The gay rights movement in the United States has seen massive progress in the last century, and especially in the last two decades. Laws prohibiting homosexual activity have been in place since ages; lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are now allowed to serve in the military (transgender individuals got permission to serve from 2016 until March 2018, when a new ban was put in place). And same-sex couples can now marry and adopt children in all 50 states. But it has been a long and bumpy road for gay rights proponents, who are still advocating for employment, housing, and transgender rights.
For many communities across the U.S., June means open neighborhood pools, warmer weather, and a trip to the beach or the lake. But it also commemorates the origins of Pride Month, a worldwide celebration of both LGBTQ individuals and the history of the LGBTQ movement. It’s perhaps more important this year than any other to understand the significance of Pride month. In the early hours of June 12, 49 people were shot and killed at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, and 53 others were wounded. The shooting was the deadliest in American history. It sparked a conversation about the dangers and discrimination queer individuals face on a day-to-day basis. But, although the events that unfolded at Pulse were horrific, the parades that will take place in cities all over the U.S. provide opportunities for both the LGBTQ community and their allies to take solace in each other and learn from the history of Pride.
Initial Gay Rights Movement
In 1924, Henry Gerber, a German immigrant, founded in Chicago the Society for Human Rights, the first documented gay rights organization in the United States. During his U.S. Army service in World War I, Gerber created his organization by the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a “homosexual emancipation” group in Germany.
Gerber’s small group published a few issues of its newsletter, “Friendship and Freedom,” the country’s first gay-interest newsletter. Police raids caused the group to disband in 1925, but 90 years later, the U.S. government designated Gerber’s Chicago house a National Historic Landmark.
The gay rights movement stagnated for the next few decades. However, LGBT individuals around the world did come into the spotlight a few times. For example, English poet and author Radclyffe Hall stirred up controversy in 1928 when she published her lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness. And during World War II, the Nazis held homosexual men in concentration camps, branding them with the infamous pink triangle badge, which was also given to sexual predators. Additionally, in 1948, in his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey proposed that male sexual orientation lies on a continuum between exclusively homosexual to only heterosexual.
In 1950, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Foundation, one of the nation’s first gay rights group. The Los Angeles organization coined the term “homophile,” which as a less clinical and focused on sexual activity than homosexual. Though it started small, the foundation, which sought to improve the lives of gay men through discussion groups and related activities, expanded after founding member Dale Jennings went behind bars in 1952 for solicitation and then later set free due to a deadlocked jury. At the end of the year, Jennings formed another organization called One, Inc., which welcomed women and published ONE, the country’s first pro-gay magazine. Jennings got ousted from One, Inc. in 1953 in part for being a communist. He and Harry Hay were also kicked out of the Mattachine Foundation for their communism, but the magazine continued.
Mattachine Foundation members restructured the organization to form the Mattachine Society, which had local chapters in other parts of the country and 1955 began publishing the country’s second gay publication, The Mattachine Review. That same year, four lesbian couples in San Francisco founded an organization called the Daughters of Bilitis, which soon began publishing a newsletter called The Ladder, the first lesbian publication of any kind.
These early years of the movement also faced some notable setbacks: the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a form of mental disorder in 1952. The following year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order that banned gay people or, more specifically, people guilty of sexual perversion from federal jobs. This ban would remain in effect for some 20 years.
The modern history of the gay rights movement in this country is usually dated to 1969 when the patrons of a New York City bar fought back against a discriminatory police raid. At the time, homosexuality or “sodomy,” as mentioned in the legal books, was still a crime. Men used to face imprisonment for wearing drag, and women faced the same punishment if they wore less than three pieces of “feminine clothing.” The harassment continued for years, infuriating the gay community. On June 28, 1969, the police arrived at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. However, the 200 patrons inside didn’t just sit down calmly, they resisted, they rioted, sending the police a loud and clear message about their frustration with the status quo for LGBT individuals. If you ever wondered why Pride month takes place in June, now you know that it’s not just because of the generally pleasant weather. It’s historically relevant, too.
Gay communities around the country immediately latched on to the Stonewall riots as an event that brought attention to their cause. Just a year later, in 1970, a committee initiated to commemorate the riots. The problem? The committee didn’t have a name for the series of events it wanted to hold in honor of LGBTQ rights. It tossed around the slogan “gay power” for a bit. Still, when committee member L. Craig Schoonmaker suggested “gay pride,” everyone else agreed on the phrase right away. “People did not have power then; even now, we only have some,” Schoonmaker said in a 2015 interview with The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman. “But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.” That first weekend of celebrations would eventually turn into a month-long series of events and parades, all under the banner of Pride.
