Taking part in gay Pride parades and events nowadays just seems like just one big excuse to party. Yet while ignorance may be bliss, sometimes it’s better to find out where it all began.
The symbolism of this event is actually rooted in oppression and struggle, and like the heritage of our cultural backgrounds, we should be drawn to unearth the heritage of our lesbian and gay identity. We can trace the lines all the way back to ancient times, but to keep it brief, we’ll start in 1969: with the infamous Stonewall Riots.
It can be said that every Pride festival that is held around the world is a tribute to the events that took place during the early hours of Saturday morning, June 28, forty years ago in Greenwich, New York. The bar raid that got out of hand, thanks to patrons refusing to be arrested and harassed for simply being gay, resulted in a yearly commemoration of the liberation it produced, and the sacrifices that were made in getting to that point.
Remember that gays and lesbians were then seen as perverts, subversive and even a national security threat. Authorities would compile lists of “known homosexuals” and post offices would track mail pertaining to homosexuality, keeping the addresses on file. Bars that catered to homosexuals were often shut down and their patrons arrested and exposed in newspapers. Thousands upon thousands of innocent LGBT people were jailed, fired or institutionalised just because of their sexual orientation around the world, including, of course, in South Africa.
The first Stonewall anniversary rally was organised by the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance in 1970. It started on Christopher Street, home of the Stonewall Inn where the riots took place, marking the first anniversary of that rebellion. Supporters marched from Greenwich Village to Central Park in New York City. The event was somewhat celebratory, but a note of seriousness filled the air in remembrance of the struggles faced just one year before. Similar marches were held in San Francisco and Los Angeles that year. They called it Gay Freedom Day.
In 1978 the need for a symbol to represent the gay community was answered by a man named Gilbert Baker. He drew inspiration from the hippy era, as well as the black civil rights movement, and came up with the now well-known Rainbow Flag.
Baker premiered the flag at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. He gathered thirty volunteers to hand-stitch and hand-dye two huge prototype flags. The original flags had eight stripes, each colour representing a component of the LGBT community: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit. Baker approached Pride organisers the following year and asked to mass produce the flag for the year’s festivities. However the difficulty in producing hot pink and turquoise resulted in those colours being dropped, and indigo being replaced by royal blue. This left us with six colours: the flag we know and love today.
Pride has become our Christmas, Easter, Halloween. It’s an opportunity to celebrate and be free in public for at least one day of the year…
As time went on, gay parades became more common in North America as an annual event. “Gay Pride” was soon adopted as the new title for these marches, which increasingly also started taking place around the world. Gay Pride was becoming an international phenomenon!
By the 80s, a cultural shift occurred in the gay movement. Aids – then dubbed “the gay plague” – reared its ugly head for the first time and the gay community was by far the most affected in the US and Europe and, in turn, the most active in the struggle against the virus. The community faced another excuse for oppression and rejection and thus AIDS became a significant focus of Pride events. It was due to the effective activisms of thousands of our brothers and sisters that many gay communities and their Pride emerged from the nineties stronger than ever.
It was in 1990 that South Africa held its first Pride Parade in Johannesburg. Organised by the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand, headed by the late legendary gay rights and anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli, many of the participants wore brown paper bags over their head out of fear for their safety. Nkoli and other activists’ efforts to ensure that gays and lesbians remained visible in South Africa played a role in the creation of the constitution that today protects our rights.
At the turn of the new millennium, activists who were less radical than their predecessors began taking over the Pride committees in countries that had achieved some levels of equality. In these nations the event became less political and evolved into more of a celebration of the LGBT community and its identity.
Joburg Pride 2008
In other countries that continue to face oppression, Pride is an important tool to ensure visibility in environments where gays and lesbians remain hidden and underground. Today, Pride events remain controversial in many countries and are still banned in places such as Russia and would be unthinkable in much of the Middle East and Africa.
Pride has become our Christmas, Easter, Halloween… It’s an opportunity to celebrate and be free in public for at least one day of the year. We don’t only march for ourselves, but for the millions of struggling LGBT people around the world that remain oppressed; some even facing torture and execution. In our own backyard, the reign of terror on black lesbians must desperately still be addressed. Yet we’ve come this far, and, with Pride, we can only go forward…
Joburg Pride 2009, presented by 94.7 Highveld Stereo, takes place on Saturday, 3rd October, and everyone is invited – entrance is FREE! Be at Zoo Lake Sports Club by 11:00 for the parade through Rosebank and then join Pride for an entertainment line-up featuring 94.7 Highveld Stereo DJs and MCs – back at Zoo Lake Sports Club. Soft-drink and water points will be provided for marchers and pets. Besides the entertainment, there will also be the Community Village, Pride stalls with all sorts of goodies on display and on sale, bars, food and a kiddies’ play area. The post-parade celebrations continue until 5pm. Go to www.joburgpride.org for more info.