The History Project’s "oh-so-abbreviated" history of Boston Pride
Boston Pride began with a few dozen lesbians and gay men marching as part of a Vietnam War protest. Four decades later, having served as a crucible for the immense changes that have taken place since the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, it is one of the nation’s largest Pride celebrations.
Love is all you need
In 1970, Boston’s gay and lesbian community was represented by a brave handful of groups, including the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Homophile Union of Boston (HUB), Daughters of Bilitis, the Student Homophile League, and Gay Women’s Liberation. Boston’s first gay demonstration occurred in April 1970, when a 20-person contingent marched from Cambridge Common to Boston Common as part of a Vietnam War protest carrying signs that read, "Send the Boys Home Now!"
More gatherings were planned to mark the first anniversary of Stonewall. Organized around the theme "Love is all you need," these were the first manifestations of Boston Pride. Gay men and lesbians gathered on Cambridge Common on the third Sunday in June for fun, laughter, political discussion, and support. One HUB member said this provided a rare opportunity for "gay people to be gay, all people to be people."
That August, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, a contingent of "out" lesbians participated in a Boston march for women’s rights.
"Anita Sucks Oranges!"
The first official Gay Pride march, on June 26, 1971, was a distinctly political event preceded by workshops on issues like coming out and gay spirituality. The route included four major stops: Bay Village bar Jacques, Boston police headquarters, the State House, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. At each, a speaker presented a list of demands. Laura McMurry, of the Daughters of Bilitis, declared, "As gay people, we have been given a second-class citizenship. We demand an end to this now! We will not be put down any longer!"
Re-christened the "New England Gay Pride Parade," the 1974 celebration drew an estimated 1,000 participants. Closeted participants, their identities concealed under brown paper bags, marched alongside a float depicting a large lavender rhinoceros, an animal chosen because it was perceived as misunderstood. Reactions framed a debate that still echoes today: should Pride be a political rally or a street party? Some saw its "Mardi Gras" theme as emphasizing celebration at the expense of activism. Others criticized the presence of drag queens because they saw drag as either misogynist or marginalizing. This dialectic -- between political and social imperatives, identity politics and assimilation, and perceptions of gender roles -- continues to the present.
By 1977, participants swelled to 7,000, mobilized in response to Anita Bryant’s anti-gay rhetoric. Bryant -- singer, fundamentalist Christian, and former Miss America runner-up -- was a spokesperson for Florida orange juice. She became a national symbol of bigotry when she led the repeal of a gay rights ordinance in Dade County. Representatives from more than 20 gay and human rights organizations, including Congressman Barney Frank and State Senator Elaine Noble, marched to increase awareness and promote gay rights legislation.
If not now, when? If not you, who?
The 1981 celebration was hailed as the largest demonstration supporting civil rights for homosexuals in the history of Boston. Organized around the slogan "If not now, when? If not you, who?", the event fell during controversy over the firing of Robin McCormack, Mayor White’s liaison to the gay and lesbian community, as a result of budget cuts. After outraged activists protested outside the Parkman House, the city altered the parade route to avoid the Beacon Hill neighborhood where the protest had occurred. The city claimed an inability to provide adequate police protection and cited Charles Street merchants who argued the parade was bad for business. The parade committee obtained an injunction to preserve the original route, approved by the city months before.
The lead photo in the Boston Globe’s coverage of 1983 Pride featured the AIDS Action Committee. Shock over the crisis increased attendance to 18,000. Before the march, more than 600 people attended a meeting on the effects of AIDS. At the rally, Amy Hoffman expressed sadness and anger: "In addition to the fear and horror I feel about the physical danger my gay brothers face, I’m worried about our whole community and our movement. ...We must resist the feeling that AIDS means this exploration, this path to liberation, was wrong. This feeling comes from homophobia: haven’t they always told us we are sick, sinful, and disposable people?"
The 1984 celebration saw the introduction of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival, featuring refreshments, memorabilia, camel rides, and a hot-air balloon (that never got off the ground). The change did not go unnoticed. "We’ve already paid to be gay," Ann Holder noted in GCN, responding to the $1 admission charge. "It’s a depoliticization of the whole thing, making it into a gay trade fair."