The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 is widely considered the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. The six-day riot, which began inside of the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, was the breaking point of years of tensions between police and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender street youth and pedestrians.
The 1960s were a heightened time for human and civil rights issues in the United States. Tensions boiled as the population tired of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Race dynamics continued the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, bubbling the rise of the Black Panthers and calls by Louis Farrakhan and Dr. King to stand against discrimination and disempowerment were being heard. And lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people grew increasingly intolerant of continued harassment and arrests by police.
LGBT people had to face civil laws that criminalized sodomy and, in New York City, allowed bars to refuse service to LGBT patrons. Arrests, harassment instances of entrapment by police were frequent. Civil laws reinforced their actions. Establishments often cited Section 106, Subsection 6 of the New York State Penal Code, to refuse service to queer patrons. The code barred premises from becoming “disorderly houses.” Many, including the courts, considered homosexual patrons to be disorderly. In establishments where LGBT patrons served, they could not touch each other while they danced. Section 722, Subsection 8 of the New York State Penal Code, made it an offense to solicit men to commit a crime against nature. Again, arguments emerged that homosexuality was an act against nature. Queer patrons were often entrapped by plainclothes police officers, posing as regular bar patrons. Transgender people were openly arrested on the streets.
One establishment where LGBT patrons found refuge was the mob-run Stonewall Inn. To enter, the bar-goers paid a $3 cover and signed a register (often with a fictitious or humorous name). Bar management was often tipped off when the local police district planned a raid on the bar and would warn LGBT patrons by turning on the lights.
However, on the morning of June 28, 1969, instead of the usual command, the NYPD First District raided the bar. But that particular time, the drag queens and street youth fought back. There were reports of stilettos, bottles, coins, bricks, and debris thrown. The altercation spilled into the streets, and queerer street youth joined in the uprising. As word spread, more LGBT people from surrounded neighborhoods joined the riot. The rebellion, which lasted six days, marked the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement.
Soon after Stonewall, a new wave of gay rights organizations, such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), founded in response to what was as ineffective, more subdued, protests by groups like Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.
On the third night of the Stonewall rebellion, thirty-seven men and women founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a more vocal and daring organization. They were the first LGBT organization to use the word “gay.” They aligned themselves with other civil rights groups like the Black Panthers and anti-war organizations. The GLF organized same-sex dances, demonstrations and worked to include gay issues within the social movements of the Black Panthers and populist organizations. They believed that together, they “could work to restructure American society.”
GLF, who often called for LGBT people to come out of the closet and into the streets, had no bylaws or formal leadership. Cells, modeled after the Mattachine Society structure, restructured throughout the country. GLF believed that patriarchy and sexism were the root cause of the disenfranchisement of people in the States. GLF also believe that assimilation wasn’t the answer and that to gain rights, LGBT had to take to the streets.
Some GLF members grew increasingly frustrated with the organization’s focus on militarism, racism, and sexism as well as LGBT rights and in 1970 formed the Gay Activist Alliance, which focused exclusively only on LGBT issues. Several other LGBT organizations splintered from GLF, including the lesbian feminist organization Lavender Menace, later to become Radical Lesbians.
The Gay Activists Alliance was most active from 1970 to 1974 and housed its headquarters on Wooster Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Their home, the Firehouse, burnt down by arsonists in 1974.
The GAA adopted the lower-case Greek letter lambda as their logo, symbolizing a complete exchange of energy or balance and unity. The organization dissolved in October 1981 and would later become Act Up GLF held its last meeting in 1971.
In the 1980s, there was a major cultural shift in the Stonewall Riot commemorations. The previous loosely organized, grassroots marches and parades got replaced by more organized and less radical elements of the gay community. The marches began dropping “Liberation” and “Freedom” from their names under pressure from more conservative members of the community, replacing them with the philosophy of Gay Pride (in San Francisco, the name of the gay parade and celebration was not changed from Gay Freedom Day Parade to Gay Pride Day Parade until 1994). The Greek lambda symbol and the pink triangle, which had been revolutionary symbols of the Gay Liberation Movement, got incorporated into the Gay Pride, or Pride, movement, providing some symbolic continuity with its more radical beginnings. The pink triangle was also the inspiration for the homo-monument in Amsterdam, commemorating all gay men and lesbians who have faced persecution because of their homosexuality.
