As we observe Pride Month, we should remind ourselves that the original Pride Parade was a riot, not a celebration of conformity to society. There were no permits issued to the people who marched down those streets in New York City. There were no corporate, bank or military floats participating. And it was mocked by mainstream press like the New York Times.
It was an answer to violent state repression, persecution, witch hunts, discrimination and theocratic authoritarianism. And it was part of a wave of revolutionary thought which included women’s rights, immigrant and worker solidarity, as well as ecological and antiwar activism.
It also inspired other uprisings. In France, a couple years after Stonewall, the leftist political organization “Front Homosexuel d’action Révolutionnaire” was formed in response to homophobia in the labour movement. And just over ten years later, a raid of gay saunas in Toronto called “Operation Soap” was credited for being “Canada’s Stonewall.”
In the US, the catalyst for radical action took place in New York City at a small, but popular gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. After decades of persecution, queer people had had enough. One night in 1969, the NYPD conducted one of their usual raids. Scores were harassed and brutally arrested for the “crime” of being gay. A riot ensued thanks to the pent-up rage of oppression. Marsha P. Johnson, a Black drag queen, and Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman, were at the forefront of those protests.
A few years later they were banned from the official parade because more conservative members felt ashamed of their identity, an echo we can see today with some wanting to “sanitize” Pride events of people they deem too radical. But the two defiantly marched ahead of the parade and their courage became a defining feature of the movement to this day.
Over the years, the original revolutionary vision was slowly coopted and commodified as gay people, particularly gay, white men, began to gain more acceptance within American bourgeois society. Unfortunately, many of the early principles were abandoned for more “acceptable” corporate ones. Companies, banks, politicians, police and the military sector moved in, and the bulk of queer people were pushed to the side.
But since the election of proto fascist to the White House a few years ago, the LGBTQ+ community has found itself under increasing attack, along with women, people of colour, immigrants, Muslims and other marginalized or minority groups. Now it has become normal for politicians to employ slanderous terms like “groomer” that attempt to link child abuse with queerness. Books and films are being banned. Antigay and anti-trans laws are being adopted in dozens of states. Pastors are openly calling for violence against queers which, in turn, incites others to act. In fact, we just saw one case of an attempted attack on a Pride event by a mob of white supremacists in Idaho.
Social hatred, be it homophobia, misogyny, racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. is the poison of fascism. It is its currency. And it entices those elements of society who feel alienated or who believe that their way of life or status in society is threatened. Political opportunists will always seize on this to increase their popularity, power and influence. And one look at history warns us that we cannot expect corporations, banks or a militarized state to be our ally when fascism takes hold. When the chips are down, they will align with power. But none of this should deter us.
The first Pride Parade was a riot. The people who participated in it stood proudly against centuries of entrenched bigotry and they understood the potential costs of taking that stand. But they also understood that our liberation is inextricably linked with that of women, people of colour, Indigenous, immigrants, the working class, those living under apartheid, religious minorities, refugees, the houseless and anyone else who has been marginalized, brutalized or rendered invisible by our society. It was a call for revolution. And in this time of rising fascism, we need that spirit more than ever before.
Kenn Orphan, June 2022
*Title photo is courtesy of Leonard Fink/The LGBT Community Center National History Archive.