The decades-long push for LGBTQ equality has been accompanied by a call for visibility — the opportunity for the LGBTQ community, in all of its individual and intersecting identities and factions, to be seen and heard in an effort to validate ourselves and each other. In 2019, that is more often than not through the use of the rainbow, based on the 1978 designs by gay artist Gilbert Baker. Yet at the beginning of gay liberation, in the earliest parades and protests, there are no rainbows. There is no one standard, unifying symbol; no corporate sponsors or celebrity presence — only hand-painted signs held by grassroots activists reverberating a newfound pride inspired by the events of June 27, 1969 at New York City's Stonewall Inn. The first pride, as they say, was a riot.
Some of the earliest gay liberation gatherings spawned by the Stonewall riots were caught on camera by amateur queer filmmakers, and have been preserved by the likes of UCLA's Film & Television Archive through their partnership with Outfest's Legacy Project. A collection of seven short films will screen as part of "Films of Pride and Protest: Stonewall At 50" at the Metrograph June 29 through June 30, including Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Footage (Women’s Liberation Cinema, Kate Millett and Susan Kleckner, 1971) and Los Angeles's Christopher Street West’s First Gay Pride Parade (Pat Rocco, 1970). This rarely seen footage of the first-ever pride parades provides an opportunity to reflect on public displays of queer life and activism in the years following Stonewall. Fifty years ago, there were equal amounts gawkers and celebrants on the sidelines as brave individuals brought their sexual and gender identities into the open, to the streets and public parks, in front of policemen and possibly someone they knew who could get them fired, kicked out of their homes, or make them targets of homophobic violence.
The preservation of early LGBTQ films has generated more interest in the last few years, with restorations and re-releases of documentaries like Before Stonewall (1984), Jennie Livingston's Pose precursor Paris is Burning (1990), and The Queen, a 1968 film following trans legend Flawless Sabrina. In their 2015 film Jason & Shirley, Stephen Winter and Sarah Schulman recreated one of the first-ever films featuring an openly gay black man, Shirley Clarke's 1967 Portrait of Jason. The DIY-driven films featured as part of Pride and Protest provide even deeper context, drawing a direct line from the Stonewall era into a new generation of LGBTQ life rarely seen on screen.
While we have more media available from the last three decades, the early '70s is not usually reflected in primary sources captured by members of the community. There are few chances to see Harvey Milk himself in action; to watch the first-ever Pride marchers taking Fifth Avenue through Greenwich Village before congregating en masse in Central Park. What we've had to imagine now exists for us to experience thanks to UCLA and this Metrograph series. Because while our history can be found in books and still images, watching otherwise inaccessible history unfold is more palpable: This is truly seeing ourselves.
There is no audio in the Women's Liberation Cinema's footage of the first official New York City pride parade, but what Millett and Kleckner delivered is a look at the movement’s founding groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front and Radicalesbians, as well those they inspired from outside of the city. Pre-parade excitement sees hundreds blowing up balloons emblazoned with the word "Gay" while police keep watch from motorbikes and a barrier nearby. Many of the same players from the three-night Stonewall riots a year before are there, but others are missing: Trans women and drag queens were not nearly the presence they are today, which speaks to the extent that transphobia, racism, and classism were part of the community movement.The parade gathering looks much more joyful than the riots of one year prior. Were there footage available from Stonewall, it might look like an entirely different time period. Pride attendees look happily towards the '70s as a decade of optimism, growth, and acceptance. There are arms around shoulders and waists, kisses and grins, signs encouraging others to come out. Still, some lookers-on stand cross-armed or with a finger in their mouths, chewing anxiously, waiting to see what is about to unfold, as if at any moment, there could be another Stonewall. But the police have nothing to do but to bring up the rear as the marchers descend on the park, where one woman brandishes an acoustic guitar and performs for a group of dyke lovers lounging on the grass.
That same sentiment of good vibes echoed in Los Angeles's own parade in Hollywood. Reverend Troy Perry offered peace signs as those around him applauded his advocacy. Religious symbolism was more rampant here — a man dressed as a member of the vice squad pokes and prods at a live Jesus hanging from a cross while a choir in church robes sings somewhere down the line. Later, a dance party inside a dark basement, and half-naked men gyrating with abandon until a slow song brings them closer, eyes shut in an attempt to savor the moment in case they aren't allowed another like it. Optimism has its limits when the sole weekend for this kind of celebration inevitably comes to a close.
