Monday, June 23, 2014

Show Pride, Remember Stonewall

The world is one great battlefield 
With forces all arrayed. 
If in my heart I do not yield, 
I'll overcome some day. 

I spent the weekend at Denver Pridefest, my first ever Pride, and Denver's is a big one.

I heard projections for total attendees from 200,000 to 700,000 for this year. Considering that Wyoming, where I lived from 1991 until 2012, has a total population only around 500,000, this is an amazing number of people to me. I don't know how many actually attended, but there were people everywhere. Except for the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City that we accidentally ended up there for, this is the biggest event of any kind I've ever attended.

In some ways, it was very commercial. Coors was a big sponsor, as were Wells Fargo, Smirnoff, At the Beech, and Xfinity. Vendors with stalls were everywhere, and a lot of money changed hands. Between Pride itself, the hotels and restaurants, and others places getting the business of all those from out of town, Pride is estimated to bring in around $25 million total to the Denver area.

Commercial or not, though, for many there, it wasn't, and isn't, about money. I'll get to the heart of that statement shortly, but the event itself needs a bit more details, I think.

There is a sexuality about an event that is centered around things like sexual orientation and gender identity and similar things, which can't be ignored. How can you talk about being true to yourself, in the context of sexual orientation, without sexual undertones? And how can you talk about being true to yourself, without the physicality of your body being front and centre? For many, you can't.

The things you see at something like Pride are varied and often beyond what you are used to. Women with stickers or pasties as their only top, and some men the same. Drag queens in full garb, likely baking, but willing to deal with the heat. Men and women both in nothing but underwear. Bikinis and short shorts. Costumes of all kinds, even some you just know they wore to Comic Con the weekend before, like the Storm Trooper walking down the sidewalk behind the onlookers during the parade. Leather face masks strapped around heads in the form of dog heads. Leather buckles and straps. You name it, you see it.

In the crowds moving around, you see all walks of life. Some are most likely homeless, but enjoying the festivities among some quite obviously rich. Manual labor workers in their best clothes rub elbows with techies and lawyers. Straight couples walk hand in hand past lesbian couples and married gay men. People who are thought to be straight by all their friends are openly gay for this one weekend. People who have hidden their true selves all their lives wear shirts proclaiming it to the world. Trans people too afraid to present in public normally, present openly in a crowd of thousands. People who are curious about what it's all about, who only know the things they've been told by friends and families and churches and politicians come to see what people really are like for the first time. People who don't know their own selves but are curious come and see and find themselves for the first time. Churches give out sun screen. Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians have booths encouraging people to register to vote. Petitions are passed around for for people to support whatever they are interested in. Politicians walk in the parade, shaking hands as they go. And other politicians have followers in the parade and don't bother to show up themselves.

I joke as I walk, in the belly dancing outfit I talked myself into the courage to wear and my rainbow feathered wings, that I can tell the straight guys because they are the ones that forget how to walk when they see me. I can tell the lesbians, because if I pass on one side of them, and a gay guy with a cute dog walks on the other, they are conflicted on which way to look. And I can tell the gay guys because they have no conflict, the dog gets the attention. And, joking aside, in some cases all three of these were true.

But is Pride about the commercialization, about the money and the things to buy? For some, sure. But it isn't the heart of it. Is it about showing skin, about being seen, about being checked out, or checking people out? For some, sure. But it isn't the heart of it. Is it about politics and voting and petitions for your favourite cause? For some, sure. But it isn't the heart of it. What is Pride? And why is it important?

If you pay attention, if you listen, if you observe, you can't go to Pride without hearing or seeing the word Stonewall somewhere. And therein lies the heart of it. In places like Russia, where every year those who march are beaten and/or arrested, this heart is more obvious than Denver Pridefest with police and sheriff vehicles in the parade and officers walking among the crowd not to prevent riots, not to keep things from escalating, not to be seen to keep people quiet, but to protect those there and keep idiots from doing stupid things. Bags aren't checked in Denver to make sure no one brings weapons to use against authorities, but to prevent weapons from being used on the crowd, and more pressingly, to keep beverages that weren't bought there from being brought in. Stonewall is not as obviously on the minds of many, but it is of those that were there, or those that saw what happened, knew people who were there, or saw the after effects. The heart of Pride is not all the festivities or anything else so gay (in the sense of happy). The heart is what happened in the Stonewall Riots and where those short days have brought us.

