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    ‘The First Pride Was a Riot’: Snappy Catchphrase but Inaccurate

    By Marsha Levine–

    It’s June and rainbow paraphernalia is popping up everywhere, with references to “all the colors” and friends of Dorothy. Our world is awash with pink and lavender sloganism. It’s become more of a marketing hook than a rallying cry when buttons, banners, and flyers claim, “The first Pride was a riot!”

    But was it?

    Though a snappy catchphrase, it is hardly accurate. The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 was indeed an aggressive reaction by our communities to the frequent police harassment of the patrons at queer bars, among them, the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. But “Pride celebrations” as we have come to know them today in the United States did not first occur until one year later. The marches and rallies, parades and festivals, dances and picnics that followed in 1970 and since have largely been commemorations of that historic fighting back, as we stood up for ourselves and our demand for our rights. They are an annual reminder to all of society that we’re here, we’re visible, and you cannot ignore us.

    Some have put a call out that they want to “take Pride back to its roots,” yet so few actually know what Pride roots are in their cities. Such was my experience a few years back, when I started to do a bit of research into San Francisco Pride’s own history. In preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration, I found a lot of ephemera I had never seen before. Thanks to the SF Chronicle/SF Gate’s massive archive, and historians Gerard Koskovich and Amy Sueyoshi at the GLBT Historical Society and Museum, with Don Romesburg of Sonoma State, this information is no longer buried. (Their curated show from 2020, Labor of Love: The Birth of San Francisco Pride, 1970–1980, is still available to view online.)

    While I will caveat that this evolution is very much American-based, outside our borders the beginnings of Pride were often borne out of and/or encompassed violence and riots, none of which have anything to do with Stonewall. Homophobic nations, in particular, have had bloody clashes. Yes, those were riots.

    But our documentation cites that Chicago and San Francisco were the first to hold Pride events on Saturday, June 27, 1970, with Los Angeles and New York following suit on Sunday, June 28. Here, about twenty to thirty hippies and “hair fairies” marched peacefully from Aquatic Park to Civic Center by way of Polk Street. There were no angry protests along the way: no stages, no speakers or music and performers when they got to their destination. Then the marchers broke off into smaller groups and headed to various bars, to go dance together, as same-sex dancing was frowned upon back then. There’s your protest! The next day, 200 or so people showed up at the Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park for a peaceful “gay-in” until equestrian police and Honda cops shut it down. A number of people were detained for several hours at the Park District Station before being released without charge. The incident led one of the organizers, Leo Laurence, to say, “If they continue to persecute minorities like ours, we have no choice but armed revolution.”

    There was no subsequent Parade in 1971, but I’ve heard a large picnic took place that last weekend in June, also in Golden Gate Park, to mark the anniversary of Stonewall.

    Christopher Street West, as it was then known, provided the city with its first official Pride Parade in 1972, the route extending along Market Street from Montgomery Street to Civic Center. Estimates say that about 15,000 people came out to see 2,000 marchers with elaborate floats, horseback riders, marching bands, choruses, and drag queens decked out in finery. Speeches from the stage and comments from the crowd denounced Mayor Joseph Alioto for not proclaiming the day as “Gay Liberation Day.”

    Renamed the Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1973, the SF Pride Parade took another route, this time starting at Sansome and Post Streets, culminating at Lafayette Park in Pacific Heights. Again, the mood of the day was a celebratory commemoration of our movement’s desire to be out, loud, and proud, honoring the memory of the patrons who fought back.

    And on it went every year. Our Pride continued to feature banners and signs calling for an end to discrimination, stop the war, and demand equality; all amid the floats, balloons, colorful costumes, music, and at one point, an elephant ridden by Empress Doris X of the Imperial Court.

    Each subsequent Pride event grew larger with every passing year, more politics showing up in the signs carried and from speakers on the Main Stage due to challenges presented by Anita Bryant, the Briggs Initiative, the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the AIDS Crisis … all helped swell both participants and bystanders. Journalists and those present at the time remember it as a stunning spectacle of display that it remains today—full of people who are proud, peaceful, and progressive.

    SF Pride’s Parade has remained somewhat true to its beginnings as recorded historically, a uniting of celebration and reminders of the fight we continue. You’ll still find dynamic speakers on the Main Stage addressing key issues and calling for action. We’ve had somber Prides when we’ve mourned the devastating loss of men due to a horrific virus, and joyous times, like when the SCOTUS decision regarding same-sex marriage came down the day preceding our two-day celebration.

    So, when people say they want to return to the start and reclaim SF Pride’s roots, maybe let’s remember the nature of the small, simple garden we planted 52 years ago and realize that our nurturing care, with the community’s support, has encouraged it to grow into an inclusive event for everyone. No longer does the narrow lens of the past focus only on the few. This year, as in recent years, we’re centering Black, Brown, and Transgendered—which was so long overdue. Together we are the movement changing our future.

    For More Information

    Labor of Love: The Birth of San Francisco Pride, 1970-1980

    GLBT Historical Society


    Marsha H. Levine is a 42-year Pride veteran, Founder of InterPride (a 40-year-old international organization for LGBTQI+ Pride organizers) as well as one of their Vice Presidents of Global Outreach and Partnership Management. She also serves as the Co-President of the United States Association of Prides and is currently employed by San Francisco Pride, which she has consistently been involved with for 37 years, as their Community Relations Manager.

    Published on June 9, 2022