Two seminal turning points in the history of mankind took place within a month of one another in the summer of 1969.
In the early hours of June 28, gays rioted in New York's Greenwich Village following a police raid on a bar called the Stonewall Inn.
Before Stonewall, gay life consisted mostly—though not exclusively—of the torment of living a lie, denying one's sexuality, marrying someone of the opposite sex, lurking in the shadows in parks and in restrooms to have anonymous sex with strangers, and of being cast out by loved ones and society if one's shameful secret was ever exposed.
Immediately after Stonewall came a profound realization—first by gays, then slowly by the straight world around them—that homosexuals could live as productive members of society who just happened to love people of their own sex. In the light of day, gays could finally aspire to anything, do anything, be anything they wanted.
Twenty-two days after Stonewall, on July 20, the second earthshaking event that summer took place—men landed on the moon for the first time. It was the exclamation point to a decade-long race inspired by a martyred president who called on Americans—and humanity—to dream, and it made everyone feel like they could truly aspire to anything, do anything, be anything they wanted.
John F. Kennedy said:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
A little more than three years after the Apollo 11 landing, the last man would walk on the moon and within a generation of the Stonewall riots, HIV AIDS would decimate the gay community. Darkness fell once more and people, too busy surviving, forgot how inspiring it felt to dream.
But not entirely.
The first gay liberation parade—as it was called back then—was held one year after the Stonewall riots to:
“…encompass the ideas and ideals of the larger struggle in which we are engaged—that of our fundamental human rights—be moved both in time and location. We propose that a demonstration be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street and this demonstration be called CHRISTOPHER STREET LIBERATION DAY. No dress or age regulations shall be made for this demonstration."
Today in cities around the world—including Toronto where over one million people participate annually—Gay Pride has become a celebration not only of coming out and being gay but one of acceptance of diversity—sexual and all kinds. Many, though not all, gays live openly now. We can serve our country. We can be elected to high office. We can get married—and divorced. Some may look at us funny when we kiss or hold hands in public but usually they're the ones ridiculed for pointing it out, not us.
Pride, however, is actually something more than a checklist of achievements and ways we’ve become more accepted. We may not always remember (though we should) that Pride honours the sacrifice of those who came before us, those who—to paraphrase President Kennedy—did things not because they were easy, but because they were hard, because their goal would serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Brave men and women selflessly accepted the challenge of achieving equality for gays and lesbians and won it for all of us. Some are still fighting and winning it for us today.
So does Pride matter anymore? Is it dead?
While it's true that the battle for acceptance here in Canada and the US and in Europe has largely been won, millions of gays still live in shame, secret and fear for their lives in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Zimbabwe. And let's not kid ourselves. We still experience a slap in the face now and then right here at home. There are still places right here too where people can be tied to a fence and left to die simply for being gay. And there are still thousands of kids right here and everywhere who haven't yet come out but who are quite literally dying for the energy and strength of spirit and message of hope that an occasion like Pride represents.
Terry Levine is a Toronto writer.