It was New York City in the 1960s and it was illegal to display “homosexuality” in public, for establishments to serve gay people liquor, or for two people of the same sex to dance together. Men could be arrested for wearing drag and women for having less than three pieces of “feminine” clothing. In 1966, the Stonewall Inn opened and soon became known as a place where everyone, regardless of identity or sexual orientation, was allowed to be themselves and dance. When the police raided the Stonewall Inn three years later, the riots that ensued sparked a global movement.
Everything changed at 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, when the New York city police barged into the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall was operating without a liquor license at 51-53 Christopher Street in Manhattan. The N.Y. State Liquor Authority did not give out licenses to establishments that served gay patrons. Despite being paid off to ignore this indiscretion, the police officers entered with a warrant and started to arrest revelers inside the bar, but their squad cars did not arrive. The Stonewall Inn’s patrons were forced to wait outside the bar handcuffed, which drew a crowd.
One woman in handcuffs was hit over the head by an officer. She pleaded with the crowd to “do something.” They responded by throwing pennies and other objects at the police. As the crowd reached hundreds, a full-blown riot ensured. Ten police officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall. The crowd set fire to the barricade.
The fire department and Tactical Police Force were called in. They put out the flames, rescued the officers inside Stonewall and dispersed the crowd—but that didn’t last long. Over the next six days, demonstrations continued outside the bar, as thousands of people showed up to express their solidarity with the LGBT community.
The Stonewall Inn was a vital LGBT institution. For relatively little money, drag queens (who received a bitter reception at other bars), runaways, homeless LGBT youths and others could spend the night and even dance. The violent attack on this sacred bar that many called home was the breaking point for those looking to advance LGBT political activism.
The Stonewall Riots, as they became known, made one thing clear—the LGBT movement needed to be louder and more visible. Nothing was going to change if they continued their passive, non-threatening tactics. They needed to get organized. Five months after the riots, activists Craig Rodwell, his partner Fred Sargeant, Ellen Brody and Linda Rhodes proposed a resolution at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) in Philadelphia that a march be held in New York City to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the raid. Their proposal was for an annual march on the last Saturday in June with “no dress or age regulations.” This was a drastic change from the current methods used by LGBT activists who would host walks and vigils in silence with a required dress code: men in jackets and ties and women in dresses.
While the proposal for a march was approved, it was grassroots activist Brenda Howard who got it planned. Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, the openly bisexual Howard was active in the anti-war and feminist movements during the turbulent ‘60s. She wasn’t afraid to make a statement, and she was known for her campaigning and organizing. Meeting in Craig Rodwell’s apartment and bookstore (the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on Christopher Street), the details for the first NYC Pride Parade, then known as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, were hashed out. Making use of the Oscar Wilde mailing list, they were able to get the word out. It was also Howard’s idea to turn the festivities into a week-long celebration, something many cities continue to do to this day.
L. Craig Schoonmaker was part of the Christopher Street Liberation Day March planning committee. When they were looking for a slogan for the event, it was Schoonmaker that suggested “Pride.” The idea of “Gay Power” was thrown around, but Schoonmaker said gay individuals lacked real power to make change, but one thing they did have was pride. In a 2015 interview with “The Allusionist,” Schoonmaker explained, “A lot of people were very repressed, they were conflicted internally, and didn’t know how to come out and be proud. That’s how the movement was most useful, because they thought, ‘Maybe I should be proud.’” The official chant for the march became, “Say it loud, gay is proud.”
All their efforts came to fruition on June 28, 1970, the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The march was 51 blocks long from west of Sixth Avenue at Waverly Place, in Greenwich Village, all the way to Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, where activists held a “Gay-in.” Borrowing a technique that had been popularized by the Civil Rights Movement, the “Gay-in” was both a protest and a celebration. The front page of The New York Times ran with the headline, “Thousands of Homosexuals Hold A Protest Rally in Central Park.”
There were no floats, no music blasting through the streets, no scantily clad dancers: this was a political statement and a test—what would happen when LGBT citizens became more visible? While crowd estimates vary widely from 1,000 to 20,000, one thing remained clear—there had never been a demonstration like this before.
Chicago actually took to the streets in 1970 the day before New York. The city marked the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots with a week-long celebration that included a Gay Dance, workshops and speeches. The week-long festivities ended with approximately 150 people marching from Washington Square Park to the Water Tower at the intersection of Michigan and Chicago avenues, with some continuing on to the Civic Center. Organized by the Gay Liberation Movement, the official slogan was “Gay Power.” The next day, the Chicago Tribune ran a 75-word story on the third page with the headline, “Gay Liberation Stage March to Civic Center.”
On the same day as New York, the LGBT community of Greater Los Angeles took to Hollywood Boulevard to display their pride. The march almost did not happen. After applying for a permit, the organizers, the Christopher Street West Association, were granted the right to march as long as they paid fees exceeding $1.5 million. It took the ACLU’s interference to ensure that Pride in LA would continue without excessive, discriminatory costs. Today, Los Angeles boasts they had “the world’s first permitted parade advocating for gay rights.”
In San Francisco, activists marched down Polk Street and held a “Gay-in” at Golden Gate Park on June 28th, too. Two years later, SF held its first Pride parade. Known as the Christopher Street West Parade, it was deemed too small for Market Street (where SF Pride now marches annually), as they estimated there would only be 15,000 spectators. With the San Francisco Chronicle publishing articles in support of the burgeoning LGBT rights movement, the first-ever SF Pride March was deemed a huge success. (The year before the Chronicle had even published an editorial piece supporting same-sex marriage).
To this day, SF, NYC and Chicago continue to honor the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, always having their parade on the last weekend in June (LA participates earlier in the month). Hundreds of cities worldwide have created their own Pride Parades, including in a few countries, like Pakistan, where same-sex sexual contact is still illegal.
On June 11, 1999, President Bill Clinton issued the first-ever proclamation declaring June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. His successor, George W. Bush, did not continue the tradition. The practice was picked up again by Barack Obama, who declared June LGBT Pride Month all eight years of his administration. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama also established a 7.7-acre area around the re-opened Stonewall Inn as the Stonewall National Movement, turning the site that sparked a worldwide movement into the first LGBT national park site in the United States.