The beginning of June not only heralds the beginning of Summer, but more importantly the start of Pride Month for the LGBTQ+ community. A time when persons who identify in different ways, along with allies, get the opportunity to fully embrace and celebrate who they are. Within the past few decades, the community has seen tremendous growth and we all have every right to party and continue to live out loud!
It has not been an easy road, and it continues to be a long one. The month of June is all about giving recognition to the strides that have been made as a community; with hopes for continued growth and appreciation for the future.
But where do we find the roots of Pride Month? Where and how did it all start?
Well in order to fully value how Pride month came about, we’ll have to take a little trip back in time. Also, to note briefly, a lot of the terms that are now widely accepted and used in reference to and amongst the LGBTQ+ community are fairly new. For that reason, the terms used in this article will be in alignment with the jargon used at the time.
Prior to the turn of the millennium, persons who identified along the LGBTQ+ spectrum had a tumultuous time expressing their sexualities openly. For a larger part of history queer persons were met with alienation and ostracism, mostly due to the fact that measures were put in place to outlaw acts that were associated with homosexuality.
This can be traced all the way back to 1478 when the Spanish Inquisition was established. This resulted in the acceptable practice of stoning and the castration of gays and lesbians, then known as “sodomites”. Further along the line, in 1533 the Holy Roman Empire makes “buggery” (sexual acts between men), punishable by death.
The Buggery Act of 1533, passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, is the first time in law that we see men having sex with men (MSM) being targeted for persecution by government. This act remained in effect all the way until 1861 before it was changed to life in prison. The last two persons executed for the crime in London were lovers James Pratt and John Smith.
As hard as it is to comprehend that many people were persecuted for hundreds of years for simply being themselves and loving someone of the same gender, it hasn’t been all bad. Moving from the 1700s into the 1800s, we see France becoming the first Western European country to decriminalize homosexuality in 1791. This soon follows throughout Europe and Latin America with the Netherlands following suit in 1811 and then the Dominican Republic in 1822.
In 1924 the first documented gay rights organization was formed by a German immigrant by the name of Henry Gerber. It was named the Society for Human Rights and was unfortunately disbanded a year later due to police raids. However, they were able to publish several issues of their newsletter called “Friendship and Freedom”, which is also documented as the country’s first gay interest publication.
Even former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to have affairs with the iconic and groundbreaking pilot Amelia Earhart and prominent journalist Lorena Hickok. It’s said that Eleanor and Lorena’s special “friendship” spanned almost 30 years, over which the two frequently wrote to each other with approximately 3,300 letters exchanged.
Marc Peyser of the Huffington Post wrote the following in reference to the former First Lady’s influence from within the White House:
“(Roosevelt) did more than almost anyone in the pre-Stonewall era to model acceptance of gay relationships—and she did it in the White House.”
The country’s first lesbian rights organization was formed years later in 1955 in San Francisco by four lesbian couples and was called the Daughters of Bilitis. This group also had a publication and named it “The Ladder”, which was the first lesbian publication of any kind.
The formation of these gay rights activist groups pointed to a marked cultural shift in society. Though they were few and far between up until the 1960s and 1970s, it pointed toward the fact that there was a need for change. The early 1960’s saw some traction with the gay rights movements. In fact, in 1961 Illinois became the first state to get rid of their anti-sodomy laws which effectively decriminalized homosexuality.
Also, in 1965 Dr. John Oliven coined the term “transgender” to describe someone who was born in the body of the incorrect sex.
However, the LGBTQ+ collective was still very quickly becoming restless and wanted safe spaces for themselves in the wake of continued abuse and alienation. Thus began the opening of gay bars in the 60s. The crime syndicate of the 60s in New York saw a potential profit in catering to the then shunned gay community which essentially filled the need for safe spaces.
The Genovese crime family purchased the Stonewall Inn in 1966, which was then a “straight” restaurant and bar. They renovated it and reopened the Stonewall Inn the following year as a gay bar. In the few following years that the bar was opened, it became a staple in Greenwich Village, NY. It openly received drag queens, whereas at other gay bars, queens would be met with a much more bitter reception. It became a nightly home for many runaways and homeless youths, who panhandled, (or begged) and shoplifted in order to afford the entry fee; and it was one of the few, if not the only, gay bar at the time that allowed dancing.
A major turn of events took place the night of June 28, 1969, which would eventually birth our modern-day Pride. Raids of gay bars throughout the 1960s were a common occurrence as the NYPD was employed in a large effort to crack down on gay bars that were suspected to have liquor license violations.
Nevertheless, corrupt officers that were paid off by various mafia groups in New York, would often tip off bars before raids which would give club employees time to stash alcohol as well as hide other illegal activities. The early hours of June 28, 1969, differed from any other night as the club was not tipped off.
In the subsequent hours that followed, police officers violently threw patrons out of the club and arrested approximately 13 people, some of whom were in violation of the state’s gender appropriate statue. The statue required that persons wear at least 3 articles of clothing associated with their sex so that they may escape any repercussions. Female officers would take suspected cross-dressing patrons to the restroom to verify their sex.
As police officers continued to rough house patrons and employees alike, a crowd began to gather outside of the bar and onlookers began to get increasingly agitated at the continued show of violence by the police. At one point, an officer hit a lesbian over the head as she was forced into the police van. This lesbian has been identified by many accounts as Storme DeLarverie, a famous lesbian cross-dresser who frequently performed at drag shows.
On this particular night, accounts state that she was working as a bouncer at the Stonewall Inn when police officers aggressively dragged her out of the club several times before she was ultimately arrested. DeLarverie is claimed to have complained about the tightness of her handcuffs and the bleeding from the injury she received by the officer and in doing so - she urged onlookers to act.
This further angered the crowd until they began to throw various objects at officers and within minutes, there was a full-blown riot involving hundreds. The legendary Queen Marsha P. Johnson is also said to have been at the initial riot on June 28 and also resisted arrest. The riots are said to have lasted between 3-5 days with crowds gathering and protesting outside of the Stonewall Inn daily.
Though no immediate action was taken as a result of the Stonewall Riots, the following year (June 1970) organizers, including Brenda Howard who was a bisexual activist and was nicknamed “The Mother of Pride”, is credited to have put together the first march to commemorate the riots surrounding the Stonewall Inn on its anniversary.
The official chant of the march was “Say it loud, gay is proud” and thus our Pride Celebrations in June were born.
The first Pride flag came about in 1978, San Francisco city Supervisor Harvey Milk (one of the first openly gay elected officials) commissioned artist and designer Gilbert Baker to make a flag for the city’s Pride celebration that year. Baker is said to have drawn inspiration from the stripes in the American flag but opted to use the colors of the rainbow to reference the beautiful spectrum of sexualities that exist.
There were many monumental moments leading up to the birth of Pride celebrations, both documented and undocumented. The Stonewall Riots/Uprising marks a change in the collective conscious of many LGBTQ+ persons at the time. No longer would they stand timidly to the side and watch the only safe space, and for many gay youths, the only home that was welcoming of these individuals in their truest form.
Pride is not just a day to dress up and hit the streets and turn up in our rainbow best (although that is a very fun aspect of it), it is an opportunity to pay homage to our lost gayes and theys, our queens and butches; every individual that continued to fight to be seen and heard for exactly who they were and the people they loved.
For those of us, whether out or not, who have been given the opportunity to carry on a legacy of resilience, love, and strength, Pride is our way of shouting to the world “Here we are. We are proud.”