Our Streets! Reflections on the history of Pride
It’s June, aka Pride Month (by the people who dedicate months to abstract concepts, diseases, favorite foods and breeds of dog). Already as the sun rises on rainbow trains and Primark Pride T shirts the month is being marked with the traditional observance of reciting “Pride was a protest not a party” or “Stonewall was a riot not a parade”
The Stonewall Inn was a mafia controlled bar which was frequented by Trans/gender non conforming sex workers of colour. As so often happens those liminal spaces we designate as “other” collect the waifs and strays which society has determined to be unacceptable. The Compton Cafeteria Riot which preceded the events at Stonewall even more clearly showed how those who society had rejected carved out, and defended, a space for themselves. There is a wonderful piece of psychogeography to be done mapping how the spaces on the borders became occupied by all those considered sexually deviant, the red light district being also where cottages flourished, where queer youth sat in bus station cafes, sipping a coffee simply to be where they were able to be. Newcastle itself is a wonderful living reminder of this.The now highly commercial Pink Triangle inhabits the area of the former bus station, and surroundings, where The Forth a historically gay friendly pub(actually on a lane named Pink Lane) stood alongside popular cottages. Our city centers contain a palimpsest of queer history, of the areas those who were deemed to be other precariously inhabited.
So, in 1970 for reasons which have never been fully explained, the usual bribes and backhanders failed and The Stonewall Inn was raided. The crime people were largely arrested for was female impersonation, and as the police tried to take away the drag queens/trans women/cross dressers (one must beware of using modern labels which people did not apply to themselves) the now famous riot broke out.This was not because the Stonewall Inn was a much loved institution. It was a dive blamed for a hepatitis outbreak, with no running water whose manager exploited queer black and latin@ youth, but there was nowhere left to move into. If the existence of queer folx was on precarious borders, there comes a point at which there is no further into the shadows you can go.
The following year the first St Christopher Street Liberation March took place. It was not the first gay rights march to take place.Reminder marches had been held for the previous 4 years in Philadelphia. Echo (the East Coast Homophile Organization) voted to move the 1970 march to New York to commemorate the riots of the previous year. The Stonewall Inn had already closed, and the whilst the march began outside, it was already moving away from the messy causes of the riot.. STAR - the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries were banned from marching ,Sylvia De Rivera and Martha P Johnson gatecrashed anyway, understanding that taking up space is a revolutionary act.
The very first march was about taking up space, it was not, as is often described, a protest, although some were clearly protesting, or a riot. Permits were granted and rules obeyed. It was however prompted by the belief that visibility itself is a radical act, one of defiance when society has condemned you to shadowy back rooms. One of the aims of the first march was to show just how many LGB people there were, to be visible as LGB people and to make clear that their existence was not up for negotiation. If we look at the way LGBTQ+ people are still talked about this visibility is radical. We are accused of “ramming it down people's throats” or being too easily seen. Same sex displays of affection will apparently scare or confuse children, naming ourselves will drown out the voices of cishet people, claiming labels will mean no one can call themselves straight or not trans.
The accusation always is that we are too loud, too visible, taking up too much space. The organisers of the first marches and parades wanted to be seen. Its worth noting there have always been parades, the Los Angeles St Christopher Liberation commemoration got a parade permit because they wanted to stop the traffic, to be visibly disruptive. They were challenging the idea no one wanted to be identified as LGBTQ+, and that it did not exist as an identifier, but instead was an aberrant behaviour which medicine could fix. Shame and stigma meant that it was easy for homophobes to portray gayness (and back then gay was a much broader term) as something which needed to be hidden, and oppressed, before being washed away by the cleansing balm of hetrosexality. Being seen to be gay was a challenge to the idea one must be ashamed of your “aberration”.
Visibility is a two way street, if one is visible, one is seen, which itself can be powerful. It is not only the power of being recognised for who you truly are, but that others can recognse themselves. If I think back to the 80s, section 28 and the invisiblity of LGBTQ people I am reminded of how I did not even know the word bisexual existed as a teenager. When we march visibly through our towns and cities, when we party in fields, in full view, those who are still unable to be visible are given hope, are able to see that yes, we exist, and you do too. For many young people this moment of recognition, of seeing others, and seeing themselves in others can not only be life changing, but can be life saving. The corollary of “it gets better” is “you are not alone”.
Back in the day, which is a way of saying I am older than those on social media who tell me to go back to tumblr realise, Reclaim the Night used to shout “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”. Reclaim the Night (in the UK) has its origins in a group of Leeds feminists protesting police advice, in the wake of the murder of a number of sex workers, for women to simply stay off the streets after dark. The overlap between feminist and LGBT activism “back in the day” was stronger than it is today, so the slogan makes sense in both contexts. When we demand the right to be in the same spaces as everyone else, we say we are as good as everyone else, as worthy of those spaces, and the respect which that entails.
The original Pride march and parade in 1970 were a way of loudly proclaiming that these are also our streets. Today, even in the smallest pride march the same process still occurs. Shoppers stop, traffic pauses, people, regardless of their personal views on LGBT people are confronted with our existence. We are ramming it down their throats, metaphorically, by demanding the right to be on those streets. With flags waving we emerge from the shadows many would prefer to relegate queerness to. In many ways this is more important than a protest, or perhaps we could say we are protesting with our very existence. Whenever I march the sense of taking back the streets is palpable. When so many LGBT people still have to censor themselves, for safety, and when couple are assaulted simply for showing affection taking up space is still a radical act.
Pride is and always has been messy, politically confusing, a party and a protest, a march and a parade, a liberation movement and exclusion of those who might bring the wrong sort of attention. Currently there is a worrying move to make all prides “family friendly” which appears to be shorthand for desexualised, and sanitised, as if queer people and children are mutually incompatible.Families should of course be welcome at Pride, but I do wonder at what cost to those who have so few spaces. However this is part of the pattern of Pride, to ebb and flow between respectability and anger, visibility and not frightening the horses, pride and shame. At the core of each event though is a single moment when individuals leave their houses with the refrain of “Whose Streets, My streets” as both a prayer and a battle cry.
Karen is a therapist based in the NE, with experience of, and training in, working with gender, sexuality and relationship diverse communities. Passionate about empowering clients, and promoting better mental health for all they are a director of Be Trans Support and Diversity and Inclusion lead for Bi Pride UK.