We all love an excuse to party. And I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the vibrant spectacle of the global Gay Pride parades. Each year thousands of men, women and children gather in major cities across the world to see streams of sparkle and stilettos, strutting through the streets. For days on end the fiestas throb, breathing life into and exhaling reason out of what was once an illegal, ostracised section of society. These annual events aren’t just gratuitous excuses for a good old knees-up; they are an indispensable part of the LGBT+ community. Not least because the history of Gay Pride evolved from great oppression and attempts by governments and authorities to cast shadows of fear over the community and its members.

The fight for gay rights reached a pivotal point in 1960s New York, where up until ‘66 it was illegal for bars to serve alcohol to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender patrons. Any establishments that hosted crowds of gay men or women were said to be inciting “disorderly conduct” and could be fined or shut down. Police presence in such places was regular and invasive, and even after New York City’s Court of Appeals ruled that “the mere congregation of homosexuals” didn’t automatically conclude in disorderly conduct, any gay behaviour would still be construed as flying in the face of public decency. Kissing, dancing and embracing was unacceptable bearing, so although queer folk were now, in theory, allowed to accumulate and knock back a few pints, reality saw them subjected to incessant police surveillance and harassment. Officers would regularly invade bars, heavy-handedly separate anyone within too close a proximity to one another and even drag people into the bathrooms to check their sex. The LGBT community grew tired of these constant infringements of privacy and sheer erosions of dignity.

In the early hours of 28th June 1969, the New York police arrived at the Stonewall Inn – a Mafia-owned meeting place for the outcasts of Manhattan. The patrons refused to cower to the authorities and groups grew on the street to express their solidarity and utter frustration. As the officers attempted to detain a woman, the tension that hung in air exploded into a brawl. Our community fought back. The heavy-handed approach of the police finally backfired and, faced with violent, unbridled opposition, they barricaded themselves inside the bar. Rioters attempted to set the inn alight and hurled missiles at the police, but after hours of aggressive protest the fire brigade and police force managed to diffuse the situation. Although the flames had been extinguished, the fires of rebellion roared strong and for five days protests continued in the area.

It was this unrest, sparked by a bold fight for freedom, that inspired the annual Pride parades of today. London held its first in 1972 and Manchester a little later in 1985. Other cities and towns soon followed suit, and now the UK alone plays host to almost 100 events per year. All it took was those 200 or so people standing up against arbitrary power to result in what we see today: millions of people marching peacefully in the continued fight for freedom and celebration of life, proudly wielding flags of technicolour high above their heads.

The striped flag hasn’t always been the emblem of the LGBT+ community. Before the multicoloured banners of our bastion fluttered in the wind, our symbol was taken from Nazi concentration camps. An upside-down pink triangle was attached to the clothes of imprisoned gay men to broadcast their sexuality and perpetuate the evil regime of dehumanisation. But we reclaimed that branding in our attempt to reap the crop of power from the seeds of persecution.

In 1978 for the San Francisco Gay Freedom parade, artist and drag queen Gilbert Baker designed and hand-made – with the help of volunteers – the first batch of the striped flags. His mission he made clear in an interview he later gave: “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘this is who I am!’”

So next time you see the vibrant refraction of the Gay Pride flag, whether floating in swathes above a sea of people or nestled solely in the entrance of a bar, take a moment to reflect on all that it stands for. It stands for identity, for solidarity, and for the resurrection of the dehumanised.

 

John Whaite

By John Whaite on 22.08.19

Guest Contributor

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