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The History of Pride: A Look Back at Key Events and Figures

As we joyously unfurl the vibrant colors of the rainbow flag to celebrate Pride Month, it's essential that we pause and traverse through the pages of our rich and complex history. Our journey is painted with hues of struggle and triumph, underpinned by the courage and resilience of those who came before us, and defined by unity in diversity. This history - the history of Pride - is as vivid, intricate, and diverse as the rainbow flag that so proudly symbolizes it.

Before the pivotal Stonewall Uprising of 1969 that is etched into public consciousness, there existed a less heralded but equally potent tapestry of defiance that played a crucial role in shaping the modern LGBTQIA+ rights movement. The era preceding Stonewall was a time of quiet rebellion, where a select group of valiant individuals, undeterred by the societal norms of the period, stepped into the forefront to champion a vision of the future. A future where every person, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, could exist openly, authentically, and unapologetically.

The period was marked by stories of extraordinary courage that defied the predominant narrative. Among these, the journey of Christine Jorgensen stands out. In the early 1950s, Jorgensen made headlines when she became one of the first individuals to publicly undergo sex reassignment surgery. Returning to the United States after her surgery in Denmark, Jorgensen found herself thrust into the limelight. Unfazed, she used her newfound platform to become a tireless advocate for transgender rights, traversing the country to deliver lectures about her experiences and to create visibility for the transgender community. Her voice was one of the first to echo through the societal silence surrounding transgender issues.

Photo of Christine Jorgensen. Photo by Maurice Seymour, New York.

In addition, the pre-Stonewall era saw the rise of grassroots resistance, with the LGBTQIA+ community responding to direct instances of oppression. A prime example is the courageous patrons of the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles. In 1967, during a New Year's Eve celebration, this gay bar was brutally raided by police officers. The raid resulted in several arrests, sparking an outcry among the community.

Protest Leaflet for the Feb 11, 1967 Protest in response to the police raid at The Black Cat Tavern. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

In response, hundreds of people gathered for one of the first recorded LGBTQIA+ protests in the United States. They rallied against the harassment and discriminatory laws, demanding their right to gather without fear of persecution. This marked a seminal moment in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, setting the stage for future acts of organized resistance.

Protests outside the Black Cat bar, Feb. 11, 1967. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries
Protests outside the Black Cat bar, Feb. 11, 1967. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.
Protests outside the Black Cat bar, Feb. 11, 1967. Photo courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

These instances from the pre-Stonewall era represent the myriad smaller currents that eventually converged to form the mighty river of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement. They serve as a poignant reminder that every act of defiance, no matter how small or localized, contributes to the broader struggle for equality and freedom. It's a testament to the power of courage, resilience, and the human spirit to rise above adversity.

However, it was the 1969 Stonewall Riots that served as the proverbial match that ignited the flame of the Pride movement as we understand it today. This defining event in the history of LGBTQIA+ rights marked a pivotal moment of uprising against systemic oppression. The heart of this resistance pulsed within the Stonewall Inn, a modest gay bar tucked away in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

An unidentified group of young people celebrate outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher Street) after riots over the weekend of June 27, 1969. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

At the forefront of this defining uprising were trailblazing transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson, a founding member of Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and Sylvia Rivera. Johnson, an indomitable force during the Stonewall riots, became a renowned figure in the LGBTQIA+ community for her vibrant personality and fervent advocacy. Her tireless activism, coupled with Rivera's dedication to the most marginalized within the community, fueled the inception of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a support group for homeless queer youth and trans women. Johnson and Rivera's contributions during the Stonewall riots and beyond continue to inspire and guide the path of LGBTQIA+ activism.

Marsha P Johnson pictured at a march in the early ’70s. (Getty)
Sylvia Rae Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002), American transgender activist. Photograph by Valerie Shaff, circa 2000.
Sylvia Rivera, marching with STAR banner. Credit: Roseleechs, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Marsha P. Johnson hands out flyers in support of gay students at New York University while another person holds a sign reading ‘Come out of your ivory towers into the street.’ Photo by Diana Davies / New York Public Library

Over the course of six tension-filled days, these brave leaders, along with other unsung heroes like Stormé DeLarverie and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, defied aggressive police forces. Their resilience converted the Stonewall Inn from a casual gathering place into a symbol of profound resistance and rebellion. This otherwise unassuming establishment rapidly became the ground zero of a revolutionary wave, marking a transformative shift in the narrative surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights.

