June 28, 1970
“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.
June 28, 1970
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.
June 24, 1973
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.