Pride Marches and Parades

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Marches and parades celebrating "pride" and protesting oppression have been a central part of LGBT culture in the United States since the gay liberation movement began in the late 1960s. Drawing on queer traditions of camp and outrageous style, these parades have been opportunities for LGBT people to make themselves visible to one another and to their surrounding communities. Most major cities and many other municipalities today host annual LGBT pride parades in late June, near the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. In addition, LGBT people have held several major marches on Washington, D.C., demanding changes to various federal and state policies.

Because pride marches and parades constitute one of the most conspicuous forms of self-expression and display on the part of LGBT communities, they have been the focus of numerous controversies. In particular, lesbians, people of color, and transgender people have struggled to obtain prominent billing in celebrations that have often been dominated by white gay men. LGBT people have also debated whether to seek acceptability to a mainstream audience or instead to celebrate radical sexual and gender practices. Related conflicts have centered on allegations of de-politicization and excessive commercialization.

Since 1990, LGBT pride parades in major U.S. cities have become larger, more complex, and more commercial; in many cities, they are among the largest annual parades. Some LGBT activists have argued that contemporary pride parades have departed from their radical origins, while others believe that their inclusion in mainstream mass culture is a sign of progress and acceptance.

The 1960s: The Origins of Pride in Homophile Activism

Although annual LGBT pride celebrations are often associated with the memory of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, their roots can be traced to the pre-Stonewall activities of the homophile movement. Beginning in the mid-1960s, homophile organizations, influenced by the African American civil rights movement, sponsored a number of public demonstrations demanding rights for homosexuals. The first annual public demonstration was a picket organized by Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, and Janus Society activists at Philadelphia's Independence Hall each year, beginning on 4 July 1965. By picketing on the nation's birthday at the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed, demonstrators sought to illuminate the exclusion of LGB people from the nation's democratic ideals and to draw comparisons between the civil rights struggles of African Americans and those of homosexuals.

After the Stonewall Riots, which drew national attention to queer resistance to police repression, many activists felt that a dramatic shift had taken place and that the riots should be commemorated annually. In November 1969, at a regional homophile conference in Philadelphia, LGB activists decided to replace the annual Fourth of July pickets with a march honoring the anniversary of Stonewall.

That conference, and LBGT activism in the late 1960s generally, was marked by disagreements between young, radical gay liberationists and an older generation of activists who embraced a politics of what Marc Stein has called "militant respectability." The dynamic tension between these tendencies in LGBT activism has shaped the history of pride marches and parades ever since.

The 1970s: Commemorating Stonewall and Creating a Tradition

In June 1970 perhaps from two thousand to five thousand people attended the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. The entourage began in Greenwich Village and marched through New York City's streets, ending in Central Park. According to historian Martin Duberman's Stonewall (1993), parade organizer Craig Rodwell insisted that the first parade be "a grass-roots project uncontaminated by any connection to commercial interests"; accordingly, its costs amounted to only around $1,000 (p. 271). Marchers carried placards and chanted slogans conveying radical political messages; many were connected to the Gay Liberation Front or the Gay Activists Alliance. Early pride parades were notable for the difficulty organizers had in securing permits from police; for example, in 1970 the Los Angeles police chief declared that granting a permit to homosexuals would constitute "discommoding the citizens by permitting a parade of thieves and burglars" (Duberman, p. 275).

At New York City's 1970 gay liberation parade, the march focused on the politics of "coming out," which was the watchword of the nascent gay liberation movement. Placards screamed campy and political messages like "we are the dykes your mother warned you about" and "better blatant than latent"; participants chanted slogans including "What do we want? Gay Power! When do we want it? Now!"; "Say it loud: Gay is proud!"; and famously, "Out of the closets and into the streets!" Many participants in the 1970 New York City march believed that some onlookers were closeted homosexuals, and one reason the marchers valued the parade was because it gave them a chance to publicly encourage others to come out to their friends and family. The parade concluded with the massive Gay Be-In in Central Park's Sheep's Meadow, giving birth to an annual tradition of combining highly political protests with colorful parties in city streets and parks.

Over the course of the early 1970s, LGBT marches became annual events in most major U.S. cities. They took the form of public parades through city streets and became associated with the idea of "pride." In 1970 New York City and Los Angeles were home to parades attracting several thousand people each, while fewer than one hundred participants marched in smaller events in San Francisco and Chicago. Within a few years, however, some cities were home to multiple efforts to celebrate LGBT pride each summer. In San Francisco, for example, the 1973 Gay Freedom Day Parade competed with a rival Festival of Gay Liberation; to prevent such problems in the future, a nonprofit Pride Foundation was established later in the year to coordinate the city's annual events. In Seattle the anniversary of Stonewall was celebrated with music festivals, picnics, and rallies from 1973 to 1976; in 1977 participants marched through city streets for the first time.

