On June 28, 1969, a small dive bar in New York City was raided by police like it had been many times before. For years, police throughout the country had taken advantage of outdated laws in order to raid and arrest members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, this raid on the Stonewall Inn would serve as a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world. Unlike the raids before, the patrons and neighborhood residents were fed up with the violent mistreatment and fought back. What proceeded was six days of protests and clashes with law enforcement, sometimes involving thousands of protesters.
This event was the spark the community needed, and soon numerous gay rights organizations formed – Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and PFLAG to name a few. One year after the riots, the first pride march happened in New York City to honor the anniversary of the event. The coverage of the parade ignited a chain of other gay pride marches and protests across the country.
In 1987, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, around 750,000 people participated in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Referred to as “The Great March” on occasion, individuals were driven to act due to two primary factors. First, the Reagan administration’s inaction concerning the AIDS crisis and its dehumanization of the Queer community. Second, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers vs Hardwick, which ruled that intimate conduct between two consenting men in the privacy of ones own home constituted a criminal offense.
The actual march was led by Cesar Chavez, Eleanor Smeal, Jesse Jackson, and Whoopi Goldberg. These notable names, along with the first national coverage of the group ACT UP, sparked headlines around the world and an avalanche of similar marches.
Among those 750,000 attendees were members of The Lesbian and Gay Community Network of Western Michigan. Inspired by the march, the group set out to organize a Pride celebration in West Michigan. Once they returned to Michigan, the Network, as well as other local LGBT groups, set out to organize Grand Rapid’s first ever Pride celebration. Despite a lack of government support, the first Pride was held on June 21, 1988 at the Monroe Amphitheater (now Rosa Parks Circle).
The celebration looked very much how it does today; consisting of guest speakers, entertainment, music, and food. While the day saw protests by local religious groups, the event itself was a huge success. A video of the 1988 Grand Rapids Pride Celebration can be found on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project here.
The following year was a huge success as well, with AIDS Quilt creator Cleve Jones speaking. Thirty years after the events of the Stonewall Riots, Pride Month was officially proclaimed in 1999 by President Bill Clinton. This past weekend, the Grand Rapids Pride Festival celebrated its 35th Pride in Calder Plaza. Over the years, it has grown to be one of the largest one-day events in Grand Rapids. The theme for this year was “Unapologetically Me,” a statement that resonates strongly with the current climate our country faces in terms of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
While much has changed since that first brick was thrown at the Stonewall Inn, the LGBTQ+ community still faces an onslaught of discrimination. When reflecting upon actions like these, it is important to remember that history is not grounded in facts. It is written by the winners, who throughout time have successfully created a narrative that keeps their prejudices as the truth. Whether you are a part of the LGBTQ+ community or not, it is important to remember to expose and fight the systems of oppression that the community faces on a daily basis. Life is short, and the best thing we can do is be there for each other.