Pride: It’s an (Absolute) Riot
Anna Clingan explores the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York and how they have grown to become a global celebration of LGBTQ culture. A rich and sweeping history of the Queer Liberation Movement – she argues the legacies of fighting for LGBTQ rights is not over.
Ah, Pride. The heat of summer shining down on glowing faces, brightly coloured flags blowing in the breeze, Kylie playing from every direction, dancing from dusk till dawn in a city packed with people who truly accept each other for who they are. That’s Pride… right? Or is it more… placards and fists pumping the air, chants demanding basic human rights echoing through a mass of marchers, putting firm pressure on key stakeholders – and society at large – to take notice and make change? Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps Pride is a time of homage and tribute. An opportunity to glance back into the past. A grateful moment of reflection, allowing for a true appreciation of the sacrifice and progress that has been made to the benefit of us all.
The truth is, at its core, Pride is – and should be – all of these things at once. In varying degrees, at different times and in different places. Pride is a political movement, not a singular day.
To understand, let’s go back to the beginning: where Pride began. On the 28th June 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a small bar in New York City whose clientele included many gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming individuals, was victim to a police raid. Homosexual acts and ‘masquerading as the opposite sex’ were illegal across most of the US at the time and police raids at gay bars were common, however, after police became violent at the Stonewall Inn, its residents began to fight back. The exact breakdown of who started the resistance or ‘threw the first brick’ remains unclear, however, Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson are widely reported to have been crucial in resisting the police with force and rallying others to do so. Neither Stormé nor Marsha were people of privilege in 60’s New York; Stormé was a lesbian of colour and Marsha was a gender non-conforming* black woman. It was not those with power that began the fight for LGBT rights in peaceful protest, it was the homeless, the ‘street’ kids, and those who viewed Stonewall as their only safe haven that bravely stood up to police violence in order to take a stand. The Stonewall Riots lasted for days and are widely cited as the starting point of the modern LGBT rights movement.
Indeed, within a year of the rebellion, several queer rights groups had been established in New York City, including The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which were part of the original discussions to create the ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’. Sylvia Rivera is another gender non-conforming* person of colour who appears to have had great influence during this period, particularly through the GLF and ‘STAR’ (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which she co-founded alongside Marsha P Johnson. On the 28th June 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day marked the first anniversary of the rebellion, with attendees marching 51 blocks all the way to Central Park: the first ever Pride.
Marches and parades from São Paulo to Tel Aviv and Sydney to Madrid, are all connected through this history and to events such as those at Stonewall. This is not to say that each culture and country does not have their own rich LGBT history and story of the struggle for LGBT rights. However, in all the glitz and glamour many Pride events now offer, it must not be forgotten that the modern ‘Pride’ was born out of commemorating hard-fought battles, lead not by those in positions of power, but those on the ground who often had the least.
The battle for LGBT rights, even 50 years on from Stonewall, is far from over. Until we are all free as queer people, none of us are free, and Pride must reflect that. Same-sex activity can be a capital offense (requiring the death penalty) in Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. 68 countries still criminalize homosexuality (compared to just 30 countries and territories where gay marriage is legal). Where homosexuality is legal, there often remains laws in place that can make living openly as a queer person difficult, for example, marital laws, anti ‘gay propaganda’ laws, and a lack of equal working rights. Even without delving into the issue of love and acceptance on a local level in families, friendships, schools, churches and communities; without looking at media representation, particularly of trans people; without criticising increased mental health issues for LGBT individuals; without delving into how COVID-19 will disproportionately negatively affect LGBT people, it is still clear that queer persons across the world are not treated as equal citizens. In many places, rights are actually being rolled back, for example, trans people recently lost their right to legal recognition in Hungary.
If Pride was born to commemorate the struggles of those at Stonewall, the movement can best honour it by carrying on that legacy of rebellion. To continue the protest against power structures, laws and attitudes that marginalise LGBT people would not be to affix a new, politicised angle onto the Pride movement. Rather, it is the natural course of action for a movement that was born from a rebellion that fought back against violence towards queer people.
“If Pride was born to commemorate the struggles of those at Stonewall, the movement can best honour it by carrying on that legacy of rebellion.”