Denver Pridefest has happened in June every year since 1976, two years before I was born. For those counting, the United States finished pulling out of Vietnam the year before, and 1976 marked the 200th year of the existence of this nation, marked from the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 
It wasn't until the 1990s that Denver Pridefest became the big event it is today, but 1976, the year of the first march in Denver, was also the year that in November the first gay center was opened, which became over the years the Center that many visit out on Colfax. This center was the first safe place for the LGBT community in Colorado, as only came about as a result of legal battles from 1972 until then. Before that, many were beaten by police in addition to by civilians, especially gay men. It is from the changes in this that both the Center and Pridefest came to be, though of course it was a long process and change didn't happen overnight.

Going back a bit further, things never would have changed in Denver if it wasn't for events previously in New York City. As I said, Stonewall. Specifically, the Stonewall Inn and the riots involving it.

The Stonewall Inn was in Greenwich Village in New York City. During a time when gay bars and clubs were routinely raided, and it wasn't safe to be outwardly gay or lesbian, and very unsafe to crossdress, dress in drag, or be known as trans, the mafia in New York City overhauled the old Stonewall Inn and turned it into a gay dance club. Greenwich village was a very rough place, and the LGBT community there were very poor and often in bad shape. Mafia run or not, and with what problems it may have had, Stonewall was a place they could be open about who they were with less danger than normal.

When the police raided it on June 28 of 1969, things didn't go as normal. It was at a time of night that raids were rare. It wasn't announced the way they normally were, so everyone was unprepared. And the police didn't expect they'd have any backlash.

Those presenting as female refused this time to have their gender checked. Those presenting as male refused to show identification. Those thrown out of the club didn't go quietly home. Those living around that area didn't look the other way. A crowd formed. People sang We Shall Overcome, a song growing in popularity in the Civil Rights movement at the time A lesbian being mistreated fought back, then called for the crowd to do something when she was manhandled into a vehicle. And the crowd responded. All the hardship that had been suffered by the community and by individuals boiled over, and it went badly for the police who tried to control the crowd. The riots continued into the early mornings. More riots followed. Gay shame shifted to Gay Pride. Oppression shifted to Empowerment.

The first Pride March was held a year after the riots, June 28, 1970. The marchers marched with signs and banners, uncertain how things would go. It was an exciting time, but not one of safety and security. It wasn't met with resistance, though, few if any tried to stop it. Similar marches were also held in Los Angeles and Chicago, with similar results. The next year, there were more marches, across the US and Europe. And the year after that, five people met in Denver to discuss how to make a change for what was being suffered here.

Pride isn't about dressing promiscuously, about bright colours and fancy floats. It isn't about corporate sponsors and vendors selling goods. It isn't about burlesque shows and rock concerts. It isn't about socializing and gathering for festivities and fun. All these things are there, but they aren't what it is about. These things can be enjoyed because of the heart of what Pride is, not because they are what Pride is about but because they can happen because of the changes that have come.

I wasn't at Stonewall. It was nine years before my birth. I don't know anyone who was, at least none that have mentioned it. I can look back through what has been written, what has been told. Storytelling has power, and the history of change is the soul of that change. Do I know what it was like in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s? No. Do I know exactly what happened on June 28, 1969? No. Do I know what it was like in Denver in the late 1960s and early 1970s? No. But I can walk the streets with less fear because of those who do, those who were there, those who had had enough. I can be true to who I am because they risked their lives. I can attend the largest party I've ever seen, walk the streets with thousands of people, enjoy food and drink and love and laughter with friends, buy things from vendors, watch a parade with not just those marching who are proclaiming who they are, but politicians and police officers as well. I can do all these things because of those that risked it all before I was born, in a time when death or suffering was a more likely outcome than overcoming and surviving and rejoicing.

I can do all this because of what happened at the Stonewall Inn and what followed, both in New York City and across the United States and Europe.

Truth forever on the scaffold, 
Wrong forever on the throne. 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, 
And behind the then unknown 
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above his own. 

~Bethany Davis


  1. Actually, I didn't get the Stormtrooper outfit (or the idea for PrideFest) until AFTER ComicCon... ;-)

    1. :-) It looked like I'd die in the heat, was quite fun to see.

    2. Not too hot, surprised even me. Certainly a great crowd pleaser and fundraiser. LOADS of GLBT sci-fi fans! I'm glad you noticed and commented. My friends and I stopped counting at a hundred, the number of people (from very young to very old) who stopped me for a photo op...

      Love your blog, and remember, always come to Pride, it will certainly always give you something to write about!!