June has arrived, and to the LGBTQ+ community, that means it is Pride Month. During Pride Month, thousands of people across the country and around the world gather to celebrate civil rights, declare their love for who they are, and send the message to the world that Queer folks exist and are here to stay. However, a fraction of those who celebrate actually understand the origins of Pride Month, let alone the Pride Marches. Only two presidents in our history of the United States have even officially declared a Pride Month at all — Bill Clinton, once in 2000, and Barack Obama during his two terms. What people should understand is that to this day, it is still as dangerous to show Pride as it was in its inception at the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.
Back in the 1960’s, the fight for civil rights was heated and spread over many communities. The Black Panthers were on the rise, Martin Luther King Jr. was still leading the Civil Rights Movement, and protests were happening everywhere regarding U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Queer and trans folks were discriminated against, criminalized, and harassed frequently and legally. Civil laws criminalized sodomy, legally considered queerness “against nature,” and through state laws and regulations, punished queer and trans folks for existing. Gay bars were some of the only safe havens they had, as in some states, bars could refuse service to queer folks, or denied them the right to dance with each other in public. Police were ruthless in their raids and entrapment was a common occurrence.
In New York City, the Stonewall Inn was one of these safe havens for the queer community. The bar was a hub for the LGBTQ+ folks in the city. But on June 28th, 1969, it was raided unexpectedly by the New York Police Department. Crossdressers, trans folk, and drag queens were taken to the bathrooms to be checked for their “gender.” People were arrested. This is just one of the tactics that police used to enforce heteronormativity: a sumptuary law known as the three piece rule. It stated that anyone not wearing at least three pieces of clothing that matched the gender they were assigned at birth were to be arrested. Sumptuary laws are historically intended to reinforce social hierarchies and morals, allowing social rank to be more easily identifiable, and social discrimination more easily doled out. In this fashion, the three piece sumptuary law targeted gender nonconforming, trans, butch lesbians, and other queer folks.
The raid at the Stonewall Inn began to escalate that night. Many had felt it was the tipping point, and decided to fight back. Bottles were thrown, and a riot ensued that sparked a rebellion that lasted six days. After the initial bar patrons initiated the uprising, it spilled into the streets. Over the course of those six days, queer youth, homeless trans folks, and other LGBT folks joined the throng, and gave activists the momentum they needed to begin what we know now as the modern LGBT civil rights movement.
Those on the front lines were, and have been historically, across the board in the fight for civil rights, trans women of color. Gay and lesbian spaces often reserve focus for those who are white and cis, and history often reserves visibility for them. But, two trans women you should know, especially when discussing the origins of Pride and the LGBT civil rights movement are Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Both trans women of color, gay rights activists, and sex workers, Johnson and Rivera were amongst the first to incite the uprising at the Stonewall Inn. Marsha and Sylvia co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), dedicated to aiding homeless queer and trans youth and women of color. And both went on to become key figures in the founding of queer organizations and the continued community organizing around LGBT rights.
It is said that on the night of the Stonewall Uprising, Marsha P. Johnson was there celebrating her 25th birthday. When police began the raid, she said, “I got my civil rights!” and proceeded to hurl a shot glass at a nearby mirror, thereby inciting the resistance of other patrons towards law enforcement. It is known in Queer Myth as “The Shot Glass Heard Around the World,”the beginning of the rebellion that sparked a movement.
A year after the rebellion, Chris Rodwell and many other activists who played leading roles in the Uprising, organized a picketing in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, which they called “The Annual Reminder.” It was too quiet for Rodwell’s taste, so he returned to New York City and organized Christopher Street Liberation Day, named after the street on which the Stonewall Uprising took place. The march became the first gay pride march in the U.S., held on June 28, 1970. But it wasn’t the only event. The same weekend, the same year, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco also held inaugural Pride marches. However, it is Los Angeles that is credited with the first ever city-sanctioned Pride parade. Four years later, LA evolved the remembrance into a festival, which has affected Pride celebrations on a global scale.
In these early marches, those who participated did so at the risk of not making it to the end of the route. The threat of being beaten, arrested, or killed was very real. Pride was commemorated first as a march for a reason. It was a serious message with serious consequences. It’s a symbol of Queer struggle, violence, and death. In the past, Pride has been used for more than a giant party, but to recognize our worst tragedies, and the few visible victories we have achieved. In the 1980’s, it was important to honor the victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. During San Francisco Pride of 2015, the Supreme Court decision to legalize marriage equality in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges was made. And just last year, during LA Pride, the horrific tragedy of the Orlando shooting struck the Queer community across the nation.
The evolution of Pride has been such a sad one to watch. Last year, the organizers of Christopher Street’s West Pride Festival, better known as LA Pride, decided to rebrand themselves as a music festival. Not only did they raise ticket prices, but they also shortened free events specifically dedicated to trans and lesbian folks. The president of Christopher Street West claims it was because the price of the festival has risen by over 70% and that music is the most marketable way to reach Millennials. Protesters scorned the changes and dubbed the festival “gay Coachella.” Organizations banded together under the movement #NotOurPride, and had some of the changes reversed.
Public queer spaces have been dominated by gay, white men for decades. Trans folks are treated as outcasts even within the LGBT community. And queer folks are one of the largest groups of economically disenfranchised people to exist. Raising the cost of Pride, taking away the free events at Pride, and reducing the spaces reserved especially for trans and non-gay males is the exact opposite of what Pride represents. Not to mention that Pride and gay bars have become a new playground for “allies” and straight people looking to party or fetishize queerness. Blatantly commercializing Pride further disenfranchises and alienates queer folks, and inviting straight headliners to attract more straight people to this music festival that was supposed to be honoring Queerness and struggle is outrageous.
It produces a hotbed of unsafe spaces and disrespectful behavior. People who think they can dance on, touch, or kiss whomever they want; cisgender heterosexual (cishet) people who dominate and invade safe spaces meant for queer folks to be amongst their own for a day; encouraging queerness as a spectacle, something to visit, or a party to go to — not a group of people, not a history, not a legacy to protect and honor. And even though today the remembrance of the Stonewall Uprising has evolved from marches of mere dozens of people to the festivals we have today, we cannot allow that message to be lost. Today we hold huge parades, parties, booze-soaked gaieties with dancers, drag queens, music, and festoons of rainbow as far as the eye can see. But what people need to remember is the point of it all. We wear what we want because it was once illegal and dangerous to do so. We dance and kiss because it was once even more dangerous to do so. We party and celebrate because every other weekend of the year around the globe people still think we don’t exist, or that we shouldn’t. We march because we remember those who died and fought before us to make this world easier for us to exist in as Queer folk.