Although it seems like a symbol so obvious it would have been around from the beginning, the rainbow flag didn’t come to represent the concept of gay pride until 1978. Before then, the pink triangle had symbolized the LGBTQ community. However, since that image used to mark during Nazi Germany to mark “sexual deviants” in concentration camps, plenty of people felt like the triangle wasn’t hopeful enough, or even appropriate. Artist Gilbert Baker created the first rainbow flag for a San Francisco march organized by Harvey Milk. Baker’s version had eight stripes rather than the six the flag carries today, and he intended each stripe to represent an aspect of the gay identity: “hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.” Today, rainbow flags are the most common symbol at Pride parades, and parade-goers often wear bright clothes that incorporate as many different colors as possible. But the flag might indicate the wrong meaning. “The rainbow flag is a mixed symbol to me,” my friend Avi told me. “When I was still figuring out my identity in high school, seeing it anywhere was meaningful to me, it was a beacon of safety.
Early Gay Parades
After the Stonewall riots in 1969, many LGBT people even those that did not witness the rebellion to contribute to the cause. Gay rights had entered the national spotlight. LGBT people began organizing, protesting, and mobilizing. On July 4, 1969, a year after the Stonewall riots, the Mattachine Society, along with Frank Kameny, Craig Rodwell, Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen, and many others, picketed in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the Annual Reminder. The protest was quiet and organized to the dismay of Craig Rodwell, who felt Frank Kameny and Mattachine’s methods of calm protest were not enough.
Rodwell returned to New York City and organized Christopher Street Liberation Day. The march, held on June 28, 1970, was the first gay pride march in the U.S., covering 51 blocks from Christopher Street to Central Park. Today, LGBT pride parades take place annually in multiple cities and countries throughout the world. The month of June is widely considered Gay Pride Month.
Evolution of the Movement
Forty years after the Stonewall riots, world headlines mark the news about the progression of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues; gay activists have taken their protests from the streets and into the virtual atmosphere, sending messages further and wider; and laws are slowly changing to ensure equal protections for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Birthed from the Mattachine Society, the Daughter of Bilitis, the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activist Alliance, several national, regional, and local LGBT organizations have emerged, providing services that range from political activism to legal and economic assistance.
These organizations have been successful in assisting many openly LGBT political candidates, LGBT teens in school and college, LGBT-headed families, same-sex marriages, and relationships, and the media is becoming increasingly more LGBT-friendly. However, despite the many victories since Stonewall, we continue to face challenges of inclusion, acceptance diversity within both general society and the LGBT community.
There are still only five states with legal same-sex marriage, and many states where same-sex adoption is even prohibited. Gays and lesbians can’t serve openly in the military, and in 31 states, LBGT people used to get fired just for being LGBT. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens make up a third of all teen suicides, the fable of the “pink dollar” deflated with reports of many LGBT-headed families living in poverty, and binational same-sex couples continue to face immigration challenges.
Yet, despite the many difficulties which LGBT people face, the past has been one of much progress, and the picture of the future of LGBT equality has changed from the improbably to the inevitable. Development is evolutionary, and with a force of LGBT activism is at its highest heights, equality can, and will, be achieved. Challenges in the next forty years will not mirror the forty of the pasts, but progress will move forward. Voices, though unified, come from different backgrounds and of a different character. The diversity within the LGBT community is perhaps more known today than it was when the first transgender street youth threw her stiletto at oppressive police. Diversity is not within the context of general society. Still, among the ranks of LGBT people, all must celebrate if we are to become a real community.
The month of June was selected for LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events take place during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world. Bisexual activist Brenda Howard is famous for the “Mother of Pride,” for her work in coordinating the first LGBT Pride march, and she also originated the idea for a week-long series of events around Pride Day which became the genesis of the annual LGBT Pride celebrations that are now held around the world every June. Additionally, Howard, along with the bisexual activist Robert A. Martin (aka Donny the Punk) and gay activist L. Craig Schoonmaker, was famously popularizing the word “Pride” to describe these festivities. Bisexual activist Tom Limoncelli later stated, “The next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why [LGBT] Pride Month is June tell them A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be.
I call upon all Americans to observe this month by fighting prejudice and discrimination in their own lives and everywhere it exists as per Proclamation 8529 by U.S President Barack Obama, May 28, 2010
Two presidents of the United States have officially declared a pride month. First, President Bill Clinton said June Gay & Lesbian Pride Month in 1999 and 2000. Then from 2009 to 2016, each year he was in office, President Barack Obama declared June LGBT Pride Month. Donald Trump became the first Republican president to acknowledge LGBT Pride Month in 2019. Still, he did so through tweeting rather than an official proclamation.
Beginning in 2012, Google displayed some LGBT-related search results with different rainbow-colored patterns each year during June. In 2017, Google also included rainbow-colored streets on Google Maps to show Gay Pride marches occurring across the world.