It is important, however, that queer people are afforded the opportunity to simply celebrate themselves as part of Pride. Everyone deserves the chance to breathe and feel comfortable in who they are, to gather with their loved ones (or simply likeminded community members), and have fun without fear of discrimination. This is not to say a celebratory Pride is not political. Navigating life as a queer individual has been forcibly made a politicised act for many years. Anything that celebrates queer people is, therefore, a radical act. It just happens to be a fun one.
Pride cannot be a true celebration of queerness, however, if some people feel unwelcome or unable to attend. Unfortunately, many modern large city Prides fall short of making all queer people feel welcome. From stories of queer wheelchair users having their view entirely restricted at Brighton Pride (2019) to Manchester Pride charging over £50 a ticket to attend (2019), sometimes large Pride events literally exclude certain groups of queer people from attending and enjoying the festivities. Further deterrence comes through the lack of explicit attention paid to making those welcome who feel do not fit the of the notion of the ‘acceptable’ queer person, or the cisgender gay white male – leaving people of colour, ‘straight-passing’ couples and ‘cis-passing’ individuals, to name a few, unsure if Pride is a celebratory space for them. Shameful dating app phrases such as ‘no femmes, no fats, no blacks, no asians’ are symptomatic of the wider issue that LGBTQ+ spaces cater often to the most privileged, rather than the least, directly contradicting the historic legacy of Pride. Even the culture of alcohol and drugs at Pride, within a community that disproportionately suffers with addiction, can be isolating. One party does not fit all. City Pride events need to make active efforts from their inception to be as inclusive as possible on the day, but this bottom up effort to ensure all queer people feel celebrated should also flow through bookshops and cafes, in communities, homes, relationships, workplaces and schools, as well as in the parties, the bars and in the streets.
The presence of police at Pride events, especially considering the history of Pride; the commodification of Pride through merchandise and products that give back in no way to the community; the trend of using Pride parade floats as advertising space, capturing the attention of queer people whilst again often making little internal effort to support the community within or without their walls…these are all things that too have become part and parcel of many a celebratory Pride event. Not only do these do a disservice to the commemorative aspect of Pride, where the least-privileged formed the foundation of the fight-back against police for the rights of all queer people, it creates a space that isn’t truly celebratory and welcoming in the way Pride should strive to be. In order for everyone to feel loved and accepted in who they are at a Pride event, those who wish to participate in any way (including institutions, corporations and event organisers) must place Pride’s history and the most vulnerable people within the community, at the heart of their focus and planning, rather than prioritising those who already yield power in society.
So, it seems Pride is at once a commemoration, a protest and a celebration. A commemoration of the events at the Stonewall Inn in New York 1963 and of hard-fought battles globally to secure LGBT rights. A protest demanding true equality, which is far from being achieved, in any given country or globally. But, of course, a celebration too: of the progress that has been made and of the immense, wonderful variety within a community who refuses to let society dictate who they are and who they love due to the gender they were assigned at birth.
A true conception of Pride that honours all of this must be a movement and not a singular event. An ever-evolving movement with a genuinely diverse and constantly responsive community approach, that puts those who most need it at its core. Pride is in the quiet moment a queer person can look themselves in the mirror and love who they are. Pride is in the angry marches, the parties and in the mind. Pride is in vigils, in art and in letters to politicians demanding justice. A true conception of Pride is as colourful and varied as the many flags, and indeed people, it seeks to represent. No one day, in one place, could achieve this. Yes, Pride is a movement. An inherently political, mindful, joyous, angry, radical, inclusive, celebratory, absolute riot of a movement.
“Yes, Pride is a movement. An inherently political, mindful, joyous, angry, radical, inclusive, celebratory, absolute riot of a movement.“
*Gender non-conforming is used here as an umbrella term. Many prefer to refer to both Marsha and Sylvia as transgender, as although this language was not used at the time, it seems to reflect their experience. However, varying reports say Marsha used she/her pronouns but have self-identified as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen. Likewise, Sylvia is thought to have self-identified as a drag queen. Gender non-conforming is thus used here not to erase the possibility of their transgender identity, but rather to avoid using an incorrect label.