Since 1970, the LGBTQ community has marked June as Pride Month—a time to celebrate what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender while demanding equality and liberation from cis and heteronormative constraints. Pride parades, which are traditionally held on the last weekend in June, commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a watershed moment in LGBTQ history when patrons of The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan that is now a national monument, fought back against a police raid.
This year marks the 51st anniversary of the first gay pride march, which was held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Given that many of the event’s 50th anniversary celebrations were lost amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the perfect time to look back at the history of Pride Month and LGBTQ activism in the United States.
1. There was a gay rights movement before Pride Month.
There is a storied history of LGBTQ activism in the United States that dates back long before the Stonewall Riots. In 1924, Henry Gerber, a German immigrant, founded the Society for Human Rights in Chicago; it was the first group to campaign for gay rights in the United States. In 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis was founded in San Francisco, and became the first lesbian rights group in the United States. In the 1960s, the Mattachine Society would hold “Annual Reminders” at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall every Fourth of July, where they’d advocate for lesbian and gay equality.
2. The Stonewall Riots were not America’s first LGBTQ uprising.
In May 1959, a group of LGBTQ individuals who were fed up with being mistreated by the police revolted at Cooper Do-Nuts in Los Angeles. According to a 2015 article in Out magazine, the group, which was led by several transgender women, “pelted officers with donuts, coffee, and paper plates until they were forced to retreat and return with larger numbers.” It is the first documented LGBTQ uprising in U.S. history.
3. The first Gay Pride parade was held in Chicago.
Most people know that Pride commemorates the Stonewall Uprising. And that the first Pride marches, which were more militant and liberationist and less celebratory and corporatist than today’s events, took place in 1970 to mark the first anniversary of Stonewall. While the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March in New York City is widely considered to be the first Pride Parade, it actually occurred one day after Chicago held its first march, which technically makes Chicago the birthplace of gay pride.
4. Brenda Howard, a bisexual woman, is considered the “Mother of Pride.”
While the first Pride parade may have been in Chicago, the mantle of “Mother of Pride” belongs to a lifelong New Yorker: Brenda Howard. Howard, a Bronx-born bisexual woman, organized the Christopher Street Liberation Day March and is hailed as one of the 20th century’s leading voices in bisexual rights and equality. Howard’s activism spanned decades, and led to multiple arrests for civil disobedience—including demonstrating for women’s health and the rights of those living with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and protesting against the firing of a lesbian in Georgia in the 1990s. Howard passed away in 2003.
5. There has long been conflict over whether Pride should be about liberation or equality.
Early gay rights groups, such as the Mattachine Society, focused heavily on optics and respectability, as the dress code for their Annual Reminders demonstrates (women in dresses; men in jackets and ties). The first Pride marches, however, were dominated by liberationists who found the confines of heteronormativity stifling and antithetical to the LGBTQ cause. These conflicts continued to play out over the ensuing decades, and eventually came to a head in the 1980s and 1990s, when Pride Marches became less radical and began to transform into the celebratory (as opposed to overtly political and revolutionary) marches we know today. The debate over the nature of Pride still rages within the modern LGBTQ community, with many modern radicals reminding us that “Stonewall was a riot.”
6. The Pride flags have their own interesting histories.
The rainbow flag, now a ubiquitous symbol of the LGBTQ community, first appeared in the 1970s. Harvey Milk—the first openly gay elected official in the U.S.—tasked artist/activist Gilbert Baker with creating a symbol for the gay community to use in place of the pink triangle, which Nazi Germany forced gay men to wear in concentration camps. Baker created the first pride flag in 1978, dyeing the fabrics himself.
The transgender pride flag similarly arose from a challenge, as its creator, Monica Helms, told Atlanta Magazine last year. The creator of the bisexual pride flag, Mike Page, challenged Helms to create a flag for the transgender community. “One day, I woke up with the idea for the colors—the traditional color, light blue, for boys, pink for girls, and a single white stripe for those who are transitioning, gender neutral, or intersex,” she said. The flag was first flown at Phoenix Pride in 2000. In 2014, Helms’s original flag was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
7. Not all Pride parades and LGBTQ celebrations are held in June.
While June is traditionally the month we celebrate Pride, as it commemorates the Stonewall Uprising, not all Pride celebrations take place during the summer. Many Southern Pride parades occur in the autumn, presumably to take advantage of cooler temperatures. Atlanta Pride, Orlando Pride, and Kentuckiana Pride in Louisville all occur closer to National Coming Out Day (October 11) than they do the anniversary of Stonewall. Other events, such as Atlanta Black Pride (which is held Labor Day weekend), occur throughout the year, meaning you can celebrate LGBTQ pride almost any time!
8. Bill Clinton was the first sitting U.S. president to officially recognize Pride Month.
One June 11, 1999, President Bill Clinton issued Proclamation No. 7203 [PDF]. It was the first time a U.S. president had officially recognized June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, did not recognize Pride Month during his eight years in office. President Barack Obama, however, followed Clinton’s example, marking Pride Month (and expanding it to include bisexual and transgender Americans) every year he was in office. President Donald Trump did tweet about pride month in 2019, but never officially recognized the month. On June 1, 2021, President Joe Biden’s White House issued a proclamation recognizing June as Pride month, which noted that:
“During LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we recognize the resilience and determination of the many individuals who are fighting to live freely and authentically. In doing so, they are opening hearts and minds, and laying the foundation for a more just and equitable America. This Pride Month, we affirm our obligation to uphold the dignity of all people, and dedicate ourselves to protecting the most vulnerable among us.”
9. The first San Francisco Trans March took place in 2004.
In 2004, an anonymous e-mail circulated around San Francisco’s transgender community. The trial in the murder of Gwen Araujo, a young trans woman from the Bay Area, was underway and the author of the e-mail called for a trans rights march. For many years, San Francisco’s pride celebrations had consisted of two events: one which was trans-inclusive and one that, according to historian Susan Stryker [PDF], “expressly forbid transgender people from participating.” By 2004, however, things were changing and SF Pride, the organization responsible for San Francisco’s pride march, supported the first annual Trans March. The event, which is part of the wider Pride Month celebrations in the city, continues to this day.
10. Many cities canceled their 2020 Pride Month celebrations due to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the entire world, and Pride celebrations were no exception. Cities like Chicago and New York canceled their Pride events for the first time in half-a-century; many events moved online. This was especially devastating given that 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Pride marches commemorating the Stonewall Uprising. However, as of now it looks like the 2021 Pride events will go on as usual. With last year’s Pride having been canceled—and the vaccine rollout returning the world to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy—there will be plenty to celebrate!