Matt Spero's The Liberation of Griffith Park, or A Gay Time Was Had by All (1971) and Arthur J. Bressan's Coming Out (1972) investigate how participants and the public feel about he first expressions of gay liberation in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Spero takes his camera to one of Griffith Park's legendary Gay-ins, where a crowd gathers to picnic, play tug-of-war, and cruise. "I think it's groovy because I almost am getting a high off the people, the vibes here," an interviewee tells Spero. Meanwhile, a young child doesn't quite understand why everyone is dancing. "Two mens was kissing," she says, "and I don't like it." Coming Out captures San Francisco's first Pride parade, where chants of "Gay power!" ring throughout and anonymous speakers share experiences of coming out or future hopes: One woman says she's praying for marchers as they pass by, while a member of the Jewish Gay Lib group asserts there are gay rabbis — just not openly gay ones. "Here Comes the Sun" plays over close-ups of smiling men, women, and founding members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. That joy of free love and newfound confidence continue into Pat Rocco's We Were There (1976). The first Los Angeles parade turned into a four-day festival with an all-ages carnival and circus. Mayor Tom Bradley is in attendance, issuing a proclamation of Gay Pride Week, and the parade boasts thousands. The rapid growth of acceptance is seen more in numbers than in overt displays of sexuality or gender play, or even political resonance, as attendees trade in signs and shirts with slogans for family-friendly fun.
Rocco's work as an activist and documentarian extended to conflicts outside of Pride celebrations. In Signs of Protest (1970), Rocco takes his camera to Barney's Beanery, a West Hollywood straight bar and restaurant that proudly brandished a sign proclaiming "Fagots Stay Out," which had been there since 1959. Inside, he asks the manager, the original owner's daughter, as well as new owners and some patrons about the sign, most sharing amusement about the sign’s protesters. In front of Barney's, Rocco speaks with protesters, including Reverand Perry and Morris Kight, the founder of the Gay Liberation Front L.A. who holds up an issue of Life magazine in which Barney's founder told a reporter, "Homosexuals should be shot." A woman standing nearby looks on with disgust. She tells Rocco, "I think it's about damn time that sign was taken down." Barney's Beanery still exists today, down the street from West Hollywood's thriving gayborhood. The sign no longer hangs behind the bar, patrons unlikely to recall it having been there at all. But the film exists for all time, thanks to UCLA.
Three years later in San Francisco, a gay man with a full mustache and a long, curly ponytail is running for office. In Harvey Milk Supervisor Rally (1973), Victoria Halewood shows a rare glimpse of Milk taking to the streets of the Castro, speaking with passersby about his platform, and using a megaphone to deliver something passionately — we can't hear him, but everyone we see is captivated. He would eventually win a seat on the board of supervisors four years later before being his assassination in 1978, the same year his friend Gilbert Baker debuted the rainbow flag.
Rainbows are much more prevalent in In The Life - Stonewall 25: Global Voices of Pride and Protest (1994). Twenty-five years ago, PBS's LGBT-focused lifestyle series celebrated a quarter century of Pride by showcasing the New York Public Library's first-ever exhibit of LGBTQ art as well as organizations like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Victory Fund, ILGA, and the Gay Games. In The Life is also a marker of how much farther we've come 25 years later. The conversations were still about white gay men and lesbians more often than not, with few mentions of bisexual and trans people, and significantly fewer people of color. There's a moment where white, lesbian co-host Katherine Linton says that gay police officers participating in Pride are a "fitting testament in the march." That would be largely contested today by those who seek to define Pride as a resistance against law enforcement and power structures designed to keep LGBTQ people second class citizens.
There are so few opportunities to visualize the first real moments of pride and liberation in all of its joys and freedoms and, yes, its frustrations and growing pains. The juxtaposition of parades and protests from 50 years ago alongside today's provide a lineage of Pride predecessors that are frequently reminisced about, but not too often available to be seen. And as we've strived to be seen in an effort to be recognized by ourselves and others, the preservation of our history is more necessary than ever — not only so we can prove it exists, but so that we can learn from and improve upon it by the time we're celebrating our centennial.
Trish Bendix is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.