Inside the first Pride parade—a raucous protest for gay liberation

In 1970, in a world first, LGBTQ activists gathered in cities across the U.S. to demand their civil rights. “No one who was there can talk about it without goose bumps.”

By Erin Blakemore
Published 28 Jun 2021, 11:02 BST

On June 28, 1970, the first Pride parade—or gay liberation march, as it was called at the time—took place in New York City. The response surprised even the parade's organisers, including Foster Gunnison and Craig Rodwell (pictured here). Now, Pride is celebrated around the world.

Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah, Getty

When John D’Emilio heard a group of LGBTQ activists would be marching in the streets of New York in June 1970, he told his boyfriend and several of his gay friends. They couldn’t believe their ears. “The idea … made them laugh wildly,” recalled D’Emilio during an oral history collected by OutHistory. “They just couldn’t imagine it.”

Their skepticism was for good reason: Until 1969, the thought of a large group of LGBTQ people celebrating their sexual orientation in public was unthinkable. For centuries, homosexuality had been stigmatised, criminalised, and persecuted. “Coming out” came with threats of violence and social ostracism.

But that changed in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall uprising—when a group of LGBTQ people rioted in response to a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. In Stonewall’s wake, thousands of LGBTQ people took to the street to demand their civil rights. Now known as the first Pride parades, the gay liberation marches that took place in New York and other U.S. cities in 1970 were raucous celebrations of identity—and a provocative peek at the decades of activism to follow. (How the Stonewall uprising ignited the modern LGBTQ rights movement.)

Stonewall sparks a movement

Despite the rampant homophobia of the early 20th century, the LGBTQ community had made itself visible before. In 1965, for example, members of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organisations (ERCHO) began picketing each year on July 4 outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The events, which they called the Annual Reminders, focused on obtaining basic citizenship rights and were subdued by design. Fearing violence, organisers enacted a strict professional dress code and encouraged marching in an orderly picket line to put a non-threatening face forward.

But on June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising sent shock waves through heterosexual society, and galvanised LGBTQ people. Suddenly, the gay liberation movement that had been percolating boiled over. Fed-up activists fuelled their frustration into organisation, sparking new groups, and planning larger-scale demonstrations. (Early LGBTQ activists used a boisterous protest tactic called zapping. Here's what it is.)

Craig Rodwell, an activist who had helped organize the Annual Reminders, was one of the participants in the Stonewall riots. At an ERCHO conference in late 1969, he proposed that the Philadelphia demonstrations morph into something new to “be more relevant, reach a greater number of people, and encompass the ideas and ideals of the larger struggle in which we are engaged—that of our fundamental human rights.”

ERCHO agreed. They resolved to hold a march in New York each year in June to commemorate the Stonewall uprising, and encouraged other groups around the country to gather on the same day.

In New York, the event would be called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in honor of the Stonewall Inn’s Greenwich Village location. Unlike the Annual Reminders, the march would have no dress code—and its participants would focus less on politeness than pride.

“The homosexual who wants to live a life of self-fulfillment in our current society has all the cards stacked against them,” read one 1970 article about the upcoming march in the Gay Liberation Front News. “Gay Liberation is for the homosexual who refuses to accept such a condition. Gay Liberation is for the homosexual who stands up, and fights back.”

The first gay liberation marches

Around the country, groups began to plan their own commemorative marches. The first occurred not in New York but in Chicago on June 27, 1970. Around 150 marchers marched from Civic Center Plaza to Washington Square shouting slogans like “Gay power to gay people.” The same day, a small group of San Franciscans marched down Polk Street, then had a “gay-in” picnic that was broken up by equestrian police.

ERCHO and other New York groups had spent months planning the Manhattan event with the help of organisers like Brenda Howard, a bisexual activist who had cut her organising teeth during the anti-Vietnam movement of the late 1960s. But the response surprised even the most die-hard activists.

On June 28, thousands of people converged in Greenwich Village and began to march. According to the New York Times, the line of participants extended 15 blocks from head to foot. (Although organisers told the paper there were 3,000, 8,000, or as many as 20,000 people there, a police officer estimated “at least 1,000.”)  Shirtless men walked hand in hand and kissed publicly. Picketers held signs that declared their sexual orientation. And demonstrators shouted slogans like “Gay power,” “Gay is okay,” and “Gay, gay, all the way!” Press coverage of the parade focused mainly on the marchers, but pointed to bystanders who “eagerly clicked their cameras...tittered...many were obviously startled by the scene.”

“As we kept going, the crowd grew and grew,” activist Jerry Hoose told TimeOut New York’s Raven Snook in a 2019 interview. “No one who was there can talk about it without goose bumps. I always say that gay liberation was conceived at Stonewall in 1969 and born at that first march.” The marchers paraded from Greenwich Village to Central Park, where they held a gay-in gathering with speeches and socialising.

Not every community welcomed its parade. In Los Angeles, the June 28 parade met with resistance from the police department, which refused to issue the requested permit. LAPD chief Edward Davis had a history of bashing LA’s gay community, compared activists to bank robbers, and said the group would have to pay $1,500 (£1,070) and post a $1.5 million (£1 million) insurance bond, noted journalists Dudley Cleninden and Adam Nagourney in Out for Good, their history of the gay rights movement. Activists eventually had to take to the courts to get their permit.

For many, the demonstrations were the first time they had ever appeared in public as an openly LGBTQ person. Whether large or small, each gathering reflected the power and raw energy of participants. “The march was a reflection of us: out, loud and proud,” activist Mark Segal, the New York march’s marshall, recalled in a 2020 New York Times oral history.

A proud legacy

A revolution had been sparked at Stonewall. But the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade held the keys to the movement’s future. Pride parades continued, becoming more organised (and mainstream) with every passing year.

June 28, 1969: Gay Pride

Today, hundreds of parades and festivals celebrate LGBTQ pride around the world each June. One of the largest is New York’s. In 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, an estimated 150,000 people marched in a 12-and-a-half-hour-long parade while about five million people attended the city’s Pride event. (See a hundred years of LGBTQ history mapped across New York City.)

The once risky gatherings are now commonplace in most cities. But for many, Pride parades are about the accomplishments and sacrifices of the movement as much as the chance for self-expression.

 “It changed forever my concept of what it meant to be part of the gay community,” Rev. Joe Cherry, a Unitarian Universalist minister, told OutHistory about his first-ever Pride march in June 1995 in Lansing, Michigan. “When I am tired, or feel overwhelmed, or even when I wonder if anything is really ever going to change, I think…about the humanity I saw there, for the first time in such a huge quantity, I hear the chants, feel the love, and I square my shoulders and get back to work.”


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