The first New York Pride parade took place in 1970 on the last weekend of June. Activists called it Christopher Street Liberation Day, a commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots — when Greenwich Village’s gay community protested violent police raids on Stonewall Inn and fought for their right to freely associate without fear of intimidation. Around that time, Pride celebrations were also organized in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles, establishing the events surrounding Stonewall as a national landmark in heightening the visibility around LGBTQ+ rights organizing and solidarity.

More than a half-century since the first Pride celebrations were coordinated — falteringly, in some cases, such as in San Francisco, where a “gay-in” picnic with just a few dozen participants was dispersed by mounted police — Pride has swelled into a month-long affair, one attended by city mayors, sponsored by corporate brands, and capped by parades that last longer than long workdays.

Safety monitor holding a walkie-talkie at the 1973 Gay Freedom Day Parade (photo by Crawford Barton, Crawford Barton Papers; courtesy GLBT Historical Society)

On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019, a record-setting five million people showed up for Pride in New York. The mainstreaming of Pride is both a reflection of gay rights activists’ visionary success in manifesting a world where their identities can be celebrated in public space and, for some who wish for the movement to center more radical demands, a source of disillusionment. The popularity of seemingly endless “that’s why, this Pride month, I’m partnering with” tweets that circulated this year is proof that many are increasingly adopting an ironic tone in their participation in Pride. Accompanying celebration of real strides that have been made in queer freedoms is justified suspicion of where the movement might be headed.

Although the historical circumstances of the 1970s were very different from those that threaten LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms today, the linear progress of strengthening civil liberties has become a troubled narrative, as states pass an increasing number of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and as members of the Supreme Court indicate the possibility of reconsidering landmark cases like Obergefell v. Hodges.

Hyperallergic asked several artists who have focalized themes of queer identity and expression to provide their personal reflections on Pride. We also asked the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society in San Francisco — a museum and archive of LGBTQ+ history and the arts founded in 1985 and led in its formative years at the turn of the millennium by Susan Stryker — to weigh in on the meaning of Pride and how it has evolved over the decades.

“Gay Freedom Day: What Do We Want It to Be?” (1980), offset flyer, Ephemera Collection (image courtesy GLBT Historical Society)

Pop artist Deborah Kass, whose work often uses appropriation to question norms around gender and sexuality, highlighted the coordinated legislative assault on LGBTQ+ rights nationwide. “With over 300 proposed bills across our country targeting LGBTQ citizens, families, and children, we need more than Pride,” she wrote. “We need organizing, fundraising, and especially voting.”

“EVERYBODY knows someone who is LGBTQ, a [person of color], a child, or a woman. And yet these vast majorities are under physical, literal, political, and legislative attack by the white male minority, whose hold on power and supremacy continue to ruin lives,” she continued. “Power, greed, and control are the goals. Their suicidal and homicidal mission is unrelenting and deadly.”

“Organize organize organize!” Kass signed off.

Deborah Kass, “Vote! Your Life Depends On It” (2018), pulp and ink (photo courtesy the artist)

Sculptor Robert Gober, whose work has touched on themes of the AIDS epidemic and mortality and who was involved in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), echoed Kass’s sentiment, writing simply about Pride: “They are coming for us.”

Clifford Prince King, whose photographs feature gay Black men in intimate, everyday settings, noted that “similar to any other national holiday, there’s lots of capitalism” in Pride.

“Some queer folx see Pride month as a time to cash in (rightfully so) and a time to connect with their community with celebrations and commemorations,” King told Hyperallergic. “My hope is that the support of the community isn’t simply discontinued after the celebrated month. It’s important for people to learn about the Black and Brown folx who fought endlessly to make our voices heard and valued.”

Duane Michals’s photographs often include a strong sense of narrative and sometimes suggest gay desire. He stated that “American culture is gay pride without American culture knowing it.”

Asked what he believed to be often forgotten about the history of Pride, he answered that “what is forgotten is what young gay guys don’t remember.” He said that he would be celebrating the architect Fred Gorrée, his longtime partner who passed away in summer of 2017, this Pride.

A Pride parade in New York City (photo by Josh Wilburne via Unsplash)

A couple of years ago, the GLBT Historical Society staged an online exhibition called Labor of Love: The Birth of San Francisco Pride, 1970-1980 — which remains viewable on its website. The curators sifted through the GLBT Historical Society’s “vast archives” to present select photographs, flyers, newspaper clippings, video footage, memos, and planning documents. These materials tell a story of the enormous work that went into mobilizing protests and parades in San Francisco, and the dissension that arose among organizers who disagreed over what Pride should look like and what its goals should be. 

Early flyers touted the importance of visibility and diversity. “The more visible we are, the stronger we become,” one read. Another listed the differences that were united under the banner of gay solidarity: “We gay people are of both sexes, of every race and all ethnic backgrounds. We come from different economic situations and with different political beliefs to demand our rights.” Yet from the beginning, conflict within gay political organizations was present. When he resigned in 1974, Steve Ginsburg, the chair of Gay Freedom Week, deemed the gay community in San Francisco to be “royally and alcoholically fucked.” In 1976, a coalition of groups resolved that the Gay Freedom Day Parade was no longer true to the spirit of the Stonewall riots. In the late 1970s, a controversy brewed over an attempted nudity ban at Pride, and disputes reigned over calls for participants to dress more respectably at Pride.

Cumulatively, the exhibition shows that many of the controversies around Pride that appear contemporary have always troubled organizers and participants.

“Perhaps one of Pride’s most important legacies is that it’s an event that causes us to think through the complexities of these issues,” Mark Sawchuk, a staffer at the GLBT Historical Society, told Hyperallergic, referencing the many debates that rage on about the proper way to celebrate Pride. “It’s an event that is constantly being defined and redefined, and given the threats facing LGBTQ people in 2022, we need it more than ever.”

This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.

Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, and many more will take place on August 18, 2022.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.