by Lisa A. Eramo, photos: The History Project [THP] www.historyproject.org
Long before equal marriage and corporate sponsorships, courageous homosexuals braved derision, marching for rights in a hostile society; 40 years after Boston’s first commemoration of the Stonewall riots some in the community wonder why bother
Dale Mitchell, 61, of Jamaica Plain, says he can clearly recall the Stonewall Riots that took place in Greenwich Village—a neighborhood of New City—on June 28, 1969.
“It was totally mind blowing. It was a spontaneous reaction to what in those days was a very typical occurrence—a police raid on a gay bar,” he says.
Mitchell and his then lover had been walking down the street when he says they stumbled on what appeared to be a contentious brawl between the police and patrons of the Stonewall Inn.
“There were a few participants and a lot of observers with lots of shouting going on. I remember shouting at a hustler who had a big rock in this hand. I said, ‘Throw it through the window of The Village Voice!’” At the time, the newspaper had refused to print the word “gay,” he says.
When the riots continued during a second night, Mitchell says he knew this would likely be a turning point in LGBT history.
“You got a sense that what happened that first night wasn’t an anomaly. Something significant was happening, and maybe we were finally going to be standing up for ourselves,” he says.
The Stonewall Riots did, in fact, signify a turning point; however, Pride was a new concept then that had only begun to emerge. The Pride “marches”—as they were termed—that took place in major cities nationwide immediately following the Stonewall Riots were of steadfast political protest.
Four decades later in Boston, and nationwide, massive Pride celebrations draw hoards of people with booming music, beaming crowds, and beautified floats—all of which are a far cry from the days of Stonewall.
As the LGBT movement progresses, some wonder how relevant Pride still is. Is Pride as important today as it was in 1970? How has the meaning of Pride evolved? Now that many LGBT rights have been won, does Pride even matter anymore?
Even as these questions are repeatedly raised, Boston Pride continues to grow in numbers, attracting vendors, politicians, church groups, corporate sponsors, and more.
Early Hostility on the Sidelines
“In the beginning, [Pride] was about the movement. The movement, itself, was the reason to be there,” says Jim Campbell, 64, of the early Boston Pride marches. “It was about power in numbers. We really wanted people to march, and we were one large unit then.”
Campbell, of Beacon Hill, says he initially marched every year because he felt it was important to make a political statement.
Boston’s first gay demonstration took place in April 1970. During the event, a 20-person contingent marched from Cambridge Common to a rally on the Boston Common as part of a Vietnam War protest. That summer, Boston also hosted a weeklong series of events to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Stonewall.
One year later, on June 26, 1971, Boston held its first official gay Pride march. This highly political event was preceded by a week of workshops on various issues affecting the emerging gay community, such as coming out and gay spirituality.
The 1971 march route’s major stops included the Bay Village bar Jacques, the Boston police headquarters on Berkeley Street, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Tremont Street, and the State House on Beacon Hill—at which various speakers would rouse the crowd with political speeches.
Libby Bouvier, 62, of Cambridge, says she recalls early marches where teachers marched with paper bags over their heads to conceal their identities.
“There was a good bit of sideline hostility, and you didn’t quite know if you’d be assaulted as well as insulted,” says Brad Gregory, 64, of Roxbury, referring to the 1974 march.
This was a time when the Boston police were still raiding gay bars, says Campbell.
He says he recalls the police raiding the Eagle—a popular gay bar—and handcuffing anyone who wasn’t carrying an ID.
“They’d all be handcuffed together in plastic cuffs in one big line going out the door to the police station across the street,” he says.
The early parades were ones in which antagonism between the police and gay community was apparent, says Campbell.
“I can remember a bunch of police officers spitting on people who commented to them. They weren’t shy about it. They’d say ‘Get back in line faggot!’ he recalls.
At the time, many gay men who were assaulted in Boston’s Victory Gardens—a cruising spot within walking distance of several area gay bars—didn’t even feel comfortable reporting the assault to police officers for fear of further judgment, says Javier Pagan, LGBT liaison to the Boston Police Department.
Pagan’s liaison role, which focuses on advocating for the community and helping members file police reports, didn’t come into existence until the late 1980s, says Pagan, who took over the position in 2001.
