These colorful images represent a fun summer party to some, while others see the images as proof that homosexuality is indecent and immoral. In fact, these images are controversial even within the gay community, as more conservative folk dislike and even resent the more salacious images projected to the world.
What Gay Pride represents can often be lost in the roar of motorcycles and the thumping of club music pounding from floats. In fact, the most telling representations might just be in the somewhat nondescript participants in every Pride event throughout America. Today you will find various churches, public officials and a variety of unlikely supporters marching in the nation's Pride Parades.
During San Diego's Pride Parade, the whistles and cheers come to a still quiet when one group marches down University Avenue. And every year, it can only mean one thing--PFLAG is coming down the street. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is often comprised of senior citizens in t-shirts and knee-length shorts, looking like they're getting ready for a day of gardening or sightseeing.
Instead, they hold up signs that express love for a gay child. Messages on colored posterboard say things like "My gay son Rob means the world to me!" This tribute always quiets the party atmosphere as spectators choke back tears and clap enthusiastically.
The respectful silence is a quiet acknowledgement of the many participants who have been shunned by their own families after coming out. And it is telling that for the thousands of parade participants and spectators, only a very small fraction of these parents are present.
This type of public support for the gay community would have been unthinkable were it not for the event alternately called the Stonewall Rebellion, or Stonewall Riots. Like every quest for civil rights in the United States, the build-up to Stonewall stemmed from the often shocking and bizarre mistreatment of a group of people.
As gay establishments quietly operated in cities across the nation, police conducted regular raids. Simply being on site was justifiable cause for police to fingerprint, photograph, and often publish this information in local newspapers. In New York City at the time, a bar could have its liquor license revoked for "knowingly serving three or more homosexuals at a time."
During the early hours of June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. While patrons were used to such raids and typically allowed police to hustle them into paddywagons, this time they resisted arrest. Police were outnumbered as the crowd hurled stones and bottles, and officers eventually locked themselves into the Stonewall Inn itself.
As police called for the riot squad--which had previously been trained to squelch Vietnam protests--Stonewall Inn patrons used a parking meter as a battering ram in an attempt to re-enter the bar, and some even tried to set the club on fire. Word quickly spread through the neighborhood and Village locals came to join the rebellion. (Yes, I know...this spot is prime for an "angry Villagers" joke, but I'll withhold out of respect.)
Several hours later, the riot police had beaten, arrested, and dispersed the crowd. But many Christopher Street locals returned for the next several evenings in open defiance to the city and police, with similar results. In all, the Stonewall Rebellion would last for five nights.
While gay activism was not borne out of the Stonewall Rebellion, it certainly catalyzed the movement. A dam had burst and gays and lesbians refused to live by a different set of societal rules any longer. Some historical accounts say that flyers were circulated later in the summer to organize activists. It read "Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!"
The following year, the Gay Liberation Front organized a march to be held on June 28 to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion. That same weekend, organizers in San Francisco held a "Gay-In," while activists in Los Angeles marched in support of Stonewall as well.
To commemorate the 30th anniverary of the rebellion, the Stonewall Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Around the 35th anniversary of Stonewall, some officers on the scene that first night broke their silence and spoke about the events. One policeman called Stonewall the "Gay Alamo," and told the NY Blade that "he likes people who will fight back for themselves, and that night was the first time he saw gay people fight back."
The Pride Parades are about much more than feather boas and flamboyance. Nearly forty years later, the fact that our country heatedly debates topics such as gay marriage is both exasperating yet shows how far tolerance has come since the nights of the Stonewall Rebellion.
If your only exposure to Gay Pride is a brief video clip on your local news, I hope the quickie history lesson gives you a better context of the festivities. And to my friends who are celebrating this month, Happy Gay Day.