In many ways, I miss the days when LGBT pride was part of an outlaw culture.
Back in the days when politicians didn’t dare endorse us. Back before queer couples were rushing off to get the stamp of approval from the daddy state and draft-age men were running from, not into, the clutches of Uncle Sam and his latest slaughter fest overseas (we couldn’t even imagine, nor would we have wanted, a warship named for one of us).
I was a part of Philadelphia’s first pride organizing committee. We started meeting in late 1971 to put on a march like New York, San Francisco and other cities had already done two years in a row. We were a bit behind the times, perhaps because so many of us went up to New York for pride. It was tough competing with la Manzana Grande, especially since it was only an hour’s drive or train ride away.
We set our pride march for mid-June 1972 (it was either the 11th or the 18th, I don’t remember which), rather than conflict with New York on the last Sunday of the month. We called it a “march” for a reason: we were protesting, we weren’t simply going for a Sunday picnic or an outing to wave the rainbow flag (which hadn’t been invented yet) with the dog and the turkey baster kids.
Our efforts paid off big time: much to our surprise (and everyone else’s) 10,000 people showed up. They jammed Rittenhouse Square, a beautiful park in the center of the city, where hippies, drag queens and gay men gathered to while away the night. The police harassed all three groups because the blue bloods in the expensive apartment buildings that surrounded the square didn’t like us using public space they felt belonged to them.
Hippies, drag queens and gay men were outlaws. I was all three. I started out hanging with the hippies in Rittenhouse Square with my longish hair and my guitar when I was a teen. When I came out, I cruised there with the other gay men (who sometimes ducked into the dark bushes for a little groping session or for a quick blowjob). By 1972 I was doing drag.
There were a lot of drag queens and hippies in that first pride march. We were an unruly bunch. We didn’t want to get married or march in America’s next war for oil. We were polyamorists. We defied gender roles. We were more at home with the Black Panthers and the radical feminists than we were with bankers or corporate types. Our list of demands included an end to capitalism and the Vietnam War as well as sexism, racism and homophobia.
These days, there are no demands. Pride is a “celebration” or a “parade.” Organizers work with million-dollar budgets. Executive directors of pride organizations earn three-figure salaries. They publish slick pride guides with ads from banks, and alcohol and real-estate companies. Celebrities grace the stages along with politicians and corporate types, not to mention loud, blaring club music. Activists are rarely invited to give speeches.
It’s all a big yawn. In “radical” San Francisco, the pride parade heads up Market Street, televised live (with a slight delay in case someone’s genitals should end up in the view of the cameras) by one of the local stations, to the Civic Center where the smell of food trucks is overpowering (not to mention abhorrent to my vegan nose) and every corporate hawker (from telephone companies to banks) is waiting to sell me their crappy products. To them, my movement is nothing more than a market.
When we were outlaws, pride stood for something. Sure it wasn’t fun to face the everyday persecution and the powerlessness, but at least we marched to demand the end of the oppression of all people. We chanted, “two, four, six, eight, smash the church, smash the state.” And we meant it.
Now, I’m not sure what it all means.
- Photo by David Elliott Lewis
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a longtime queer writer, performer and activist, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation and co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italian Writers Sail Beyond Columbus. Read Tommi’s blog here.