Pride marches throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s continued to have a highly political undertone. In 1977, the event drew 7,000 people protesting Anita Bryant’s anti-gay rhetoric.
Topics addressed during the 1982 rally included the firing of Christian Science Monitor reporter Chris Madsen when her employers discovered she was a lesbian, as well as the signing of an executive order by Mayor Kevin White to prohibit discrimination by the city of Boston on the basis of sexual orientation.
By 1983 the AIDS epidemic moved to the forefront, and Pride began to center around unity in fighting the disease, says Gregory.
“We were literally fighting for our lives, and it engendered a whole lot of urgency and community solidarity,” he says.
Those who participated in the early marches were at risk of being judged by family, friends, and coworkers, says Genny Beemyn, Ph.D., director of the Stonewall Center at UMass Amherst.
“It was a personal risk to put yourself out there, to march in the event, and to argue for a minority that was pretty widely maligned and despised in this country,” Beemyn says. “It was very much something people did as an act of conscience.”
During the late 1980s things on the political front seemed to be quelled, says Gregory.
“Boston and other cities finally passed gay rights and anti-discrimination legislation, and the political and civil rights struggle seemed to have reached a watershed,” he says. “We felt more included in the policy politic and more enfranchised. I think that’s when Pride became less angry and activist and more celebratory.”
From Protest to Celebration
Pride’s movement toward celebration—and somewhat away from its activism roots—is what has troubled some members of the community who urge that Pride and advocacy for LGBT rights are still very relevant today.
Pride shouldn’t be taken for granted, says Campbell. “We’ve seen where you kind of let it go for a while because you think everything is all right, and it isn’t. It’s just hiding,” he says. “People of color learned that lesson as well. There were great laws enacted, but there were still people who skirted the laws and pushed it underground. I don’t want that to happen in our movement.”
“We have to carry the banner here for folks out in other parts of the country and the rest of the world who are still disenfranchised and being murdered for being gay,” says Gregory. “There are still kids killing themselves in small towns because they think there’s something wrong with them. We have to show them another reality.”
Others agree that over time, Pride’s original message seems to have been lost.
“I think a movement tends to start out very radical and very much rooted in protest,” says Mitchell, recalling the days of Stonewall. “As it succeeds, it becomes more institutionalized, and the groups become more assimilated. Through that assimilation, people lose touch with their origins and their pasts.”
Bet Power, of the Sexual Minorities Archives in Northampton, says this loss of origin and lack of political focus at Pride is detrimental to the entire community.
“We have so many rights and protections still to achieve that Prides seem to me to be missing the mark. They could harness all that power into making a true protest movement happen again on a regular, annual basis all across the country,” he says.
“I find the parades to be very unsatisfying and meaningless essentially,” says Mitchell, who admits that he rarely attends the Pride events anymore. “It’s the celebration that turns out the numbers. I know that people want to feel good, and it’s important for all of us to feel good about ourselves…but we’re also strong to the extent that we eradicate specific elements of our oppression and discrimination, and I miss that.”
Big Crowds, Big Money, Low Crime, Big Fun
The question of Pride’s relevance is certainly an interesting one, particularly in light of the record number of Boston Pride attendees that continues to grow each year despite the parade’s lack of a political agenda.
In 2009, an estimated 800,000 people attended the parade, more than 100 vendors sold their wares in the post-parade exhibit area, and 125 groups marched. The price tag for hosting the weeklong event—which continues to remain entirely free to the public—is nearly $170,000.
Despite its cost, the event has become a money-maker for the city of Boston, particularly as people flock to the area specifically to attend one or more of the festivities, says Keri Aulita, deputy director of the Boston Pride Committee.
Aulita, who has helped plan the last ten Boston Prides, says the committee will be engaging in an economic study next year to determine the exact impact of the festivities.
“The city knows it’s huge, and the state knows it’s huge. But we are really going to be looking at quantifying it over the next year or two,” she adds.
Despite the growth in the number of attendees, the Boston Pride parade continues to remain safe and non-violent, says Pagan. Of all of Boston’s major parades and festivals—the Caribbean Festival, the Dorchester Day Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and Boston Pride—the fewest officers staff Pride, he adds.
