When I first arrived in NYC in 1976, the LGBTQ Pride Parade was a half dozen years old. In those days, it was just called the gay march. It was all about gay liberation—the freedom to be different. As for the word “gay,” it was used to refer to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and anyone else who was sexually outside the “norm.” An outgrowth of the Stonewall Riots, the march featured a menagerie of so-called freaks, fags, queens, queers and anyone who had the guts to be identified as different.
In 1978, with one foot barely out of the closet, I timidly attended my first parade as a spectator. It was a protest, it was a celebration and, for me, as a still somewhat closeted gay man, it was a revelation.
By the early 1980s, the tenor of the parade had changed. The emerging AIDS crisis and the callous unresponsiveness of the Reagan Administration to the disease had infused marchers and spectators alike with a spirit of fierce camaraderie in demanding public recognition of the epidemic. For me, I had become more comfortable carefully attending as a gay man, but still tried not to stand out in the crowd.
By the mid 1990s, the march had become officially known as the Gay Pride Parade—complete with trademarked name and logo. Our stake was in the ground. We were here and we weren’t going away! We wanted to be treated with a new found respect, born out of years of discrimination and exclusion. The parade had expanded to include gay police and firemen and participating groups that ran the gamut from bare-breasted Dykes on Bikes to professional business organizations. Corporate America had jumped on our bandwagon and now banks, liquor companies and progressive brands, like IBM, American Express, and Levis Jeans were sponsoring floats and groups.
By 2015, the term “gay” had been refocused to refer exclusively to gay men, while the emerging moniker LGBTQ was deemed to more clearly represent the broadening dimension of our community in all its colors of sexuality and gender. In addition, as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, same sex marriage was established in all 50 states. A former First Lady marched in our Pride Parade and we had a White House that recognized and celebrated Pride with us by lighting the White House in rainbow lights. And this year, I will march proudly in the parade with Athlete Ally, a non-profit organization fighting for broader inclusion and acceptance in sports of LGBTQ athletes, which I helped start and whose board I chaired the last five years.
Sadly, though, after a decades-long march towards mainstream acceptance, in 2018, much has changed for the worse: we now have a President who doesn’t recognize LGBTQ Pride Month and a country divided about our civil rights—again.
The NYC Pride Parade is also changing its course, moving to a shortened route that neither starts nor ends on Christopher Street—the site of the Stonewall Riots that gave birth to the March—which has been the starting point or terminus for all previous 48 marches. Instead, the parade will begin in West Chelsea, merely passing through Christopher Street and ending in lower midtown—miles away from the Pier Dance and other post-parade activities.
While both the LGBTQ community and the Parade route have changed over the years, I am disturbed by this action, which seems to neuter our display of Pride by separating us from our history—downplaying the physical roots of our community and of the march, itself. It seems to be in step with our President’s desire to “overlook” our community.
I am optimistic, however, that we will challenge any efforts to diminish our heritage. Perhaps this symbolic change to the parade route will spark debate in our community and will rally a new generation of LGBTQ activists.