It wasn’t called the Pride March at the beginning. That first Pride in New York City was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March 1970, and a sister event took place in Los Angeles.
It didn’t come ready-made with sparkly floats and cheering spectators in their millions. Hundreds of people carried placards and shouted for their rights, marching up Sixth Avenue from Greenwich Village to Central Park, where a gay “be-in” happened at Sheep Meadow, attended by a crowd in their thousands.
This history feels close, because the 50th anniversary New York City Pride March has been postponed because of the coronavirus. Instead, the real parade will happen at a later date, while online there may be a “cascade” of Prides from around the world to watch on your laptop. As with many things right now, technology will promise that bittersweet mixture of presence and absence.
The pause may also provide an instructive moment to consider what that passage of 50 years means, what has happened in that time, what “Pride” has come to mean, and what it might mean in the next 50 years.
LGBTQ people have come a long way, but the 50th anniversary of, first, the Stonewall Riots last year, and now the first NYC Pride march, offers an important yardstick, especially at a moment when LGBTQ rights are so imperiled under the Trump administration, with trans people the subject of especially parlous treatment.
When it does materialize, the 50th anniversary parade will obviously be a huge event. It will feature all the floats and noise a significant anniversary merits. But it marks a time when going on a Pride parade was a risk, an act of rebellion and defiance in and of itself. Imagine when that parade was actually a march and there were no corporate sponsors, no people rushing from floats to bestow rainbow whistles.
Imagine a group of marchers—running the gamut of LGBTQ before that was even an acronym—taking to the city’s streets and demanding equality, just a year after the Stonewall Riots, with the law, politics, and culture of the time predominantly set against them. That was their focus, that was the point; not getting the best picture to post on Instagram.
Michael Brown, a founder of the Gay Liberation Front, told The New York Times at the time, “We have to come out into the open and stop being ashamed, or else people will go on treating us as freaks. This march is an affirmation and declaration of our new pride.”
The quote may not have the impact it had then, but imagine the time Brown was speaking from: when gay sexual acts were illegal in 49 states, when there was no protection for LGBTQ people from being fired, or thrown out of their homes. There were no gay characters or relationships on TV. Washington and the media were as one in rendering LGBTQ lives as illegal and invisible. Even the act of giving a quote to The New York Times was a brave act of self-exposure.
Times change, although that change can often feel like a boomerang for LGBTQ America: four steps forward, and two steps back. Last year, as New York City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, there was the main parade, exuberantly staged and attended, and also the first Queer Liberation March, organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition. The latter took place earlier in the day, before the weather became humid and sticky.
It began, like the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March, at Sheridan Square near the Stonewall, and wended its way up Sixth Avenue. It invited anyone to join its ranks. Every age, ethnicity, and every letter in that LGBTQ gamut was represented. No floats. Just a group of people loudly walking up a street demanding LGBTQ equality.
It should not have felt as refreshing as it did, but Pride for so many years has become so bizarrely excluding that the QLM emerged as the more inclusive-feeling march of the day—because you could march on it. You didn’t need to belong to a group or organization. There were no corporations. You could be with friends. It was just you and the streets. The Pride March had become a march again, and for those who attended Pride marches in the 1980s and ’90s, the nostalgia kick was also a welcome splash of cold water at a time of increased anti-LGBTQ animus.
But nostalgia should always be kept in manageable, realistic doses. Later in the day, at the main parade, my colleagues Sarah Rogers, Justin Miller, and I talked to LGBTQ and straight attendees who had very personal and motivating reasons for attending Pride.
They may not have been marching, but their presence was as active as could be. They saw past the much-criticized corporations, the cops, the barriers, and the crush. They cheered community groups and just cheered the atmosphere and sights around them. Both marches have a point, and both make it. Pride, no matter how many corporations buy into it, should always be political. It owes the LGBTQ community that.
Both the main parade and the Queer Liberation March will return to the streets. While we wait for them, let us consider them and what and who they are for; what do we want them to do. The scale of Pride today, all the money sloshing around in its rainbow coffers, can often nullify its meaning and the grit of its history. Fifty years ago, Pride was a confrontational spectacle. Now it is a happy, shiny one.
Political progress has been made, political progress has been halted; culture—pop and otherwise—continues to evolve. But a Pride shorn of politics, a Pride that doesn’t ask more of its attendees—straight and LGBTQ—than simply to cheer and whoop is not only doing a disservice to those who marched 50 years ago but also to those who need support and protections today.
“The main thing we have to understand is that we’re different, but we’re not inferior,” Michael Kotis, then-president of the New York Mattachine Society told the Times in 1970. A simple message, yes, but 50 years later it bears repeating loudly.
It is strange now to walk the streets of the Village at day and night, to cross Fifth Avenue at Madison Square Park, thronged—skin crushed against skin—on that hot Sunday last June, and now near-empty. That both very different Pride marches ever happened last June—the chants, the scale, the color, the sexy messiness—feels like a Bermuda Triangle-style enigma, a very unruly, cacophonous ghost lost to the weirdest breeze.
The organizers of the delayed 50th anniversary Pride marches—official and not—could do worse than walk those empty New York streets, imagining them filled and with something to say.