Police force people back outside the Stonewall Inn as tensions escalate the morning of June 28, 1969. Photographer: Joseph Ambrosini of the New York Daily News
Crowds near the Stonewall Inn several days after the raid on June 29, 1969. Credit: Larry Morris/The New York Times
View of a damaged jukebox and cigarette machine, along with a broken chair, inside the Stonewall Inn. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Hand-painted text on a boarded-up window of the Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher Street) after riots over the weekend of June 27, 1969. The text reads 'We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village - Mattachine.' The Mattachine Society was an early American gay rights organization that existed in New York City before the Stonewall Uprisings. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

The reverberations of the Stonewall Riots were felt far and wide. A mere year later, the very first Pride march took to the streets. This groundbreaking event, named the Christopher Street Liberation Day after the street where the Stonewall Inn still stands, was a bold, public demonstration of defiance, visibility, pride, and unity. It served not only as an acknowledgement of the struggle and the fight for rights but also as a celebration of the community's identity and diversity. This initial display of defiance and resilience has since blossomed into global Pride Month celebrations, each year growing more vibrant and inclusive. Through the courage and conviction of these pioneering individuals, a robust foundation was laid, igniting the spark of change that continues to shape the trajectory of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement.

On June 28, 1970, the first Pride parade—or gay liberation march, as it was called at the time—took place in New York City. The response surprised even the parade's organizers, including Foster Gunnison and Craig Rodwell (pictured here). Now, Pride is celebrated around the world. Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah, Getty.
“Christopher Street Liberation Day March, New York, 1972,” Leonard Fink
The Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York City in 1970. Credit: Michael Evans/The New York Times
The Stonewall National Monument on June 25, 2016, the day after its declaration as a national monument by President Barack Obama. Credit: Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since that historic day, the humble beginnings of that march have grown into an expansive global movement. Every year, Pride Month is commemorated with celebrations around the world that are as diverse as the community it represents. These observances have become increasingly vibrant, inclusive, and far-reaching with every passing year, spreading their roots into more corners of the globe. They serve as a continuous testament to the power of a community standing together, honoring the sacrifices of the past, and striving towards a future of equal rights, acceptance, and love.

On the 50th Anniversary of The Stonewall Riots, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, lower front center, joins people participating in the LBGTQ Pride march Sunday, June 30, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The course of Pride's history over the ensuing decades has undeniably resembled a rollercoaster ride, marked by a combination of triumphant victories and devastating setbacks. It's a path paved with resilience and determination, where each challenge met has been a stepping stone toward a more equitable future.

A significant turning point came in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association took a monumental step forward by declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. This groundbreaking decision marked a vital shift in perspective, challenging societal attitudes, and opening the door for broader acceptance and understanding of the LGBTQIA+ community.

APA Vote New York Times Article
Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and Dr. John E. Fryer in Disguise at Panel Discussing Psychiarty and Homosexuality

However, the journey was not without its trials. The 1980s brought with it the devastating AIDS crisis, a health catastrophe that disproportionately impacted the LGBTQIA+ community. This period not only highlighted the urgent need for medical research and healthcare equality but also demonstrated the unshakeable strength and unity within the LGBTQIA+ community. Amid fear and prejudice, activists rallied, caregivers provided support, and communities pulled together, highlighting their resilience in the face of adversity.

The early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were marked with stigma and confusion. Rollis University/New York Historical Society
Singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant heads a crusade to nullify a local gay rights ordinance, Feb. 15, 1977. She called the group "Save Our Children" and said it represented the rights of the majority of citizens. AP file
Members of AIDS activist group ACT UP hold a banner stating "Silence Equals Death" and signs of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Jesse Helms and others with "Guilty" stamped on their foreheads at Food and Drug Administration headquarters on Oct. 11, 1988, in Rockville, Maryland. Catherine McGann / Getty Images file
People hold up signs representing the numbers of AIDS victims in a demonstration in support of AIDS victims in Central Park, New York, on Aug. 8, 1983. Allan Tannenbaum / Getty Images file

Progress continued in the 21st century with landmark victories that fundamentally shifted the landscape of LGBTQIA+ rights in the United States. A critical precursor to the historic 2015 decision was the 2013 United States v. Windsor case. Edith Windsor, after being denied federal benefits following the death of her wife, bravely challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Supreme Court ruling in Windsor's favor was a momentous victory, effectively dismantling DOMA and paving the way for further progress.

