The Real Story Behind Pride
Pride: it’s almost here. With June fast approaching, it’s time to dig the rainbow regalia, glittery eyeshadows, and festival wear out of our closets and take to the streets for the queerest celebration of the year: the Pride Festival. June is Pride month, and the festival is the main event (Portland’s is being held on the 16th and 17th this year). The most important part of the festival is the parade, which takes place on Sunday the 17th. It is an event where people can come together as a community and make a public demonstration of the pride they have for themselves and each other. Being able to come together openly and celebrate is a wonderful thing. It is also a privilege that queer activists nearly 50 years ago had to fight for.
The first Pride parade was held on June 28, 1970, when the queer rights movement was just beginning to take off. The parade was organized to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which were the catalyst for the queer rights movement in the United States. The riots started in the early morning of June 28, 1969 in reaction to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York. The bar’s patrons, who largely consisted of the most marginalized members of the queer community–transgender people, drag queens, butch lesbians, effeminate men, and homeless youth, a high percentage of whom were people of color–did not disperse as usual after the raid. Instead they gathered in an unruly crowd outside the bar. They began to hurl insults and debris at the police, who were shoving patrons they had arrested into a police wagon. One gay woman put up a struggle as she was being shoved inside, and an officer hit her on the head with a baton. She yelled at the crowd to “Do something!” and soon the riot was raging in full force. The police barricaded themselves inside the inn, which was set on fire at one point during the riot. Protesters uprooted parking meters, formed a kick line, and threw bottles and cobblestones. They raised their voices in songs and chants. One drag queen hit a policeman on the head with her purse. It was a chaotic, unorganized, and sometimes violent demonstration, but it was effective. Stonewall sent the message loud and clear: queer people were no longer going to allow themselves to be oppressed. That message created the fire the queer community needed to mobilize and form an effective movement.
“The first Pride parade was held on June 28, 1970, when the queer rights movement was just beginning to take off.”
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, key members of the riots, were activists on the frontline of this movement. Together, they went on to form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to help homeless trans youth. As trans women of color, they were among the most marginalized members of their community. Nevertheless, they worked tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to help other queer people. At a pride march in 1973, Sylvia Rivera stepped onto the stage to speak on behalf of the trans community. She wanted to gain support for those who were in jail, and facing extreme violence. The crowd, mostly consisting of white, cis gays and lesbians, tried to drown her out as she spoke. The movement that had been catalyzed by trans women of color was turning its back on them. Although the crowd didn’t want to listen to what she had to say, she would not let them silence her: “ I will not put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all?…The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle class club. And that’s what you all belong to! REVOLUTION NOW!” By the end of her speech, she managed to unite the crowd in a cheer, and broke into tears. What happened at this pride march in 1973 highlights an important dynamic of intersectionality and privilege that has been present in the queer rights movement from the beginning.
Even today, there is a divide between those who are more privileged within the queer community and those who are less privileged. While some queer people are able to easily integrate into the rest of society (a decision some, but not all, choose to make), others are not. Society is rigidly heteronormative and cisnormative; the expectation of queer people within society is that we will try our best to live up to cisnormativity and heteronormativity because that is the “default.” Queer people who do not or can not fit into this expectation must face a great deal of oppression. Many queer people are homeless or unemployed due to discrimination. Members of the trans community are at a high risk for suicide attempts (according to one survey, over 40% of trans and gender non-conforming respondents had attempted suicide before). Many trans people are also the targets of violence; 28 transgender people were murdered in the United States in 2017, a tragedy that disproportionately affects trans women of color.
Great strides have been made in some queer issues in the United States. Marriage equality has been achieved, and there is more mainstream representation and acceptance of queer people than ever before. This is not, however, a sign that we have reached our goal of equality. Queer people are only accepted by the masses if they fit into non-queer society’s expectations of what a queer person should be like. Same sex marriage is finally legal, but that doesn’t stop trans women from dying at the hands of their oppressors. There is still work to be done within the queer community. Pride is a time of celebration, but pride should also be a time of action. We need to work together to solve these issues. We can start by recognizing that they exist, and finding out where they originate from. We can look out for each other. We can support and protect each other. With the queer community working together cohesively, and non-queer people supporting our efforts, we can create positive change in both society and legislation in the United States. This pride month, celebrate. There are many wonderful things we have to be thankful for. Be proud, but do not forget that queer activism is just as important now as it ever was, and that we all have a duty to fight for equality.