The 1986 commemoration boasted 34,000 participants, with groups as diverse as Black and White Men Together, Gay Police Officers, and Dykes on Bikes. Several developments helped incite the community -- in particular, a policy initiated by Governor Dukakis requiring the state to record sexual preferences of prospective foster parents to place children in "traditional family settings." In response, the Gay and Lesbian Defense Committee urged protesters to place "Foster Equality" stickers on the retaining wall outside the State House. Other issues surfaced. Black activist John Bush called the gay community "painfully exclusive," condemning bars like Chaps that restricted access by requiring multiple IDs from people of color and femme lesbians.
Pride’s 17th anniversary saw several "firsts." A flag emblazoned with a lavender rhinoceros and pink triangle was raised at City Hall, the first time a Pride flag had been flown from a municipal building anywhere in the country. The 1987 event was also the first to feature a major business sponsor, Digital Corporation. A crowd of 40,000 participated, and 600 green balloons were released in memory of Massachusetts residents lost to AIDS.
In 1993, the route was altered to wind through the South End, which had become the center of Boston’s gay community. Despite the change, attendance exceeded 100,000 for the first time. Karen Lucas of the Greater Boston Business Council noted the significance of Pride: "Because there’s more publicity, it’s easier to come out. Not only are straight people seeing our numbers, we’re seeing our numbers."
In 1995, the Pride Committee limited political speakers to the half-hour before the march, explaining, "People say they want Pride to be fun. They don’t want it to be political." Activists, such as Sue Hyde of the Cambridge Lavender Alliance, countered, "What’s to be proud of in this year’s events? Here we are at the 25th anniversary of Pride marches begun to commemorate a rebellion, an uprising, a resistance to state oppression, and nothing remains of the current rendering of Pride to remind us of this." However, former City Councilor David Scondras stated, "Marching in Gay Pride is a political act. Having gay pride is a political act. There’s nobody in the world that could make Pride a non-political day if they tried." Acting on the frustration felt by many, the Lesbian Avengers organized Boston’s first Dyke March, which took place the night before Pride, following a route from Ruggles MBTA station to the Boston Common.
The 1996 Pride celebration, "Pride Without Borders," was notorious for two incidents. Mayor Menino led the parade, with a BPD mounted unit and honor guard. At one point, when the Dyke March merged with the parade, a bed carrying members of the Lesbian Avengers joined the line-up behind the Mayor and police. Two women simulated sex acts on the bed in view of onlookers. At another spot, a scantily clad man on stilts "flashed" the crowd. These events sparked debate in the media and dialogue in the community about sexuality, free expression, and ownership of Pride.
Though free of past controversies, Pride 2000 prompted soul-searching. A Bay Windows editorial commented on the lifelessness of the parade and the lack of political spark. One commentator wondered if the aura of middle-class respectability was a sign of progress or a step in the wrong direction.
Riots to rights
In 2002, Pride’s theme was "Proud of Our Heroes" and grand marshal duties for New York City and Boston were shared by LGBT police officers, medical workers, and firefighters who responded during the attacks on 9/11. In 2003, the "Peace Through Pride" theme, according to Bay Windows, "prompted many marchers to publicly denounce the war in Iraq," including activists chanting "One, two, three, four! Queers come out against the war!" The following year, the parade’s grand marshals -- GLAD and the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts -- were recognized for their roles in securing same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts.
Throughout its existence, Pride has seen efforts by communities of color to celebrate and encourage dialogue about diversity. In 2004, members of Boston’s Latino/a community began Latino Pride, now sponsored by Somos Latin@s. Queer Women of Color and Friends began an annual multicultural pride celebration of diversity called OPTIONZ in 2007.
About the 2009 theme, "Trans-Forming Our Community," Pride Board Member Kristie Helms said: "It really came about because of the gender identity issues coming up in the State House soon. But it’s also broader than that, transforming our entire community to be all-inclusive and to involve everyone." An estimated 800,000 people attended Pride that year, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Stonewall.
The 2010 "Riots to Rights" theme, according to Pride Deputy Director Keri Aulita, "was selected by the community [and] speaks to the necessity of honoring our past, celebrating our present, and working together for a liberated future." Boston Pride has grown from a 20-person contingent to some 800,000 people demanding civil rights and community. Do you have a story about Pride that you’d like to share? Visit The History Project’s booth at this year’s Pride Festival and become a part of our community’s history.
© 2010 The History Project (www.historyproject.org)
For more interviews, features, guest blogs, and essays, pick up Bay Windows’ Official Pride Guide on June 3!