Pride 40 years after Stonewall

June 30, 2009

Nicole Colson rounds up reports from around the country on the political dimension of this year's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pride celebrations.

MILLIONS OF people turned out in cities across the country in June for annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Pride celebrations.

In many cities, events were held on June 28 to mark the 40th anniversary of New York City's Stonewall riots--the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement, which was sparked when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in 1969, and patrons fought back.

Although Pride celebrations continue to be largely corporate-dominated events with a party atmosphere, in several cities this year, organizers adopted themes that included both calls for equal marriage rights and a celebration of the Stonewall rebellion.

Pride also took on a new significance in anticipation of the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., which is scheduled for October 10-11, 2009. In several cities, activists encouraged Pride attendees to consider traveling to D.C. as part of a push to pressure the Obama administration to deliver on its promises of LGBT rights, including a promise to overturn the "Defense of Marriage Act" and the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on lesbians and gays serving in the military.

Marching in the 2009 LGBT Pride celebration in New York City
Marching in the 2009 LGBT Pride celebration in New York City (Brian Jones | SW)
In San Francisco, in the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 8, the theme for this year's Pride celebration was "To form a more perfect union"--a reference to the struggle for same-sex marriage in California.

Veterans of the Gay Liberation Front--an organization formed in wake of the Stonewall rebellion--marched at the front of the parade.

Pride organizers worked with the grassroots LGBT group One Struggle One Fight (OSOF) to lead a political contingent, Stonewall 2.0, representing the rise of today's LGBT movement. OSOF activists rallied a contingent of over 150 people to march and chant for LGBT rights and marriage equality along the parade route.

Carrying banners that read "Separate is not equal," OSOF led the thousands of parade spectators in chants of "Hey Obama, don't you see? We demand equality" and "They say go back. We say fight back."

For many, the political content of Pride was a welcome change. Mary, a participant from Petaluma, Calif., said, "It means so much more being here knowing we are fighting for our rights and demanding more. It's about time."

SF Pride at Work and other activists organized a die-in in front of Mayor Gavin Newsom's parade car to protest his cuts to city services, including HIV/AIDS prevention and health care. The mayor was forced to get out of his car and step over the protesters. The demonstrators carried a banner that read, "Gavin and Arnold, there's no Pride in your budget."

Parade marshal Dan Choi--an Army lieutenant fighting his discharge from the military under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy--summed up the spirit of Pride 2009: "We're going to lace up our boots, and we're going to march to Sacramento. We're going to march to the Pentagon. We're going to march to the Capitol. We're going to march to the White House, and we're never going to stop marching, because that's why God gave us legs."

In New York City, Gov. David Paterson, who has spoken strongly in favor of equal marriage and its role as a civil rights issue was invited to be a grand marshal of this year's parade.

A wide variety of groups participated, and while floats and music were on display, there was also a definite voice of activism in the crowd. LGBT rights groups such as Marriage Equality and Empire State Pride Agenda voiced demands for the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and the Dignity For All Students Act.

Other groups held signs with slogans like Planned Parenthood's "Free love, safe love," while Physicians for a National Health Program's banner demanded the crowd "ACT UP for single-payer health care!"

At one point, one of the parade's coordinators joined in over the loudspeaker with the International Socialist Organization contingent, chanting, "Gay, straight, Black, white--marriage is a civil right!"

In Chicago, approximately 60 activists marched in the Join the Impact-Chicago (JTIC) contingent behind a hand-painted mural depicting activists from the LGBT community, from Stonewall to the fight around Proposition 8. In addition to commemorating Stonewall, the parade included veterans marching in full uniform and a contingent of both gay and straight parents and their children from Chicago's Nettelhorst Elementary School.

In special recognition of Stonewall and the role that transgender people played in it, the grand marshal of this year's parade was, for the first time, a transgender woman.

A first-ever Chicago Public Schools contingent held a sign saying, "School is out and so are my dads."

