Professor of History Marc Stein looks back at 50 years of celebration, resistance at LGBT pride parades

Marchers hold the an SF State banner and march in street

SF State students, staff and faculty marched in the 2019 San Francisco Pride parade.

The historian and author of “The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History” answers questions about the past, present and future of LGBT pride parades

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the protests against oppressive police tactics that helped mobilize and transform the gay liberation movement. That’s why 2020 marks the 50th anniversary for LGBTQ pride parades: The now-common celebrations began the year after Stonewall. To commemorate that milestone, we asked San Francisco State University Professor of History Marc Stein — author of “The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History” (NYU Press) — about the origins of the parade, how it’s advanced the gay rights movement and where the movement and parade go from here.

What are the origins of the pride parade?

The idea for “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” which is what the pride parade was originally called, first gained support at a regional LGBT movement conference held in Philadelphia in November 1969, five months after the Stonewall Riots. At that conference, radical gay liberationists argued successfully for the discontinuation of the Annual Reminder gay rights demonstrations that had taken place at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4in 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969. Conference participants agreed that instead of protesting the denial of gay rights at the birthplace of the nation on the nation’s birthday, the LGBT movement should commemorate the Stonewall uprising, when thousands of people protested in the streets of Greenwich Village after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular queer bar located on Christopher Street in New York City.

Pride parades first took place in June 1970, 50 years ago, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. In 1970, there was a small parade in Chicago, with approximately 200 people, and larger ones in New York and Los Angeles, where thousands of people participated.

In the Bay Area, LGBT activists planned a weeklong series of events to commemorate the first anniversary of Stonewall in June 1970. This included a Hippie Hill “pig roast” in Golden Gate Park on June 21, a gay liberation march from Aquatic Park to the San Francisco Civic Center on June 27 and a “gay-in” at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park on June 28. (The “pig roast,” which also featured bacon sandwiches, was meant to criticize police harassment.) Media reports indicated that 20 to 30 people participated in the march and 200 attended the gay-in, but local police raided the latter and arrested seven people.

In 1971, 1972 and 1973, the number of pride parades around the country and around the world exploded. San Francisco’s first major gay pride parade took place in 1972; estimates of the number of participants ranged from 2,000 to 8,000.

How has the parade been a vehicle for social change?

The pride parades have created opportunities for LGBT communities to come together, showcase their strength and promote queer visibility. They also have been vehicles for movement building and coalition building.

Over the last 50 years, multiple LGBT political issues have come to the fore at pride parades. Sometimes the pride parades have focused on police abuse, military exclusion, state violence and government discrimination. At other times, pride participants have prioritized family issues, including parenting rights, reproductive justice and same-sex marriage; religious inclusion; media representations; and educational reform. For many years, AIDS activists were distinctly prominent in pride events.

It seems like the parade has gone from an act of resistance to more of a celebration. Can you talk about how that shift happened?

Pride parades have always combined celebration with resistance, but it’s true that the balance between those elements has changed over time. In the early years, parade organizers often had to struggle with city authorities for parade permits, police harassment was an ever-present risk and there were strong living memories of the Stonewall uprising.

In the last two decades, the balance has tilted more toward celebration, with corporate-sponsored floats, parties and performances; large numbers of straight spectators; and an emphasis on joy, pleasure and fun.

But we shouldn’t exaggerate these changes. In the early years, many pride parades emphasized queer joys and pleasures. And in later years, there have been moments when queer resistance again became prominent at pride parades — that was certainly the case when ACT UP and Queer Nation were active in the 1980s and 1990s; when lesbians, trans people and people of color have challenged inequality and injustice; and when Black Lives Matter politics and Palestinian solidarity activism have come to the fore.

What is the future of the LGBT rights movement and how is the parade a part of that?

I’m responding to this question literally hours after the U.S. Supreme Court announced a major decision in favor of LGBT rights and against gender and sexual discrimination in the workplace. But I’m also responding in the context of the Trump administration’s and the Republican Party’s attacks on the rights of people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities, poor people, women and LGBT people.

In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, most pride events in 2020 have been canceled or moved online and the United States faces new and old questions about what kind of country we want to be. Our actions in the coming days, weeks, months and years will help determine whether and how 2020 will be commemorated in the future.

Marc Stein is also the author of "City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia,1945-1972" (University of Chicago Press, 2000); "Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe" (University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and "Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement" (Routledge 2012). His next book, "Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism," will be published by the University of California Press next year.

For years, SF State students, faculty and staff have marched together in San Francisco’s pride parade. This year, the University will participate in the city’s virtual celebration. Throughout the month of June, pride-related content will be posted on the @lifeatsfstate Instagram account and on the Division of Student Life website.

Want to learn more about the history of the city’s pride parade? SF State Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies Amy Sueyoshi is co-curator of an online retrospective of the first 10 years of gay pride festivities in San Francisco for the GLBT Historical Society.