Before Pride was Mainstream
Though the Stonewall Uprising didn’t start the gay rights movement, it was a powerful catalyst for LGBTQ+ political activism.
Following the uprising, people started organizing advocacy groups and grassroots organizations which prompted the first Pride parade on June 28, 1970. Thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park to honor the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
The success (and need) of the first Pride helped it develop into what it is today. But back then, there were no corporate sponsors. No giant corporations were trailblazing for the liberation of LGBTQ+ citizens.
A Means for Heightening Consumerism
As Pride is becoming more mainstream, we are experiencing a phenomenon where corporations are sponsoring Pride events, selling rainbow merchandise, and celebrating Pride all over their social media. Some folks may view this corporatization of pride as a necessary step to promoting visibility and acceptance, but this false allyship is dangerous.
It seems rational to assume that these companies that sell rainbow merchandise are LGBTQ+ friendly, but it's not always the case. At best, these corporations donate (with limited transparency) a minor portion of the proceeds to LGBTQ+ organizations. At worst, some companies that appear to support LGBTQ+ rights are engaged in practices that actively harm the community. Corporations such as Walmart, American Airlines, and AT&T donate or fraternize with politicians who spew anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric. All this is to say that corporations appropriate the culture and rob the community of their agency all in the interest of heightening consumerism.
Pride is rooted in anti-establishment and anti-capitalist activism and this commercialization is undermining this message. This phenomenon allows the corporations to experience the benefits of appearing inclusive, while permitting the people within the company to be actively anti-LGBTQ+.
Corporatized Pride is shallow, selfish, and performative. Corporations are not the trailblazers in the fight for equality. The most harmful aspect of this false allyship is that their "efforts" blur the true issues in the community today (such as youth homelessness and suicide.) Most corporations were never interested in supporting the community prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage when support of the community was deemed "taboo," and they're only "supportive" with their marketing now because it's making them money.
The True Trailblazers
At the inception of Pride, there were no corporate sponsors. No giant corporations were selfless pioneers for the liberation of LGBTQ+ citizens. The movement isn't without heroes, however anti-gay propaganda in the United States has kept their names, faces, and stories out of textbooks. Let us never forget the fearlessness of these true Pride trailblazers.
Transgender black activist Marsha P. Johnson was a leading figure on the frontlines of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. Johnson helped lead the protest against the harassment from police towards LGBTQ+ folks and some speculate she even threw the first brick. In 1970, Johnson co-founded one of the first organizations to provide critical resources to trans and non-binary youth: the Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries (STAR.) Despite her circumstances (often being homeless and suffering from mental illness,) she was a beacon of hope as she courageously advocated for gay liberation. Easily identified in photographs by her flower crown and a wide smile, Marsha P. Johnson remains one of the most notable icons in LGBTQ+ advocacy.
Before the Stonewall Uprising, there was radical lesbian librarian pioneer Barbara Gittings. In 1958, Gittings founded the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation's first lesbian civil rights organization. Gittings helped enlist activists for protests (known as "Annual Reminders") in front of Independence Hall each year on the Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969 that were the first public demonstrations for LGBTQ+ equality. These Annual Reminders paved the way for the Stonewall Uprising, and in 1969 the protests were suspended to support the 1970 Pride march commemorating Stonewall's anniversary. You could say that the Annual Reminders were the foundation of the annual Pride parade. Barbara Gittings also fostered change such as pressuring the American Psychiatric Association to stop labeling and treating homosexuality as a mental disorder, as well as helped introduce LGBTQ+ literature to libraries when she became the head of the American Library Association's Gay Task Force.
Teenagers are no stranger to standing up to inequality, as was the case for Aaron Fricke. In 1980, Fricke was planning on attending Cumberland High Prom in Rhode Island when his principal heard of his plans and banned same-sex couples from the prom. With the help of the organization GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD,) Fricke challenged the school in the landmark case Fricke vs. Lynch. By banning Fricke from attending with his same-sex date, the school infringed upon Fricke's First Amendment rights of association and free speech, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws. The court voted in Fricke's favor and he was able to attend the dance with his date, Paul. (The judge also required the school to provide security to keep the teens safe from harassment.) Later in life, Aaron Fricke wrote that he wanted to make a political statement to his classmates about his dignity and value as a human being.
LGBTQ+ representation in politics is scarce, but not completely fictitious. On November 7, 2017, Andrea Jenkins became the first transgender Black woman elected to public office and one of the first transgender people elected to hold office in America after becoming a member of the Minneapolis City Council after capturing more than 70% of the vote. The 8th Ward that Jenkins represents includes the intersection where George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer later in 2020. Following Floyd's murder by police, Jenkins supported efforts for Minneapolis to focus on creating more schools, housing and other services that prevent people from pursuing crime or turning to violence. Jenkins supported efforts to establish a permanent memorial in honor of George Floyd at the section of East 37th Street to East 39th Street deemed "George Floyd Square."
These grassroots humanitarians are the real trailblazers that have changed history. Their bold leadership embodied the notion "when the going gets tough, let the tough get going!" Many haven't found their well-deserved place in our history books and many of their stories remain untold, but their efforts and sacrifices in the name of equality will always be memorialized by the path they, and other Pride heroes, have paved.