In October 1979 activists organized the first gay and lesbian March on Washington. The late 1970s had witnessed both progress and backlash for the LGBT movement. San Francisco's 1978 pride march was the largest to date. Protestors advocating the defeat of anti-LGBT Proposition 6, known also as the Briggs Initiative—which was in fact rejected. Marchers at the 1979 March on Washington protested other right-wing ballot measures, as well as the lenient sentence given to Dan White for killing openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk the previous year. The 1979 march drew 100,000 participants and was accompanied by the first Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference, which led, among other things, to the formation of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays.

The Late 1970s and 1980s: Expansion, Commercialization, and the AIDS Crisis

There have been few scholarly studies of the expansion and commercialization of LGBT pride parades, although these trends have significantly reshaped the parades' character since the late 1970s, when growing numbers of LGB-owned businesses began to dominate urban LGBT public life. One recent study is Gary Atkins's Gay Seattle (2003), an account of the transformation of Seattle's pride parade. There a group of LGB business owners, the Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA), sought in March 1982 to gain control over the annual march's planning and content, to change its name from a "march" to a "parade," and to move it from downtown Seattle to the growing LGB commercial district. Although the GSBA declared that it would pay for the parade's costs, it also sought to charge fees to groups seeking to join, and many member businesses expected to reap increased profits from the event's relocation.

The move was immediately protested by LGBT movement activists, who believed that relocating the event from downtown Seattle—and emphasizing celebration

rather than protest—would dull the event's political edge. Business interests won most of their initial demands, but only after two years of conflict with activists, who wanted the march to focus on opposing the administration of President Ronald Reagan. According to Atkins, two separate events were held in 1984: a celebratory parade in the commercial district and an alternative, more political march downtown. The following year, leaders from the two factions reconciled their differences and sponsored an event together, which has since taken place each year in the LGBT commercial district. In 1990 the local Pride Foundation contracted with a bank to issue a Pride Foundation MasterCard, the first credit card to be offered by an LGBT organization, and in the early 1990s the parade was expanded to include a business fair. In some cities, business-oriented events began to be held separately from pride parades, as in the case of Chicago's Market Days and Philadelphia's Pridefest.

The trend toward commercialization was somewhat slowed by the AIDS crisis, which began to devastate the nation's urban gay communities in the early 1980s. Many pride marches and parades became highly politically charged again, with activists demanding federal support for AIDS research, treatment, and education and protesting the refusal of President Reagan even to mention the epidemic until near the end of his presidency. With tens of thousands of gay men sick and dying from the virus, radical activists formed ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which staged numerous highly disruptive public protests and formed large contingents at pride marches.

The second lesbian and gay March on Washington, held in October 1987, a ttracted a crowd of about half a million. It was also the scene of a massive civil disobedience action on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, where over eight hundred activists were arrested while protesting the Court's decision to uphold Georgia's sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). The 1987 march also featured the first public display of the NAMES Project Foundation's Memorial AIDS Quilt on the National Mall; it later traveled to various parts of the country and became an unusually visible and accessible symbol of AIDS activism.

The 1990s: Continued Commercialization and Radicalism

The third March on Washington, in April 1993, took on an exuberant air; newly elected President Bill Clinton had recently invited LGBT leaders to a White House meeting for the first time, and he had pledged during his campaign to lift the ban on homosexuals in the U.S. military. Although he did not fulfill that pledge, many LGBT people believed that Clinton's embrace of the cause of LGB rights, his comfort with LGB people, and his appointment of openly LGB officials signaled a new relationship to national political power.

At the 1993 March on Washington, the radical Lesbian Avengers organized the first Dyke March, which quickly became an annual event in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. Although the motorcycle association Dykes on Bikes has been prominently featured in LGBT pride parades at least since 1972 and today conventionally heads up most cities' pride parades, lesbians frequently remain underrepresented in the planning of LGBT pride marches and parades and in the population of participants as well. Since 1993 Dyke Marches have drawn attention to sexism in the gay community and have celebrated lesbian and women's culture; sometimes open only to women and transgender people and held without a police permit, they usually take place on the same weekend as the larger LGBT pride parades. In several cities, including Chicago, New York, and Detroit, African American pride events also began to be held in the 1990s, separate from mainstream, white-dominated pride events.