“Other parades in the city require more officers due to higher incidents of violence,” says Pagan. “We have been lucky that our presence is strictly for traffic and crowd control when the parade is moving.”
With such a high-profile and highly-attended event comes marketing opportunities. Corporate sponsors seeking to cash in on the buying power of the LGBT community and show their support of LGBT rights have seized the opportunity to advertise their services during Boston Pride festivities.
“We visibly want to support the community and let you know that your business is welcome here,” says Steven F. Young, senior vice president of Wainwright Bank. Wainwright Bank, which has a long history of supporting the LGBT community, has been sponsoring Boston Pride since 1993.
Young says that when the bank first decided to sponsor the event, it was a bold step, but a step that the bank’s cofounder Bob Glassman—a philanthropist and advocate for civil liberties and social justice issues—felt was absolutely necessary.
“In the years that followed, there was a quiet curiosity even from the largest banks like Fleet and Bank Boston,” says Young. “We would casually get phone calls from senior vice presidents at those banks saying ‘How’s that outreach going for you? Have you had any backlash?’ We said, ‘No, we’re attracting all types of new customers, and it’s great!’ Within a few years, you saw Bank Boston and Fleet starting to sponsor the event.”
Another unmistakable difference between today’s parade and the early marches is the participation of politicians, says Aulita. “The mayor marches every year even when it rains. The city welcomes us. It wants our event to go off without a hitch. When you have a city behind you saying this is important, they really are our allies. That wasn’t the case forty years ago,” she says.
Mayor Thomas Menino stresses the importance of his marching in the parade each year. “It’s important for me to march in the Pride event and be visible in the LGBT community year round because I am the mayor of all Boston residents,” he says. “Here in Boston, while we take great pride in our diversity, we have an even greater pride in our strong sense of community, and that is something that I am tremendously proud of as mayor. I have always been and will continue to be the mayor of all Bostonians, and I think marching shows that.”
Beyond One Big Pride
In some ways, the movement has become more powerful over time, says Aulita. Subsets of the LGBT community have asserted their own identities through Youth Pride, the Dyke March, and Latino Pride, which highlights the diversity and stratification of the movement, she adds.
This diversification of Pride has added to its importance and relevance, says Wilfred Labiosa, regional director for Unid@s, a national Latina/o LGBT human rights organization.
“In the past, [Pride] had one theme—equal rights. Now, it’s also about adoption rights, immigration reform—there are so many topics. We are more people carrying multiple messages,” he adds.
Labiosa—along with several other individuals—started the weeklong Latino Pride in 2004. He says the event, now sponsored by Somos Latin@s LGBT Coalition, is still very relevant and continues to raise awareness of immigration reform and other challenges that members of the Latino LGBT community face.
Similarly, Youth Pride, which held its first march in 1995, addresses issues specific to the LGBT youth population, such as coming out at a young age, having access to health-related resources, connecting with other youth, and learning about post-secondary education at LGBT-friendly schools and universities, says Lex Thomas, spokesperson for Youth Pride.
LGBT youth in communities of color, ethnic communities, or those in rural areas void of gay-straight alliances or community support groups may face particular challenges in coming out, says Thomas.
“Our goal is to make LGBT youth feel like part of a community rather than isolated or at risk,” she adds.
Youth Pride also aims to ensure that LGBT youth reflect back on the movement’s longtime history. The event’s theme in 2009 was “Generation Y,” which not only highlighted the average age of Youth Pride’s attendees but also addressed the question of why more LGBT rights have yet to be won, inspiring youth to take on these challenges over time.
There are a lot of nuances that the mainstream Boston Pride event sometimes glosses over, says Jo Trigilio, long-term member of the Dyke March Organizing Committee.
“There are lot of different identities under the big [LGBT] umbrella, and the needs differ greatly,” says Trigilio. “I think that women have at the very least gender oppression and sexual orientation oppression.”
The first Dyke March in Boston took place in 1993 in response to what many women perceived as a male-centered Pride event, says Trigilio. “Lesbians felt that Gay Pride was very male-focused and that the rights and needs of lesbians and bisexual women needed to be addressed more directly,” she adds.
Today, the Dyke March, which is often seen as a non-commercial, fundamentally grass-roots alternative to Boston’s Pride celebration, continues to draw several thousand attendees, says Trigilio.
