COMMENTARY: 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 newfound 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, in 2018, I proudly marched 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, by 2018, much had changed for the worse: the U.S. then had a President who didn't recognize LGBTQ Pride Month and a country divided about our civil rights—again.
The NYC Pride Parade also changed its course that year, 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 had been the starting point or terminus for all previous 48 marches. Instead, the parade began 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 was disturbed by that action, which seemed 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 seemed to be in step with the then-current President’s desire to “overlook” our community. With COVID having disrupted the traditional parade in 2019 and the alternative Queer Liberation March having taken place in the heart of Greenwich Village, it seems that some of our tradition is being restored. But, we'll have to see how things develop once we emerge from this pandemic.
I am optimistic, however, that we will challenge any efforts to diminish our heritage over the longer term. Perhaps the rent symbolic changes in the route of the parade / march will spark debate in our community and will rally a new generation of LGBTQ activists.