On June 25, 2017, New York’s LGBTQ Pride Parade will be televised on a major network for the first time in history. The Pride parade began in 1970 as a political march when activist Craig Rodwell, along with a few others, wanted to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. An ABC affiliate’s decision to televise and live-stream the parade fulfills Rodwell’s political project of making gay people, and, in today’s more inclusive view, all LGBTQ people, visible to the masses.
A few years before the first Pride march, Rodwell got into an argument with members of the NYC chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group. He demanded that the Mattachine Society no longer meet secretly behind closed doors. Rodwell believed that LGBTQ people needed to be visible within the neighborhoods where they lived in order to foster a sense of community and to promote a positive image of queer people to the rest of the city. Scraping together what little money he had saved during the summer as a bartender in the gay enclave Fire Island, he opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, which was the first-ever gay bookstore in the world, on Thanksgiving Day in 1967.
Frustrated that bars and bathhouses were the only places where gay men could openly congregate, he believed that a bookstore could be a community hub—a place where gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people could transcend the segregated restrictions imposed by bar culture and interact collectively. The bookstore also showcased LGBTQ people’s literary contributions as writers, novelists, historians, poets, and essayists, at a time when the Library of Congress’ subheadings for homosexuality only included “criminality and medical abnormality” with no reference to writers’ sexual identity or recognition of a queer community.
Rodwell’s commitment to the politics of visibility, manifested in his bookstore, can be traced to a 1964 letter he wrote to the editor of Life magazine for its coverage of gay life. Life ran an article composed of black-and-white photos of mostly silhouette images of gay men in leather jackets cruising on city streets, crowded together in smoky bars, and then handcuffed by undercover policemen. The article warned readers of the “gay world” and of the increasing number of gay men “openly admitting, even flaunting, their deviation.” And it alerted readers that “for every obvious homosexual, there are probably nine nearly impossible to detect.” Although the article played on a number of damaging stereotypes, Rodwell saw value in it. In his response to the story, Rodwell wrote a letter, stating: “The homosexual in this country has been a scapegoat for too long, as have the Negro and the Jew.” But he did not condemn the article. Instead, he praised it because it offered him a chance to expose the oppression of gay people. There was no longer, according to Rodwell, a “conspiracy of silence in the public media” about homosexuality.
The ethos underlying the fight for LGBTQ liberation has historically focused on ending the silence surrounding same-sex desire, gender diversity, and coming out of the closet. The visibility of self-identifying as LGBTQ served both in the 20th century and today as a powerful kryptonite against homophobia. Rodwell perceptively knew this and devoted much of his life’s work to promoting positive images of LGBTQ people.
The decision to televise this year’s parade will have immediate political effects that would make Rodwell proud. It should help curb the otherwise sensationalistic images that typically misrepresent LGBTQ culture in the media’s coverage of the parade. Too often, nightly news reports of the event feature men dressed in G-strings with fuchsia boas over the countless civic groups that march in the parade from Dignity, the gay Catholic group, to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a Brooklyn-based museum, community center, and archive. While these groups may promote a more sanitized image of queer culture, they, like many others, rarely get reported on as part of the parade.
Televising the parade from start to finish will also capture the diversity within the LGBTQ community—the college students and the elderly, the radicals and the conservatives, the various people-of-color contingents, and the transgender constituents who have been historically neglected.
Showing this richly diverse group also matters in a broader global context. In the 1960s and 1970s, LGBTQ people in the United States fought for visibility because they feared that their burgeoning culture could be exterminated like the gay community in Berlin during Hitler’s reign. Stories of gay men branded with pink triangles, imprisoned in labor camps, and gunned down by Nazis made their way through informal communication networks in Europe to the United States where many gay people, like the eminent historian Jonathan Ned Katz, felt emboldened to document gay American history in fear that it too might be erased.
Today, in Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, and in other parts of the world, LGBTQ people are the victims of state-sanctioned torture and violence. Due to the lack of visibility, their deaths often gets reduced to rumors, bolstering claims from leaders that they never even existed “here” in the first place.
Televising the Pride parade also has profound political effects for a younger, isolated generation of LGBTQ people. Despite the uptick in queer representation on TV, online, or even in the news, LGBTQ people grow up in households, churches, and schools that remain homophobic. While all minorities face discrimination and prejudice, many LGBTQ youth grow up in families where no one understands their sexual orientation and identity, which is one of the reasons why suicide among LGBTQ youth remains a silent epidemic and the number of queer homeless youth continues to escalate.
Televising the entire parade is a political act. Rodwell and many early queer pioneers learned from the black civil rights movement as they developed their political strategies and cast their vision for the future. Similarly, today, the rise of Black Lives Matter has energized queer activism and inspired many LGBTQ activists across the country to use Pride parades as sites of protest. In response to the unreported violence against transgender people, activists in Boston staged a protest that halted the start of their parade earlier in the month. Due to the rampant racism and transphobia within the queer community itself, LGBTQ activists known as #NoJusticeNoPride formed a blockade that interrupted the Pride parade in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago.
In New York City, this year’s Pride parade will draw participants from around the world just as Rodwell and others had imagined, and it will be the first time that television viewers will witness the multiplicity of queer culture—its varied politics, its diverse members, its internal strife, its pride, and its protests against prejudice.