went from shame to the opposite extreme.”
He said sexual openness has been an intrinsic part of Pride dating back to early marches. “We wanted to have the kind of sex we wanted, I still want to be liberated. I think it’s still a lot about that.”
He said that the flamboyance and sexuality of a Pride parade is an important expression of rights.
Broidy also said that diverse and flamboyant presentations are an important part of Pride – and of the ongoing LGBT movement.
“Until the most despised, the most liminal and the most ‘other’ are included in the tent, then none of us are free.”