The Social Memory of Pride

With Pride month coming up in a couple of weeks we will likely still be stuck inside. A medical crisis is surely nothing we haven’t weathered before, so let’s take this time to delve into our history and culture and really understand where Pride came from, how it got to where it is today, and where it could go. I wrote this short piece about the Social Memory of Pride for a “heritage professionals” class I took and I thought it deserved life outside of that course.

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Pride parades began in the wake of the politically instigated Stonewall Riot.  Initially situated as a political movement recognizing the success of queer activists, specifically the black and trans initiators of the riot, Pride has transformed into a celebration of the successes of LGBT acceptance in the modern world.  While there have been positive movements that have gained limited rights for some gay and lesbian Americans, there are critical critiques of the pivot from activism to celebration.  Throughout this paper I will address the histories of both the Stonewall Riot and Pride, additionally I will discuss the contested memories and narratives that encompass these two divergent facets of queer memory and how we can approach these tensions as heritage professionals.

The Stonewall Riot occurred on June 19th, 1969; an instance of the queer community defending itself against the raids and harassment by police that were common at the time.  Police raided the Stonewall Inn, a location known to be queer friendly, and began arresting and harassing the patrons.  A riot broke out when rumors surfaced that the police were beating individuals they had detained.  This resistance was led by queer homeless youth and transgender, including prominent trans woment of color. The riots last for hours with increasing violence and aggression between protestors and police.  Tensions rose to such heights that the next night held an equally brutal riot between the same queers and police antagonists.   The riot was an inherently political act, an act of resistance, and a spark in the queer rights movements.  The riot was also inherently inclusive; the leaders and the structure of the resistance was taken up by queers regardless of racial, wealth, or gender privileges.  Later that year, an annual march was planned to be held in New York City on the last Saturday in June “to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street [the location of the Stonewall Inn]” (Kohler 2019).

The first pride parade, also known as Christopher Street Liberation Day, was held the following year: June, 1970.  It was organized by activists involved in the Stonewall Riot and planned to work with other “Homophile organizations” across the United States to hold joint demonstrations.  Older conservative lesbian and gay rights organizations resisted this activism.  Three pride parades occurred across the United States in 1970 and the number of cities involved began to rapidly expand.  Pride is now celebrated in every state and across the globe.  Recently there have been contentions about the direction and purpose of pride celebrations.  Pride has been criticised for excluding gender non conforming, poc, and other marginalized groups from their agenda.  Pride, as well as many visible LGBT organizations, has been criticized for repeated concessions of neoliberalism and capitalist agenda in their celebrations and outreach.  During the AIDs crisis of the 1980’s, there was a shift from the radical queer activism that emerged from the riots to a neoliberal drive that worked within current institutions (Spade 2015).  The advent of large organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the sad reality of the AIDs crisis claiming many lives of the original activists, led to less radical and politically motivated leaders within the movement.  The fight for Gay Liberation and Freedom slowly changed to the celebration of Gay Pride (Kohler 2019).

Looking at Pride today, some might miss the activist origins of the celebratory parade.  Rainbows are plastered on anything you can buy and every business in NYC is “Pro-Equality” for the weekend.  President Obama designated June as National Pride Month and now you can purchase rainbows for a whole month.  Some organizers now consider police protection at events as a positive – a far cry from the activists fighting for their lives against the police with their only refuge a mob owned bar.  Many activists have questioned the current state of “Pride” and queer activism today (Johnson 2018).  Original activists fighting for liberation from the structural inequalities facing them would likely be disappointed with the assimilationist tendencies that have plagued LGBT activism for the last few decades.  Recently some organizations have resisted the capitalist assimilationist version of “Pride” and have created transformative radical queer activist celebrations instead.  Elizabeth Currans explores two such marches in her 2012 article “Claiming Deviance and Honoring Community.”  In her analysis we see two distinctly different marches created by radical queers.  The first march is the NYC Dyke March which is an intentional performance of deviance to transgress heterosexual norms.  In response to the corporatization of Pride, members of the dyke march defy norms and expectations by performing unexpected sexualized and gendered actions in public.  In contrast, Steppin’ in Pride is a spiritual march and gathering to bring together community awareness and strength.  Steppin’ in Pride seeks to move away from the neoliberal and globalized whitewashing of Pride to focus on community action and strength.  Both of these movements resist the assimilation of queer activism and resist the rut of popularity that Pride Parades are falling into.

Pride started as a remembrance of a queer rebellion against police oppression.  Over time queer activists were able to gain space and rights for their communities.  The AIDS crisis left a void in the community which allowed for the movement to be transformed into upholding institutions it formerly opposed.  This leads us to the popular presentation of Pride Parades today.  But recently there has been resistance to this imagery, and some queer activists are working to bring radical queer activism back into the heart of the June marches.

Currans, Elizabeth.

    2012    Claiming Deviance and Honoring Community: Creating Resistant Spaces in U.S. Dyke Marches. Feminist Formations 24(1): 73-101.

Kohler, Will. 

    2019    Gay History 101 – The First Christopher Street Liberation Day (PRIDE) March. Electronic document, http://www.back2stonewall.com/2019/03/june-28-1970-first-gay-liberation-day-march-rare-video.html, accessed March 20, 2020.

Johnson, Fenton.

    2018.    The Future of Queer: A Manifesto. Harper’s Magazine. January 2018.

Spade, Dean.

    2015.    Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Duke University Press, Durham.

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