The Radical and Dirty History of Pride
At The New Feminist we are celebrating Pride at its origins, as a protest. This article is the first of a collection with this theme.
Every year, in June and over the rest of summer, millions of people around the world gather to celebrate Pride. Cities across the country are adorned with colourful parades, performances and parties. Gay police officers will march in uniform, Absolut Vodka and Converse will release their limited-edition rainbow collection and corporate sponsors will flood in to profess their support for LGBTQ+ rights.
For the LGBTQ+ community, Pride is important in honouring and acknowledging our history, promoting visibility and celebrating our achievements in the fight for equality and justice. Pride was first established as active resistance against capitalist societies that favour binary, normalised identities. It grew through the radical reimagining of an alternative way of life that celebrates queerness.
Pride was organised not with the aim of assimilation into the mainstream, but rather, as a radical rejection of heterosexual, patriarchal societies built on the exclusion of certain identities through hierarchical, oppressive institutions and violent regimes. It is ironic, then, that as Pride has evolved, so has the commercialisation of Pride within neoliberal, capitalist societies.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 (& what preceded it)
Joan Nestle called the Stonewall Inn riots “a coming together of historical forces refusing to endure discrimination”. On June 28th, 1969, at The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, a mafia-owned gay bar where the LGBTQ+ community could gather to drink and dance, the police (who had the right to persecute LGBTQ+ folk due to existing laws at the time) raided the Stonewall Inn, in attempt to arrest gay men, lesbians, queer folk and queens.
Although we are unsure exactly what happened at the Inn that night, we do know that this time, they fought back. Attracting masses of people, it began a riot that lasted throughout the night, with thousand returning the following days.
“I’m not missing a minute of this. It’s the revolution!”cried Sylvia Rivera, the Latina drag queen in the midst of the Stonewall Riots.
Trans folk, people of colour and those oppressed along multiple intersections of their identity face disproportionate exclusion from the narrative around LGBTQ+ history, despite being the catalyst of their progression. Too often forgotten, the Stonewall Riots were organised and led by Black and Brown drag queens and transgender individuals. After being involved in the radical acts of resistance and protests organised by the Gay Liberation Front, Sylvia Rivera, along with the African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson, founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an activist organisation for trans and gender non-conforming individuals who were sex workers and homeless.
But what preceded it?
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 were not the beginning of the gay rights movement in America, despite it dominating the mainstream LGBTQ+ narrative. Before this, there were many protests and riots in response to police brutality and harassment against the LGBTQ+ community, one most notably is Compton’s Cafeteria’s riot in San Francisco, August 1966, organised by trans folk and drag queens.
All of these protests proudly resist a capitalist, heteronormative society that rejects queerness. These monumentally influential riots catapulted more radical protests for queer liberation and coalition building LGBTQ+ rights, contrasting the tone of previously held marches such as the Annual Reminder Day that was held from 1965-69. This included a strict and conventional dress code (suits for men, dresses for women) with the aim to assimilate and unify themselves into society.
Christopher Street Liberation Day (1970)
With their newfound mobilisation and passion for justice, LGBTQ+ organisations put together the Christopher Street Liberation Day on the Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, June 28th, 1970, a protest which saw queer people march loud and proud. This came to be known as the first ever Gay Pride Parade. The American bisexual grassroots activist Brenda Howard, often known as ‘The Mother of Pride’, pioneered this event, evolving into the USA annual marches (particularly within New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago) which then quickly grew internationally. The first Gay Pride in London was held on the 1st of July 1972, now taking place annually with a total of 1.5 million attending Gay Pride Parade 2019.
The Rebel Dykes (1980 – Onwards)
The Rebel Dykes were a young punk group of lesbians living as squatters in 1980s London. These young women were heavily involved in the political activism of the 1980s, fighting on the streets for LGBTQ+ marginalised communities’ rights, including Section 28, ACT UP and OUTRAGE. In the brilliant and informative podcast Call Me Mother, host Shon Faye interviews Siobhan Fahey, the LGBTQ+ trailblazer. Part of the lesbian punk collective, Fahey remembers “the freedom you feel as an activist when the streets are your own, and you have the world at your feet”.
Kink, BDSM and leather were an important part of how the Rebel Dyke’s embraced their queer identities. For the Rebel Dykes, this aesthetic was not exclusive to sex as a cis-hetereonormative society had assumed it to be, and rather, was another means of expressing resistance to the status quo. Fahey reflects on how young queer dyke rebellious women were often systematically excluded from feminist and LGBTQ+ communities due to the aesthetic they were known to show up in. She reflects on the “judgemental brand of feminism that was very excluding if they thought you were the wrong kind of lesbian” that she experienced against her community at the time: “it felt like we had to fight for every inch of space”.
Where to go from here?
Pride today is still under the guise of White Capitalism, brief corporate statements and temporary rainbow merchandise that offer a rainbow-washed narrative of progress. Co-opted by corporations and governments, Pride often conceals the less ‘palatable’ organising of Black, trans and working-class queer folk that looks beyond assimilation and has shaped how queerness is understood today.
From prejudice to Pride, LGBTQ+ activists and allies will continue to fight against a shame-ridden society that systematically excludes non-conformist sexuality. Pride began as a protest against societies that normalise police brutality in the political fight for a better future.
Celebrations of Pride can only truly be joyous if they recognise the non-hierarchical, solidarity building that was grounded in the evolution of Pride. As Shon Faye says, “It is only through solidarity, compassion and radical reimagining that we can build a more just and joyful world for all of us.”