We’ve entered June, LGBT Pride Month. June received that honor largely because it was on June 28, 1969 that the Stonewall Riots galvanized the gay liberation movement. A year later, on June 28, 1970, the first gay pride marches in the U.S. were held in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago in commemoration of the date. Since then, many LGBT celebrations, including pride parades, occur across the U.S. every June.
I didn’t always understand the importance of pride celebrations. Like many, I thought that pride parades were self-evidently scandalous. (And, of course, the parades were the only kind of pride celebration I ever heard about.) After all, not only is there the issue of the celebrations “flaunting” an unsavory “lifestyle,” but also, this is pride we’re talking about. One of the Seven Deadly Sins.
But what I didn’t realize then was something that is now embarrassingly obvious. This isn’t a pride of arrogant superiority, the leading float in a parade of sins that sully the soul. Instead, it’s pride as an intentional means of countering shame. It’s taking pride in a community, in owning an identity whose very display is an act of protest.
There’s a moment from the Stonewall riots that illustrates this kind of pride. On the second night of the riots, the Tactical Police Force (TPF) had their work cut out for them keeping things calm on Christopher Street, the location of the Stonewall Inn. Fired up by the open rebellion of the night before, the patrons of the Stonewall displayed their dissatisfaction with the previous day’s police raid by confronting the TPF with exaggerated performances of queerness, cheered on by appreciative onlookers.
As Lucian Truscott described it a few days later in The Village Voice, “the scene was a command performance for queers . . . Hand-holding, kissing, and posing accented each of the cheers with a homosexual liberation that had appeared only fleetingly on the street before. One-liners were as practiced as if they had been used for years. ‘I just want you all to know,’ quipped a platinum blond with obvious glee, ‘that sometimes being homosexual is a big pain in the ass.’1
Amidst this blatant display of a community no long confining itself to closets and underground bars, the TPF attempted to disperse the crowd by sweeping down Christopher Street in a line. The crowd confronted the police line with a kick line, what Truscott called “some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops.”2
An onlooker later recalled the incident:
“I saw a bunch of guys on one side and the cops over there, and the cops with their feet spread apart and holding their billy clubs straight out. And these queens all of a sudden rolled up their pants legs into knickers, and they stood right in front of the cops. There must have been about ten cops one way and about twenty queens on the other side. They all put their arms around one another and started forming a kick line, and the cops just charged with the [nightsticks] and started smacking them in the heads, hitting people, pulling them into the cars. I just can’t ever get that one sight out of my mind. The cops with the [nightsticks] and the kick line on the other side. It was the most amazing thing. What was more amazing was when the cops charged. That’s when I think anger started. … And all of the sudden that kick line, which I guess was a spoof on their machismo, making fun of their authority. Yeah, I think that’s when I felt rage. Because . . . people were getting smashed with bats. And for what? A kick line.”3
That kick line is a symbol of pride, the same pride that expressed itself in a parade on June 28, 1970. A year after the Stonewall Riots, the streets were again filled with loud, flamboyant displays of frowned-upon identities. But this time, there was no police line to stop the crowd. That first pride parade in New York City was, according to the magazine Come Out!, a celebration of “the first time that gays took to the streets angry, proud, joyous,” and the week of Pride celebrations were “days to march, to chant, to dance, to love, to rap, to study—with brothers and sisters coming together to openly affirm the beauty of our lives and throw wide open the closet doors which will no longer be nailed shut.”4 During the parade, there was even a quick, triumphant Rockettes-style kick line outside of Radio City Music Hall.5 The freedom, the openness, was intoxicating. As Jason Gould wrote, “We were gay and out in the open in Central Park, and, by God, we were proud!”6
LGBT pride celebrations, like this first parade, are that Stonewall kick line writ large. A celebration, a protest, a challenge to heteronormativity, a expression of pride. These celebrations might be scandalous in their blatant displays of LGBT identities whose simple existence codes as offensive, but, to use a phrase coined by Charles Thorp in the wake of the Stonewall riots and the first parades, it’s for that very reason that “blatant is beautiful!”7 I know now that this pride isn’t a sin, but a strength. It’s pride that makes us put our arms around each other and dance in defiance of forces that want us silent.
Qtd. in Teal, p. 22 ↩
Qtd. in Teal, p. 329. ↩
Nora Sayre, “New York’s Gay-in,” New Statesman (London), July 17, 1970, p. 53. Cited in Teal, p. 328. ↩
“Out of the Closets and into the Streets,” GAY, 20 July 1970. Qtd. in Teal, p. 330. ↩
Qtd. in Teal, p. 302. ↩