By the early 1990s LGBT pride parades were well integrated into the political life of most U.S. cities and routinely attracted millions of participants and onlookers. They had also become a vehicle for politicians, radio stations, and other businesses to reach constituents and customers, and their increasing costs were met through sponsorship by major corporations, especially liquor and beer companies. Such sponsorship was one of the key signs of the rise of targeted marketing to the LGBT population, a trend that many activists regarded as the cooptation of a radical tradition. Parade organizers, however, maintained that sponsorship and targeted marketing might encourage companies to pledge nondiscrimination toward LGBT workers and offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners; these policies were indeed adopted by a growing number of U.S. employers in the 1990s.

Other trends also signaled the depoliticization and commercialization of the parade tradition, which activists charged was increasingly focused on commodifying a narrow range of male body images. The popularity of circuit parties, attracting mostly white, middle-class gay men and sometimes scheduled in conjunction with pride events, seemed to some activists to confirm the depoliticization of the tradition of public protest. In recent years, New York City's pride parade has been altered so that it reaches an end point not in Central Park but in the West Village—a historic district and the site of the Stonewall Riots, but also a commercial area where numerous bar and nightclub owners charge hefty fees for entrance to post-parade parties.

The commercialization of the nation's LGBT pride parades, however, has coexisted with the continuing vitality of radical protest. In 1990 the militant group Queer Nation entered the New York City pride parade, distributing broadsheets declaring, "Queers Read This …I Hate Straights." With its conscious embrace of sex radicalism and outrageous camp style, Queer Nation sought to revitalize the tactics of ACT UP; it demanded that LGBT people voice their anger about homophobia and advocated "liberation not assimilation." In the late 1990s a group called Gay Shame was founded by New York City and San Francisco radicals who objected to the commercialization and depoliticization of LGBT "pride." Gay Shame held alternative celebrations, sometimes disrupting those cities' pride parades; in 2003 six Gay Shame activists were arrested and jailed for joining San Francisco's pride parade and protesting the inclusion of moderate heterosexual mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom.

The Politics of Transgender Visibility

The inclusion of transgender people has been, over the years, perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding the planning, content, and even the names of LGBT marches. Despite the pivotal role played by drag queens and other gender-variant people in fighting back against New York City police at the Stonewall Inn and in other forms and moments of resistance, transgender people have frequently faced opposition to their inclusion and visibility in pride marches and parades. For example, Sylvia Rivera was expelled from the rally platform at the 1973 New York City pride parade by feminists who believed that drag and transgender identity were demeaning to women, even though she had been a key participant in the riots at Stonewall.

In 1994 New York City's Heritage of Pride organization was replaced by a march called Stonewall 25, honoring the rebellion's twenty-fifth anniversary; however, the organizers of that march, which focused on international LGB rights, refused to include "transgender" in the march's name. That year, to protest both the exclusion of transgender politics and the commercialization of the event, a countermarch was held along Fifth Avenue. Focusing attention on the persistence of the AIDS crisis, this countermarch was led by Rivera. Following her death in 2002, New York City's pride march was dedicated to her memory. Rivera's shifting relationship to celebrations of Stonewall reflects the continuing difficulty of trans-gender people in obtaining representation in mainstream LGBT politics.

As the LGBT movement has gained a stable political foothold in Washington, tensions over the planning of marches and parades have continued to pit local grass-roots radical activists against more mainstream national organizations. In 2000 the lobbying group Human Rights Campaign organized a fourth March on Washington, which was carried out over the objections of numerous longtime activists who protested the lack of grassroots input into the planning process. The march focused on the themes of family and faith. Echoing longstanding tensions in LGBT politics, these themes symbolized for some people admission to full citizenship, while for others they represented assimilation to oppressive norms.


Atkins, Gary L. Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Dutton, 1993.

McGarry, Molly, and Fred Wasserman. Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Studio, 1998.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.

Stryker, Susan, and Jim Van Buskirk. Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.

Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.

Thompson, Mark, ed. Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Vaid, Urvashi. Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. New York: Anchor, 1995.

Timothy Stewart-Winter

see alsoatlanta; gay liberation; homophile movement demonstrations; lesbian avengers; marches on washington; new york city; philadelphia; public festivals, parties, and holidays; rivera, sylvia; rodwell, craig; seattle; stonewall riots; washington, d.c.