Today is Gay Pride in Boston. This celebration marks the forty-second commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, and the forty-first Gay Pride march. The first was held in New York in 1970 and was called Christopher Street Liberation Day march. In successive years, other cities held their own Gay Pride marches, most of them on some weekend in June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. On that first march, people assembled on Washington Place and Waverly Place and then, at two o’clock, walked up Sixth Avenue to Central Park and then to the Sheep Meadow. Good accounts of this first march are in books by David Carter and by Martin Duberman.
A parade or march had never been held before, and the first organizers were very afraid no one would show up. They thought that even if only one thousand people showed up, that would still be the largest gay demonstration ever (as opposed to size of the Stonewall Riots, which were several thousand people) (Carter, p. 253). Craig Rodwell, the owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Book Shop, assumed that they would never get a thousand people to walk from the Village to Central Park. When the march started, participants were intensely afraid of violence.
There were many more people on the sidewalks than in the march, as people hung back, afraid, or unsure whether they wanted to come out publicly. Then, gradually, people stepped off the sidewalk into Sixth Avenue, joining the group in the middle of the street.
The first banner read “Christopher Street Liberation Day 1970” (Carter, p. 253). The first group, with its own banner, was the Gay Activists Alliance. They had two hundred marchers. Other participants had come from Philadelphia, from Washington, and from Baltimore. The Daughters of Bilitis, and the Mattachine Society of New York were there. The Gay Liberation Front marchers included some of the homeless street kids (Carter, p. 254). There were also groups from colleges and universities in Manhattan. In all there were about twenty identifiable groups (Carter, p. 254).
The march was fifteen blocks long by the time it reached 22nd Street (Carter, p. 254), and Carter describes how participants, when they realized how big the march was becoming, became more and more excited. Their excitement—and their joy at being out in the middle of Sixth Avenue among their gay friends—caused others to join them from the sidewalks. Apparently, as their numbers increased, they experienced a kind of euphoria—about themselves, about their community, and about what they had come to do.
The story of this first march is a thrilling one, almost as thrilling as the story of the riots themselves, and I recommend both. In reality, these are small events, even as they seemed huge to the participants, and getting to know them is to get to know a fairly small cast of characters—Craig Rodwell, Sylvia Ray Rivera, Jim Fouratt, Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, Jackie Hormona, Arthur Evans, Marty Robinson, many of whom appear not only in the histories of these events but in pictures. The identities of many others are, unfortunately, lost to history.
It is important to remember today, on Gay Pride Day, that all of this began in a successful application of violence, as gay people resisted the attacks of the New York police. And what we commemorate today, when we march, is that we fought back. We should never forget that.
David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, New York: St Martins Griffin, 2004
Martin Duberman, Stonewall, New York, A Dutton Book, 1993.