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A Look Back At NYC’s Very First Pride Parade

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The annual New York City Pride Parade may be cancelled this year, but that doesn't mean we can't celebrate by thinking back to the very first Pride parade in New York, how it was formed, and what it was like. It all began a year after the riots that took place on June 28, 1969, following the police raid of the Stonewall Inn — a gay bar located in Greenwich Village.

While police were known to raid gay bars in the 60s, due to violations of liquor legislation, this particular moment resulted in outrage among Stonewall patrons. Led by Black trans women and lesbians, a group reacted by protesting. And soon up to 600 people in the neighborhood were raging, throwing things, and chanting "gay power."

According to the National Parks Service, Stonewall is regarded by many as the single most important event that led to the development of the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. And that's because the riots inspired members of the community throughout the country to organize, so much so that within two years of Stonewall, LGBTQ rights groups had been started in nearly every major city in the US.

One of the people who started the NYC parade was bookstore owner and gay rights activist Craig Rodwell. On November 2, 1969, along with his partner Fred Sargeant, and others, Rodwell proposed the idea for an annual march. And half a year later it came to fruition. The Village Voice published Sargeant's first-person account of the historic event, which paints a picture of what it was like.

"I stayed at the head of the march the entire way, and at one point, I climbed onto the base of a light pole and looked back. I was astonished; we stretched out as far as I could see, thousands of us," Sargeant wrote in 2010. "There were no floats, no music, no boys in briefs. The cops turned their backs on us to convey their disdain, but the masses of people kept carrying signs and banners, chanting, and waving to surprised onlookers."

Before Stonewall, the LGBTQ community primarily participated in silent vigils, including an event called the “Annual Reminder” in Philadelphia. "Since 1965, a small, polite group of gays and lesbians had been picketing outside Liberty Hall. The walk would occur in silence," Sargeant explained. "Required dress on men was jackets and ties; for women, only dresses. We were supposed to be unthreatening."

But the first NYC Pride Parade changed all that. As you can see from these photos, marchers were loud and proud, carried signs — and, of course, Pride today is now known as nothing less than the most glittery and rainbow-covered event of the year.

Despite its success, Rodwell and other organizers were faced with many hurdles during the planning stages, as well as on the day itself. As noted by activist Jerry Hoose in Timeout New York, the crowd even received death threats. But everyone carried on, and picked up momentum as the parade winded up Sixth Avenue.

"When we started, there were maybe a couple hundred people," Hoose wrote. "But as we kept going, the crowd grew and grew and grew. No one who was there can talk about it without getting goose bumps. I always say that gay liberation was conceived at Stonewall in 1969 and was born at that first march." Estimates vary, but the parade ended with anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 participants.

Michael Brown, founder of the Gay Liberation Front, called the watershed event, "an affirmation and declaration of our new pride," in a New York Times article published on June 29, 1970. According to the article, participants described the march as a "gay-in." At the front of the parade, there were about "200 members of the Gay Activists Alliance, followed by people representing the Mattachine Society, women's liberation groups, the Queens, and 14 other homosexual organizations."

That same year, Pride parades also took place in Los Angeles and Chicago. Of course, the original NYC organizers could never have imagined the ripple effect. But here we are over fifty years later, Pride is still going strong — and it's receiving more attention than ever.

The 2017 New York City Pride Parade marked another moment — the first time the Pride parade was broadcast on live television, showing just how far the movement has come. "After the 2016 Gay Pride March welcomed two million participants and 35 marching garrisons, it seems that NYC's LGBTQ community has become too loud to ignore, and now local affiliate station WABC-TV is getting in on the action," Timeout New York reported.

Additionally, that year, the network covered PrideFest, the Pride Luminaries brunch, the Rally, and the Pride Island music festival featuring Tegan and Sara, Years & Years, and Patti Labelle.

In 2019, the New York City Pride Parade attracted the largest crowd yet to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, with over 150,000 people marching, hundreds of thousands more lining the streets to watch, and 2,000 gathering outside the Stonewall Inn, US News reported. It then culminated in a WorldPride event — the first time it was hosted in the US — which attracted over five million people.

2020 marks the first year the parade will be cancelled in NYC, but the city will still participate in the virtual Global Pride 24 hour event, set to kick off on June 27th. According to Forbes, it will allow the LGBTQ community, and its allies, to celebrate from the safety of their homes, since quarantine is still largely in effect

Other events this year include Broadway Plus featuring question and answer sessions on Zoom on June 19 with theater stars, according to NY Daily News. And, NYC Pride will also host a Human Rights Conference June 25, and a virtual rally June 26.

So whether you're in a city that is still celebrating Pride in person, or if you're going to be participating via your laptop, remember the early days of NYC's Pride Parade — it's come a long way.