On a drippingly hot day two years ago, I stood in downtown D.C., watching a carnival march by. The city’s annual LGBT Pride Parade is so unlike the rest of the events that happen in Washington — it’s loud and unbuttoned and unbridled and joyful, so joyful. There’s a lot of skin and a lot of body paint and so many rainbow flags.
There are corporations marching in honor of their employees, veterans marching for the recognition they didn’t get when they served and families of every shape, size, color and combination.
Watching the event — a counterweight to the shame and stigma members of the LGBT community have historically been forced to feel — I felt a different kind of pride. I felt proud to be American, proud to be in a country where the streets of the capital can be taken over for such a beautiful display of love, proud to be in the city that is home to the nation’s highest court, which had just ruled in favor of gay marriage. Love is love is love, and in D.C. on that gelato-melting day, I felt proud to be in a country that was willing to fight for that truth.
It wasn’t always this way.
Long before the LGBT community was able to have national block parties in their honor, a few brave citizens started a movement that would eventually become Pride Month.
Beginning in 1965, a small group led by Frank Kameny held “Annual Reminders” on July 4th. These were sedate protests intended to show that not all citizens were receiving the same “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” promised in the Declaration of Independence. Kameny was a Harvard PhD who lost his job in the federal government over his homosexuality, and his protests reflected his Washington perspective: protesters dressed formally, in suits, and behaved conservatively to show that they were respectable, employable and worthy of the same opportunities as anyone else.
These early demonstrations garnered national attention after the June 1969 Stonewall Riots (a turning point in LGBT history when riots erupted in response to police raiding a gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City.) A group of Stonewall protesters took a bus to Philadelphia to join that year’s Annual Reminder, where they marched alongside the Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia and his wife. There was some tension between Kameny’s Annual Reminder group and the new, less conservative Stonewall protesters: the New Yorkers wanted to hold hands and be more outward with their sexuality than the Philadelphians were comfortable with.
A few months later, leaders of the LGBT community in New York proposed their own response to the Annual Reminders, a “demonstration to be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street…no dress or age regulations shall be made for this demonstration.” This was intentionally in stark contrast to Kameny’s suit-and-tie-and-silence approach.
They also asked all LGBT groups across the country to “hold parallel demonstrations on that day. We propose a nationwide show of support.”
Thus, Pride was born. It took a few iterations — from Annual Reminders to gay liberation to gay pride — before the event started to look like it does today. Not everyone is happy with the way the event ended up: there are critics who say Pride Month in U.S. cities has become commercialized and de-radicalized and ignores the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the LGBT community.
But for many, despite its flaws, Pride Month has become an annual reminder of how far the LGBT rights movement has come from the days of silent demonstrations.
That’s certainly what I was feeling when I stood on that street corner in D.C., wearing rainbow beads and waving a flag. Of course, for allies, it can be easy to attend the party without internalizing the struggle and advocating for continued change the other eleven months out of the year.
But one year later, I woke to the news of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — 49 dead and over 50 wounded — at a gay nightclub in Orlando. This tragedy threw cold water on the story we as a nation have been telling ourselves — that the fight is over, that a court ruling trumps discrimination, that the ugly history can be forgotten. Now, it serves as an annual reminder — smack in the middle of Pride month — of how much further we have to go.