Parade-goers enthusiastically welcomed the JTIC activist marchers with cheers, joining in with chants of "Harvey Milk was right. Show your pride and fight!" and "Gay, straight, black, white--same struggle same fight!"

In Los Angeles, while the usual party atmosphere dominated, onlookers cheered as a contingent from Organizations United Together-West--representing 30 different grassroots organizations that came together in the aftermath of the passage of Prop 8--chanted "Gay, straight, Black, white--marriage is a civil right" and "Equal rights now!"

The contingent also took up the issue of the draconian cuts slated for HIV/AIDS programs that Gov. Schwarzenegger is pushing in order to balance the state budget.

In Seattle, political contingents included the Queer Ally Coalition (QAC) marching with Join the Impact to focus on the issue of marriage equality.

QAC got rousing support from parade watchers when chanting "LGBT, we demand equality!" and " Gay, straight, Black, white--marriage is a civil right!" The size of the contingent nearly doubled over the course of the march as people joined from the sidelines to express their support for QAC's demands.

In Texas, about 500 people gathered in Dallas despite murderous summer heat.

Participants chanted, "Not the church, not the state--we alone decide our fate," "Silent no more" and "Out of the closet--into the streets!"

While the frequent message from the podium was that the gay community has allies now in government and the thing to do is to keep them there, in the crowd, discussions centered around the drawbacks of the "state's rights" approach to marriage legislation and the need for increasing levels of participation in rallies like this one.

Several speakers addressed the crowd on issues like marriage equality and a June 28 police raid on the newly opened Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth, during which a man was handled so roughly by the cops that he had to be hospitalized. On the Sunday following the raid, 100 people gathered to demand an end to this police harassment.

In keeping with the mood of that night, the Pride rally in Dallas ended with an appeal to gather again later the same day in Fort Worth to keep up the pressure. As one speaker at the rally said: "Now is the time for us to get mad!"

Approximately 150 people heeded the call and came out in Fort Worth, where they gathered at the Rainbow Lounge and marched out to the Tarrant County Courthouse to "get mad" about the police raid.

While city officials assured the crowd that the gay community is a valuable and important part of the community, 60 people split off from the official demonstration at the courthouse and marched angrily to the local police station chanting: "We want their badge!" Passersby honked car horns and pumped fists in displays of solidarity.

In Houston, a small contingent of activists marched in the larger Pride parade under the theme of "Never Blend In" (a phrase taken from a Harvey Milk quote), with signs that read "Equal rights for all" and "Marriage is a civil right." The crowd cheered as the contingent chanted, "Harvey Milk was right! Show your pride and fight!" and "Texas, don't lie to me, we want full equality!" Other contingents included Veterans for Peace, which included members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Pride events earlier in the month likewise had a refreshing dose of politics.

In Portland, the parade was lead by a contingent of LGBT GIs marching in uniform to demand an end to "don't ask, don't tell." They were accompanied by a number of activists--including straight allies--who carried signs calling for an end to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, with slogans such as "Just don't, 'don't tell.'"

The pro-same-sex marriage organization, "Love Makes a Family" hosted a peace contingent, and the local High School Gay-Straight Alliance marched chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia's got to go!" The Outside Inn, a local clinic specializing in outreach to homeless youth, sponsored a contingent for single-payer health care, carrying signs that read, "Everyone deserves access to health care!"

Service Employees International Union Local 508 also sponsored a contingent demanding workplace equality for LGBT individuals.

In Providence, R.I.--the only state in New England that does not have marriage equality--the grand marshals of this year's Pride parade were representatives from the marriage equality movements from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa, which all grant marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Other contingents included Marriage Equality-R.I., Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Matthew Camp, Elizabeth Clinton, Blair Ellis, Cindy Kaffen, Josh Kilby, Kyla Klein, Steve Leigh, Becca Lewis, Stewart Minor, Jason Netek, Dan Sharber and Ashley Simmons contributed to this article.

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