In general, the concept of Pride as well as the Boston Pride parade itself seems to have become more focused on enabling social connections rather than to driving a political agenda, says Andrew Elder, operations coordinator for The History Project. Over time, The History Project—which chronicles the progression of Boston’s LGBT movement—has also widened its own focus to include the history of LGBT social and other groups, says Elder.
The Stonewall Center’s Beemyn has noticed a similar progression toward a focus on social connections. The Stonewall Center, which was traditionally viewed mostly as an LGBT resource and educational center, has increasingly become involved in planning social events for LGBT students on campus, says Beemyn.
Although the center’s name alludes to the infamous Stonewall riots, Beemyn says over time, fewer and fewer students recognize this significance.
“I like the fact that we have a name that’s not tied to a particular identity, but instead to a historic event,” Beemyn says. “At the same time, that event is becoming farther and farther removed from peoples’ minds. People are less and less aware of exactly what Stonewall was. As time goes on, it’s difficult to have it as our name because it’s lost on younger people.”
The fact that today’s LGBT youth didn’t live through specific historical events doesn’t negate their interest in political issues and the history of the movement, says Daunasia Yancey, 17, of Boston.
“In general, youth aren’t expected to have a voice or want to participate in political conversations,” she says.
Yancey, who serves as a senior peer leader for the Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual & Transgender Youth (BAGLY), says the organization does a good job at exposing youth to politics and encouraging them to share their opinions.
She says she wishes the Boston Pride event would be more inclusive of youth and focus on the issues that affect them, such as drug addiction, lack of funding for LGBT youth programs, youth suicide, harassment and bullying in schools, and homelessness.
Juggling each of these agendas and specific needs of the ever-growing diverse LGBT community will continue to challenge the organizers of the Boston Pride event, says Aulita. However, although the movement has changed over time—and will continue to do so in the future—the political message is still very much alive, she adds.
This June, the Boston Pride Committee will celebrate its 40th anniversary, and the theme of the event will be “Riots to Rights: Celebrating 40 Years of Progress.”
“It really speaks to what people are thinking,” says Aulita. For the past three years, Boston Pride allowed the community to vote on the theme through its Web site. “Most of the responses we got were about progress and fighting and equality,” she adds.
Aulita says her position—new this year, and the first full-time paid position of its kind for Boston Pride—is testament to the fact that the organization plans an increased focus on growing the event and returning it to its original roots as much as possible.
“To be honest, there’s no way we can plan a parade for hundreds of thousands of people and keep it the way it was forty years ago,” she says. “The costs are exorbitant. When you have 400 people walking down the street, you can do it without a permit or insurance. But we continue to try and find ways to remain grassroots and keep that message alive.”
In June 2010, the Boston Pride Committee plans to host a free rally which will focus on four decades of progress and the challenges that still lie ahead. The event will include local and national speakers, guests, and community activists.
The Future Of Pride
As the LGBT movement continues to progress, the Boston Pride Committee and its annual Pride event will continue to evolve as well, says Aulita. What that will exactly look like is still unknown, although she says the organization and Pride event will “continue to stay relevant as times change.”
It will be important for Pride to place more of a focus on discrimination that is still occurring, particularly transgender discrimination, says Power. Boston Pride should also seek to raise awareness of murders of transgender people and bullying of transgender and gender non-conforming students, he adds.
Going forward, Pride must also address the specific needs of the LGBT aging community—a community that continues to remain largely invisible, says Gregory.
“I’m part of the first generation of gay Americans who has lived all or most of our lives out. We’re getting older. How are we going to build the institutions to serve our elders? Pride needs to be around for that,” he adds.
Regardless of the issue or specific community, Pride will always have relevance as long as members of the LGBT community are suffering in other parts of the country or the world, says Gregory.
“I very much have the feeling of being in a life boat. We must rescue those who are still drowning, and we must cooperate with each other or none of us will survive. We have to pull our weight in the world,” he adds. [X]
Lisa A. Eramo is a freelance writer living in Cranston, RI | email@example.com | lisaeramo.wordpress.com
Editor’s Note : Special thanks to Andrew Elder and The History Project (www.historyproject.org), especially for its Routes of Pride publication, and for all their help in procuring images.