This year’s Pride celebrations mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, often considered the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. The first Pride parade was held one year after Stonewall, meaning that although we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall this year, this will be the 49th annual Pride parade.
That first Pride parade was held on June 28, 1970. Known then as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March — named after the street on which Stonewall is located — the parade began on Washington Place between Sheridan Square and Sixth Avenue and moved up Sixth Avenue, ending with a “Gay-In” in Central Park.
The idea that LGBTQ+ people would march through the streets of New York City, proudly declaring their existence, their pride and their love was truly revolutionary back then. "It took a new sense of audacity and courage to take that giant step into the streets of Midtown Manhattan," as Fred Sargeant, one of the organisers of the first march recalled in a 2010 essay for the Village Voice.
At the time, the largest LGBTQ+ rights rally was a yearly silent vigil called “The Annual Reminder” held in Philadelphia. This event was a somber, and tightly orchestrated affair. It was usually “a small, polite group of gays and lesbians [would picket] outside Liberty Hall," Sargeant describes. "The walk would occur in silence. Required dress on men was jackets and ties; for women, only dresses. We were supposed to be unthreatening.” The event was put on by a gay men's rights group called the Mattachine Society, which was one of the earliest LGBTQ+ rights groups in the United States (it formed in 1950). Craig Rodwell (who happened Fred Sargeant's partner) was the Mattachine Society member who originally came up with the idea for The Annual Reminder. Their first Annual Reminder was held in 1965, and was intended to "remind the American people that a substantial number of American citizens were denied the rights of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,'" according to Philadelphia LGBTQ+ rights organization Philly Pride.
After the Stonewall Riots, Rodwell and Sargeant began discussing moving the Reminder to New York, but they soon realised the event really needed an entirely new event. Rodwell attended the 1969 Annual Reminder in Philadelphia, which occurred just a few days after Stonewall. He was outraged when one of the organisers told two women holding hands to break apart. “This physical act confirmed for Craig that we needed something much bigger and bolder than the Mattachine Society,” Sargeant recalled in Village Voice. That something grew into the Pride parade.
According to the History Channel, five months after Stonewall, Sargeant, Rodwell, and activists Ellen Brody and Linda Rhodes attended the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organisations (ERCHO) in Philadelphia and proposed a resolution: that an annual march be held on the last Sunday in June in New York City to commemorate Stonewall. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago planned concurrent marches.
Unlike the Annual Reminder, these new marches would have no formal, gender-normative dress code. Instead, organisers encouraged marchers to be themselves. As Katherine McFarland Bruce notes in the 2016 book Pride Parades: How a Parade Changed the World, most marchers attended in their everyday clothes, but some wore "flamboyant costumes" such as capes, and others dressed in drag. Many carried colourful pennants or signs reading "Gay Pride!" Bruce notes, "Coming from activist backgrounds, organisers and marchers stuck with what they knew, presenting themselves as proud gay people through their signs, chants, and displays of affection." In the 2019 book We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation, authors Matthew Reimer and Leighton Brown write that Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera "cheer-led hoarsely along the sixty-block hike."
Planning the parade was no easy task. Sargeant recalls that it took “nearly a year of 1960s-style back-and-forth consciousness-raising” and “months of planning and internal controversy.” Over a dozen LGBTQ+ rights groups were involved in the planning, including lesbian feminist group the Lavender Menace, formed in response to mainstream feminism's exclusion of lesbians; Gay Liberation Front, formed post-Stonewall; lesbian civil rights organisation Daughters of Bilitis; trans rights organization Queens Liberation Front; and various student groups. Grassroots activist and founder of the New York Area Bisexual Network Brenda Howard, who is sometimes known as the "Mother of Pride," coordinated a week-long series of events around Pride Day, including a dance. As Queerty notes, "Howard's voice remained one of the loudest, most exuberant and productive of the time. It's her efforts that helped gay activists lay the foundation for weeklong celebrations of gay pride leading up to the climactic Gay Pride Parade."
Sargeant and Rodwell ran the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the first gay bookstore in the country, and they used their mailing list to raise funds and spread the word. Remember, you couldn't just send a group text or a Facebook invite in 1970; you had to send letters. Many of the planning meetings were also held at the bookstore; as the NYU website Researching Greenwich Village History writes, it "served as a type of community centre for the gay community in the village."
After the parade was planned, they still needed to work out the details. After disagreeing about who would lead the parade, organisers decided that a member from each group would have one representative at the front of the march. After much debate, they settled on a chant that went, “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud.” Activist L. Craig Schoonmaker was the one who had suggested the word “pride” rather than “gay power.” In a 2015 interview with the podcast the Allusionist, he explained, “There’s very little chance for people in the world to have power. People did not have power then; even now, we only have some. But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.”
When the day of the parade came, around five thousand people joined the parade — five times more than the organisers had expected. It was a success. “It was only after the march that these gay pioneers realised what might be possible,” Sargeant recalled. “Of course, at the time, we could never have predicted that our efforts would lead to hundreds of millions of people gathering together around the world.”
Every year after, more and more cities joined. As time went by, the Advocate notes, the parade became more celebratory, incorporating floats and music. In 1974, Los Angeles became the first to add a festival component. The Pride flag, designed by Gilbert Baker, first flew in San Francisco in 1978. This year, organisers anticipate that over 3 million people will attend World Pride events in New York — an exponentially larger number than those first 5,000 marchers. But although the look and the scale of the Pride parade has changed, its goal remains the same: to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. As one anonymous writer recalled, "we owned the streets. We felt liberated and free.”