“CHRISTOPHER STREET LIBERATION DAY 1970,” Gay Activists Alliance members (including Jim Owles, right), with the lead banner at the first Christopher Street Liberation Day, New York City, June 28, 1970. Image by Leonard Fink; courtesy of The LGBT Community Center National History Archive (@lgbtcenternyc).
“DO YOU THINK HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS WE ARE!” screamed one of the pamphlets handed out during the melee on Christopher Street that started with a raid at the Stonewall in the early hours of June 28, 1969 and continued through the first days of July. Although the rioting in Greenwich Village was not, by any definition, the “start” of Gay Liberation, nor was Stonewall the first time queer people fought back, the mythical story of the nights of rage on Christopher Street led directly to a decision to cancel the Annual Reminders in Philadelphia and replace them with a Stonewall commemoration: Christopher Street Liberation Day.
Although activists in Los Angeles and Chicago weren’t thrilled about the New York-focused celebration, they recognized the importance of the event, and the local gay organizations put together marches of their own for the last weekend in June. In San Francisco, the old-guard homophiles refused to accept New York as the birthplace of gay activism, but a few young radicals held a Gay-In just the same.
Central Park, Christopher Street Liberation Day, June 28, 1970. Photographer unknown, image courtesy of L. Brown & M. Riemer (@lgbt_history).
New York’s first Christopher Street Liberation Day represented, one participant said, “the summoning up of a whole lifetime’s desire to finally come clear.” As a few hundred people left Sheridan Square and headed up Sixth Avenue—led by Sylvia Rivera screaming herself hoarse the entire way—marchers saw queer people they knew on the sidewalks, not quite ready to take the step. “Come on out or I’ll point you out!” someone yelled. And out they came.
By the time they hit Central Park, the group stretched back 20 blocks. No one had ever seen anything like it. It was a celebration of queer existence; it was a protest like no other.
There were no bands, no speeches, no vendors, no agenda at all. They were just there. Being.
It was “a family reunion . . . and we all lived, touched, smiled and—not tolerated, but welcomed—one another’s differences not as a lessening of our own particular selves, but as endless compliments to that spark of self which is the sum of one soul.”
It was Gay Pride.
Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) contingent, Christopher Street Liberation Day, New York City, June 24, 1973. Image by Leonard Fink; courtesy of The LGBT Community Center National History Archive (@lgbtcenternyc).
By 1973, the activists who’d created New York’s newly visible queer community were eating their own. At the beginning, Arthur Bell wrote, everyone was bursting with idealism. Then, when “the middle class invaded, our ideology changed, and we acquired property for our functions.” Property required money; money meant sponsorship; sponsorship meant seeking help from the very institutions against which they’d previously rebelled: straight-owned bars and bathhouses. In particular, the bars saw Pride—what had been a political event—as a chance to make a profit, and they insisted that organizers turn the march around—it couldn’t end at Central Park, they’d make no money; it had to end in the Village, near their businesses.
And so began the commercialization of Pride.
Thankfully, the radicals of 1973—Craig Rodwell, Sylvia Rivera, Arthur Bell, Lee Brewster, and others—cried foul.
Some companies then, as now, truly supported the queer community; many didn’t.
We’re as thankful as ever for queer radicals.
Bette Midler (center), backed by Barry Manilow (at piano), flanked by, among others, Vito Russo (at far right, in white pants, with head turned away), at Christopher Street Liberation Day, Washington Square Park, New York City, June 24 1973. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images.
“SAY IT LOUD / SAY IT PROUD / WE ARE GAY / AND THAT’S ALLOWED,” Christopher Street Liberation Day, Central Park, June 1977. Image by Leonard Fink, courtesy of The LGBT Community Center National History Archive (@lgbtcenternyc).
In 1977, a national right-wing movement emerged out of Miami as archconservative Anita Bryant took her “Save Our Children” campaign to city after city in an effort to roll back civil rights ordinances addressing gay and lesbian rights. In response, queer communities across the U.S. and Canada took to the streets in numbers not seen before. It was the beginning of a long fight with the Moral Majority, one that continues today.
“IN MEMORY OF THE VOICES WE HAVE LOST – LESBIAN HERSTORY ARCHIVES,” Lesbian Herstory Archives (@lesbianherstoryarchives) contingent (including co-founder Joan Nestle, at left, and Mabel Hampton, holding banner, at right), Christopher Street Liberation Day, New York City, June 1980.
“People who do not preserve their history will shortly have someone else’s.” – Joan Nestle
Have Pride In History.
And show your Pride by supporting institutions that work to preserve and amplify queer history: Lesbian Herstory Archives (@lesbianherstoryarchives), The LGBT Community Center National History Archive (@lgbtcenternyc), ONE (@onearchives), Digital Transgender Archive (@digitaltransarc), and many others.
“THE 1983 C.S.L.D.C MARCH AND RALLY is dedicated to AIDS VICTIMS EVERYWHERE,” Christopher Street Liberation Day lead banner, New York City, June 1983. Photo by Barbara Alper, via @gettyimages.
In the early years of the epidemic, as the community worked to figure out what was happening and whether the government was going to help (it wasn’t), the word “victim” was still widely applied. Soon, the queer community came to understand that they alone had to fight the AIDS battle, and a massive change of consciousness came about.
“FIGHTING FOR OUR LIVES” – “GMHC – GAY MEN’S HEALTH CRISIS,” People With AIDS (including Michael Callen, second from right) and @gmhc contingents, Heritage of Pride, New York City, June 1985.
As the reality of AIDS sunk in, and as it became clear that help was not on the way, the community went from being victims to being warriors. And Pride became less of a party and more of a protest. These gatherings were and are the biggest events of the queer calendar; a time to see and be seen. They are necessary to get the word out about what’s happening in the community. Take every opportunity to listen and learn, even if you don’t like what you hear.
“AIDS: WHERE IS YOUR RAGE? ACT UP” – “SILENCE = DEATH,” @actupny contingent, Spirit of Stonewall alternative march, New York City, June 1994. Image by Allan Tannenbaum, via @gettyimages.
The events surrounding Stonewall 25 reminded many of Christopher Street Liberation Day 1973; though there were approximately a million more people in Manhattan for the 1994 gathering. The corporate sponsorship put the mainstream gay and lesbian organizations in a tough spot, leading to the exclusion of a few of the more “radical” queer groups. That, in turn, led to the announcement of an alternative march—the Spirit of Stonewall march. While the vast majority of participants marched on the U.N. on the East Side of Manhattan, thousands of radicals—ACT UP, Lesbian Avengers, Transsexual Menace, Radical Faeries, among others—marched from Stonewall up Fifth Avenue, led, naturally, by Sylvia Rivera.
Some say the moment the two marches coalesced at 57th and 5th was the last time radicals and moderates peacefully agreed on anything.
“WE RECRUIT,” Lesbian Avenger, Dyke March, New York City, June 1995. Image by Evan Agostini, via @gettyimages.
Beginning in 1994, Dyke Marches took up the mantle of marches of old: unpermitted, come-as-you-are celebrations of Lesbian lives and queer visibility. The 2018 NYC Dyke March is June 23.