“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us”
– Marsha P. Johnson
Pride Month has been celebrated across the globe for several decades now. Every year in June, parades and revelry take to the streets, voices turned high in a celebration of love. Pride however, was born not out of love, but out of violence. Now, as the month blends into the next, we look back in remembrance at the events that led to the birth of Pride.
On the night of June 28th, 1969 a series of police riots in Grenwich Village changed queer history forever.
So what exactly was the ‘Stonewall Uprising’ about?
The year is 1969. A gay club called Stonewall Inn gets raided by the police on a hot June night. And the rest is history.
Back in 1969, homosexuality was unlawful in every American state save Illinois. LIke Stonewall, every other queer bar and club functioned against the law, and were prone to frequent raids. In an unlikely partnership, the queer community joined hands with local Mafia gangs who helped the clubs function in spite of the law. However despite mob protection, all gay clubs were subjected to raids by the police, who cited the liquor laws that prohibited ‘disorderly’ gatherings to achieve their means. On the night of 28th June, however, the queer crowd decided to fight back.
The Uprising at a Glance
June 24, 1969: The events that escalated into the Stonewall Riots are set off when the police raid Stonewall Inn, arresting employees and confiscating an illegal store of liquor. A second raid is then planned for the following Friday.
June 27, 1969: Six plainclothed police officers enter the bar. Bar patrons, employees and drag queens are marked out for arrest. As the night grows, more NYPD officers arrive on foot and in police cars.
Early hours of June 28th, 1969: The riots are kicked off when a woman complains that her handcuffs are too tight. The crowd gathered outside the pub then erupt in protest, throwing bricks and bottles, slashing police tiers. The exact events of the night remain largely unclear and undocumented. However two transgender women of color, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P.Johnson, are said to have led the riots by throwing the first brick.(Johnson, however, later claimed in an interview that she had not arrived until the uprising was in full swing.)
04:00 AM, June 28: Beaten down by the force of the riot, the police retreat within Stonewall and barricade themselves. Violent attempts are made by the rioters to break through the door, hurling bottles and impromptu handmade bombs.
June 28, 1969: Despite the previous night’s events, the Stonewall Inn resumes operation before dark, although without liquor. A second police raid follows. Bar patrons are beaten and tear gassed till the crowd disperses.
June 29- July 1, 1969: Over the next two days, Stonewall Inn becomes an active point of protest among queer rights activisits, who uses the event as a fuel to their flight for visibility.
“Say it Loud, Gay is Proud”- The first official Pride March
The Stonewall riots made one thing evidently clear- that the LGBT community needed to have their voice heard. On the first anniversary of the uprising, the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) organized the first official Pride Walk in New York. The parade was to be held on the last Saturday of June “with no age or dress restrictions.”
While the proposal for the March was approved it was the grassroots activist and openly bisexual Brend Howard who brought it to fruition. Howard not only planned the Pride March, then known as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, but also organized a week long festival to commemorate it. Now hailed as the ‘Mother of Pride’, Howard is also credited as the first person popularize the use of the word ‘Pride’, with the official chant of the March going: “Say it loud, Gay is proud.”
Gilbert Baker and the birth of the Pride Flag
Now a global symbol for the queer community, the prototype of the Pride flag was born in 1978. Gilbert Baker, an openly gay man and drag queen, was egged on by Harvey Milk – also the first openly gay elected official in USA- to design a ‘symbol of visibility’ for the queer community.
Baker saw the rainbow as a natural flag of the sky, and adopted eight colors with their own symbolic meaning for the first prototype- hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for light, green for nature, turquoise for magic and art, indigo for serenity and violet for spirit.
The Pride flag was first unveiled at the San Fransico Parade of 1978. Baker, with a team of volunteers, designed the flag by hand. While mass producing it, however, issues surrounding production led to the removal of the pink and turquoise bands, while indigo was replaced with basic blue. The resulting six striped flag is now the most common variant of the pride flag we see today.
It was only in 1994 that the Pride flag was adopted as an official symbol for the LGBT movement. That year, on the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Baker made a mile-long flag which was later cut into pieces and distributed around the globe.
Today, Pride Month is celebrated across the world. Although complete and irrevocable gender and sexual equality is yet to be achieved, and although same-sex marriage is still deemed illegal in several countries, Pride Month arrives each June as a reminder of queer visibility.
Yet, each Pride calls for a remembrance, a recollection of the past that propelled oppressed queer voices to the fore. For the year was 1969. A gay club called Stonewall Inn got raided by the police on a hot June night. Pride was born. And the rest is history.