By Stephanie Brown,
“We had no idea we were going to finish the march…. We didn’t expect
we’d ever get to Central Park.” – John O’Brien
“We were going fast. We had been threatened, bomb threats… people
could take shots at us. We were scared. But as we were going up 6th
Avenue, [the protest] kept growing.” – Jerry Hoose
“And I looked back, and there were about 2,000 people behind us….
That’s when we knew. We were ourselves, for the first time.” – Doric Wilson
‘The First Gay Pride Parade’
PBS American Experience: Stonewall Uprising
Last Sunday, thousands of people – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and otherwise – lined the streets of Pittsburgh from Boulevard of the Allies to Liberty Avenue to cheer on the marchers in Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh’s annual Pride Awareness March. The crowd and the marchers alike sported rainbow flags, colored beads, and pin-on buttons. Several well-known organizations, including Starbucks, PNC, and Highmark, made their support known with T-shirts and banners. Even Mayor Luke Ravenstahl participated in the celebration.
But little more than 40 years ago, when John O’Brien, Jerry Hoose, and Doric Wilson participated in America’s first Gay Pride march in New York City, being gay was still a crime in most states. The LGBT community could only gather in the grimy back rooms of mafia-run bars, drinking watered-down alcohol and listening anxiously for the sound of police approaching. The idea of openly admitting to and even celebrating being gay was unthinkable. “Nobody was ready to do that,” Wilson tells us in the PBS film Stonewall Uprising.
Nobody was ready, that is, until the events of June 28, 1969 – the first day of the Stonewall riots. At 1:20 that morning, the police raided a shabby little gay bar on Christopher Street called the Stonewall Inn, looking for evidence of the “crime against nature” that was the expression of homosexual attraction.
Unlike most other police shakedowns, the raid came unexpectedly, on one of the bar’s busiest nights. Those inside the bar were resentful and restless, and the commotion drew still more people. The police, feeling threatened by the growing number of angry onlookers surrounding them, began to manhandle anyone who resisted arrest or got in the way. The crowd responded by hurling pennies (that is, “coppers”), beer cans, and then bricks at the police.
The conflict quickly escalated into a full-out war between the police and the protesters, resulting in rioting that went on for days. For the first time, the gay community was fighting back against unfair police treatment. “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough,” explains protester Michael Fader in David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. “It was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined…. There was something in the air – freedom a long time overdue.”
The Stonewall riots marked the beginning of a large-scale, irrepressible movement for LGBT rights in the United States. Exactly one year after the uprising, O’Brien, Hoose, Wilson, and countless others risked their safety to gather on Christopher Street and march for equal rights. The LGBT communities in Los Angeles and Chicago were inspired to hold their own marches, and by 1972, Gay Pride marches were being held Boston, Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. as well.
Society has come a long way since those early years. If you were at the Pittsburgh Pride parade last Sunday, you didn’t see a crowd of people jogging down the street looking over their shoulders for bullets. Instead, you saw a vibrant, thriving, confident community of people proud to be themselves and unafraid to show it. That progress, that freedom to be ourselves, is truly something to celebrate.