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Gay Pride Parades: Identity, Protest, and Tradition

A clown in a rainbow costume participates in a Gay Pride march.

A clown wearing the colors of the rainbow flag in the 2012 Gay Pride Parade, San Francisco, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Today Gay Pride parades occur on weekends in June throughout the United States, as well as in many other countries around the world. It is unusual for folklorists to be able to say exactly when and where a tradition began, but this is a rare case when history does record the events. The tradition of Gay Pride parades grew out of a conflict between Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) New Yorkers and police. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexual behavior, cross-dressing, and other expressions of gender nonconformity were treated as crimes in most parts of the United States. On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, to arrest LGBT patrons. Protests and conflicts with police lasted several days, and have come to be called the Stonewall riots.

Stonewall was a galvanizing event in the quest for Gay rights. A short time after the events at Stonewall Inn, new Gay rights organizations began springing up, particularly in New York, California, and Chicago.  Publications were created to help spread the movement. Before the Stonewall Inn riots, other signs of social change had begun to appear. The first U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Gay rights was One, Inc. v. Olesen, a 1958 freedom of speech ruling supporting a Gay rights magazine to publish and circulate via the U.S. mail; before that, literature favorable to the Gay community or containing Gay themes could be accused of being “obscene” and therefore rejected by the postal system. Illinois had become the first state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1962. Closest to the circumstances at the Stonewall Inn was an anti-discrimination “sip in” at the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village in 1966 by members of the New York Mattachine Society (an early Gay rights organization) where they were refused service. In response, the New York City Commission on Human Rights had declared that homosexual patrons had a right to be served in licensed bars and restaurants. Prior to that, simply being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender and going to a bar or restaurant could lead to arrest for “disorderly conduct.” For many it seemed that new opportunities to fight discrimination were on the horizon.

Two women in dance costumes and rainbow accessories participate in a parade.

Women marching in the 2012 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. Detail of a photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots was marked with the first “Gay Pride” or “Gay Freedom” parades in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In the 1970s, women’s rights and African American rights were already making headlines and securing allies throughout American society, and Gay rights joined them. The San Francisco marchers used “Gay Freedom” in their parades  through 1994, but “Gay Pride” was the phrase that caught on in most of the rest of the country. The concept of “Gay Pride” was patterned on a successful effort in the African American Civil Rights movement to use “Black Pride” to expand the conversation from protests alone to a positive expression of identity.

One characteristic of Gay Pride events is the use of humor to get serious points across. Aware that one of the issues they needed to confront was fear, demonstrators made humor a standard in the expression of Gay Pride early on. Inclusiveness is also a strong feature of these events: all supporters of the cause are welcomed.

A parader in a skirt with an inflated rainbow holding out the hem.

Today the rainbow flag colors show up in various ways in costumes in Gay Pride parades. 2012 Gay Pride Parade, San Francisco, California. Detail of a photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Highsmith Archive. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The use of the rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBT unity and pride is also bound up in the creation of the Gay Pride parades. A visible symbol that unified the various groups represented in the parades was needed. The first rainbow flag was used in the Gay Freedom Day march in San Francisco on June 25, 1978.  The original eight-color design by Gay activist Gilbert Baker has since been simplified to six colors, but the original one is still sometimes used. As seen in these photos of a 2012 Gay Pride parade in San Franciso, the flag colors now show up in costumes and accessories as well as flags.  As Gay Pride events spread internationally, so did the rainbow flag.

To identify oneself as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender carries a risk that should not be forgotten in the celebratory atmosphere of Gay Pride events. Early in the movement marchers prepared for the possibility of arrest by police or violence from opposing groups or onlookers. Many who “came out” also risked the loss of ties with family members and friends. The tragic mass shooting in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016 is a reminder to all Americans that violence towards the LGBT community continues to be of serious concern. The determination of participants in Gay Pride events to carry on this year in spite of the danger speaks to the continued courage and dedication of this generation’s marchers to the issue of LGBT equality.

We should also remember that great progress has been made in the struggle for Gay rights. Gay Pride marches celebrate not only progress toward fair treatment of LGBT citizens, but the American ideals of inclusiveness and strength in diversity as well.


Experiencing War: Serving in Silence. Stories from the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress. Interviews with LGBT veterans.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month (Library of Congress).

Timeline: Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement, American Experience, PBS.

Photographs of the 2012 Gay Pride March in San Francisco taken by Carol M. Highsmith, Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.

Winick, Stephen, “Celebrate AFC’s 40th with Photos of ‘MyTradition,'”  Folklife Today, January 19, 2016.

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