Monday, June 21, 2010

Stonewall and the First Gay Pride Parade

It was a pleasant early summer evening in 1969 and I was settling into my new apartment in New York City. I hadn’t even stayed at Carnegie-Mellon for my commencement; I couldn’t spend another day in Pittsburgh. As I marked the spot on the wall where I planned to hang a poster, my roommate David slouched in. He had been a college chum and his dad, a shipping tycoon, was heavily subsidizing our small apartment on Horatio Street in the West Village. Poor David. He was such a hopeless mess. He knew how to score injectable drugs in any neighborhood in the city, but couldn’t get a woman to talk to him for more than 15 seconds.

“Hey Johnson (sic). You’ll never guess what’s happening. The fags are rioting.”

The poster swung down from it’s single anchor point and rocked back and forth. I wasn’t out to David. I had barely acknowledged to myself that I was gay. I made a lame excuse about needing something from the deli and headed out to the corner of Christopher and Greenwhich Ave, the crossroads of gay America.

The famous uprising at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, where patrons – led bravely by the drag queens in residence – had fought back against a routine police raid, had occurred the night before, but there were aftershocks for several days. When I arrived there were trash cans on fire and people darting around sometimes with police in pursuit. At one point a cop ran towards me waving his baton overhead. I instinctively flattened myself against the plate glass window of a jewelry store and he ran past me. I don’t know if it was my clever dodge that spared me or whether he wasn’t after me in the first place.

The aftermath of the riots was electric. We came together as a community with the certainty that we would never back down again. We were energized and politicized. Within a few weeks we formed the GLF, the Gay Liberation Front, and adopted the Greek letter lambda, used in physics to represent energy, as our symbol. Lambda flags soon flew from window sills throughout the Village.

I came out to David. He took some nihilistic delight in knowing of my “flaw” yet managed to find something in it to further confirm his own hopeless condition. He began complaining on a daily basis that gay men could get laid much easier than straight men. I assured him that it was not so. Following one such recurrence of this tiresome exchange, I left him alone in the apartment as I headed out to one of our local bars for a few beers. By chance a new tenant from upstairs was on the elevator and we began to chat. We talked for a while in the lobby and I invited him up to my apartment for a drink.

When we came in, David looked at his watch in agitation, screamed “Shit!” and stormed into his room, slamming the door behind him.

“What was that all about?” my new friend asked. “He’s straight,” I replied.

The GLF was an odd collection of hippies, radicals, fresh-faced boys from the Midwest, and just about everything else. Everything except women. During one discussion of how to coax lesbians to join our group, someone suggested that we invite them to our next demonstration and someone else suggested that they could bring sandwiches. Then the discussion veered off on a tangent about allowing warlocks to have more voice in our decisions.

The GLF faded into obscurity but a new group, the Gay Activists Alliance, took it’s place. To commemorate the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a huge parade and rally was planned. It was held on June 28, 1970 and has been an annual event in New York and in many other cities around the world ever since.

Nobody knew exactly what to expect at that first parade. But as thousands upon thousands of people showed up to march, many of us were in tears, overcome by pride, gratitude, and joy. Our voices joined together, strong and determined. “Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight.”

We marched from Christopher Street up Fifth Avenue and into Central Park where there was a massive rally in Sheep Meadow. My friends and I were near the front of the parade so we scrambled up a huge rock in the park to watch everyone else arrive. They kept coming and coming. Nobody could believe how many of us there were. The rest of that afternoon is a hazy memory of something like a renaissance fair, a family reunion, a love-in. It was a transformational moment.

As the years passed, and after I had moved away from New York, I still returned from time to time to watch the parade. The best part for me was seeing the joy on the faces of the young men and women who were attending their first gay pride march. I relived the joy I had felt at my first gay pride parade, the first gay pride parade, and felt wonderful again.

I could tell you about how the rallies in recent years have lost some of the spontaneity and intensity of the early marches. After all, I am the Bitter Old Queen and it’s my duty to bitch about how things ain’t like the good old days. I could rant about how the funnel cake, gyro, and bootleg CD booths have made gay pride rallies little different from any run-of-the-mill block party, but I won’t.

This is Gay Pride Week and nothing will take away the sheer joy of how far we have come and the certainty that we will never go back into the closet again.


  1. Although the Stonewall Riots are generally credited as the beginning of the Gay Pride movement, it should be remembered that there were those who began the campaign many years prior. I would like to honor the brave men and women who formed the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and others who risked personal ruin and even imprisonment for their advocacy of gay rights.

  2. I have some color slides from the first march which I will post as soon as I can find a place to scan them.

  3. Thanks for writing about this! I can't wait to see you in person again and ask you what it was like to be there back in 1969. I feel like my generation takes it for granted what it took for people to put themselves on the front lines so we can live in the world that's been created for today.

  4. This is a great story, Bill. Thanks!

  5. Thanks Bill. I was involved in the planning of protests, rallies and demonstrations immediately following the raid which have since come to be known as the Three Days of Rage in 1969.

    I also participated in the original Christopher Street Liberation Day March in 1970 and each subsequent NYC Pride Parade through 1984 as well as every fifth year anniversary of the rebellion.
    This year, I marched with a half dozen people on the 40th anniversary of the original march.