Edith Windsor greets her supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court in 2013, just months before the court would rule in her favor, striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This was followed, in 2015, by an even more transformative victory: the landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. The historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the result of tireless advocacy and countless personal sacrifices, signaled a resounding triumph for love, equality, and the recognition of rights for all, irrespective of sexual orientation. The strides made during these years forever changed the trajectory of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, demonstrating the power of resilience, courage, and unwavering pursuit of justice.

James "Jim" Obergefell, named plaintiff in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, bottom center, speaks to the media after the same-sex marriage ruling outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 26, 2015. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Supporters rejoice after the court hands down the 5-4 ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

Throughout these eras, our understanding of the complex tapestry of gender and sexuality has continued to deepen and evolve. The spectrum of identities and experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community has expanded, fostering greater inclusivity and representation. More than ever before, individuals are empowered to express their identities authentically and fearlessly, enriching the fabric of our diverse community.

In October, 2019, protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court during arguments on whether a civil-rights law protects gay and trans people from workplace discrimination. Photograph by Anna Moneymaker / NYT / Redux
In October, 2019, protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court during arguments on whether a civil-rights law protects gay and trans people from workplace discrimination. Photograph by Anna Moneymaker / NYT / Redux

As we honor and celebrate the evolution of Pride and its historical achievements, it is also critical that we recognize the current escalating challenges our community faces. In an unsettling record high, at least 417 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the United States in just the first few months of this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This is more than double the number of such bills introduced in the entirety of the previous year, spotlighting an alarming upward trend in systemic prejudice and legislative discrimination.

Note: Data as of April 3, 2023. Bills carried over from previous legislative sessions are included in each year. Source: American Civil Liberties Union

Healthcare and education-related bills have surged in unprecedented numbers, many targeting transgender youth and their access to gender-affirming healthcare. A disturbing wave of legislation is aimed at regulating public school curriculum, attempting to curtail discussions around gender identity and sexuality. This year alone, 283 education-related bills have been introduced – more than double that of the previous year.

Furthermore, a new breed of bills is garnering attention. Echoing Florida's controversial "Don't Say Gay" legislation, which significantly restricts school discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity, several states are following in the footsteps of Tennessee, proposing bills that would ban drag performances.

Pro-LGBTQ+ protestors march down Southwest 6th Street in Tampa to speak out against the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which is making its way through the Florida legislature. (Alan Halaly/WUFT News)
Hundreds protest multiple bills in TN that would no longer allow cabaret shows — and drag shows — on public property or for those under 18. Credit: WTVF News Nashville

These bills are being introduced at an alarming pace, drastically changing the landscape of LGBTQIA+ rights in real-time. This underscores the sobering reality that the battle for equality and acceptance is far from over.

Now, more than ever, Pride is vital. As we stand at the forefront of these challenges, we draw strength from our history, recognizing the resilience and defiance that have brought us this far. It's essential that we continue to stand firm in our fight for equality, especially in support of the trans community, who find themselves at the center of these targeted attacks.

Our collective pride is not merely a celebration of our past victories but a galvanizing force propelling us forward in the ongoing battle for recognition, acceptance, and equality. The struggle continues, and our commitment to this fight is unwavering. Together, we press on, guided by the spirit of Pride, our resilience in the face of adversity, and our unwavering hope for a future of genuine equality and acceptance for all.

As we look to the future, Connect Northshore is ready to bring Pride to life in a uniquely compelling way with our inaugural ConnectFest in October. Our objective is to honor the indomitable spirit of our forebears while cultivating unity, acceptance, and celebration within our local community.

In essence, Pride is more than a historical narrative; it's a living, breathing movement, shaped by the countless individuals who had the audacity to assert their rights, their identities, and their love. As Connect Northshore celebrates Pride, we reaffirm our unwavering commitment to championing visibility, equality, and acceptance for all, whilst rejoicing in the rich diversity of our community.

At its core, Pride is about understanding our past, cherishing our present, and setting our sights on the future. It's about demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity, fostering unity amidst division, and championing love amidst hate. As we reflect on the history of Pride, let us also envision a future where every individual can express their identity freely, love openly, and live authentically. From Connect Northshore to you, Happy Pride.