I was four years old in June 1969 when young queers, drag queens, and transgender activists stood up to a cultural infrastructure deeply rooted in absolutist heteronormativity and fearful obedience to gender customs; and my mother was buying my kindergarten clothes when those events at the Stonewall Inn were commemorated a year later with gay liberation gatherings in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA.
The June 1970 anniversary event in New York, called Christopher Street Liberation Day, was sort of a micro-evolution of the Annual Reminder pickets at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall every July 4 dating back to my birth year, 1965. (Thank you, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, et al.) The early 1970s Stonewall reminders didn’t yet have a Pride Flag (Gilbert Baker would gift that to the community in 1978); and they weren’t quite the joyful, free-spirited celebrations they are today.
What to name those June festivities would evolve as well, to one powerful five-letter word: Pride. Pride marches. Pride rallies. Pride parades. Gay pride. That powerful word — “pride” — became indelibly stamped on these (daylong, weeklong, and now monthlong) festivals of colorful people celebrating a colorful community. Even the mainstream eventually joined the party when Pride Month was first officially recognized by presidential proclamation in 1999, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion.
For just about forever prior to that seventh decade of the twentieth century, LGBTQ+ persons (with some notable exceptions) were forced to be ashamed of themselves. Most preachers, politicians, and community pillars labeled LGBTQ+ persons an offense to religion and state. Queer psyches were washed in hurtful epithets and social shame. That these same labeled people grabbed hold of the word “pride” to name their movement was an act of civil disobedience against both history and language. Early organizers exchanged secret shame for public pride — self-worth, self-dignity, and self-respect. Choosing the word “pride” was brave. And defiant. (We owe much to these 1960s and 1970s radicals!)
As we enter Pride Month 2023, I would love to write that everything is settled and made right. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. We are in the middle of a fierce backlash against our community — particularly against transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary persons.
Pride Month is about where we live in the present, even when the present isn’t quite what we want it to be. LGBTQ+ History Month (October in the U.S.) is about how we lived and advocated in the past. History, of course, is a source of pride. Speaking of Stonewall, exploring the lives of civil rights genius Bayard Rustin or brave astronaut Sally Ride, remembering everyone who ever contributed to our human rights movement fills us with gratitude and with pride. History, after all, gifts us a prideful narrative in which we ourselves can walk and unfolds a story in which we ourselves write our own happy chapters.
Pride Month, the most global (and most fun) of all queer community events, is observed all over the world. While not as universal (yet), History Month is celebrated in 19 locations around the globe, with four added in 2022: Italy, Cuba, France, and Uganda. Our International Committee on LGBTQ+ History Months, organized in the fall of 2021, brings together academics, archivists, teachers, and activists from all over the world who believe that recovering, preserving, and publicizing history is vital work in all human rights movements, including our own.
Pride Month and History Month stand together as resolute assertions that every human being has a right to their history, their stories, and their pride. Every hindrance that denies these possibilities, especially to our young people, must be opposed. Every action that causes our community to stumble must be countered. Every prejudice that makes it less likely that we attain our life potential must be overcome.
Our work, every month of the year, is about creating an ever-expanding safe place for everyone to be proud of themselves and to be brave and wise citizens who don’t back down to bullies on the street or bullies in state legislatures.
Pride is an essential ingredient. History is another. History nourishes pride. Pride energizes history. Pride. History. Partners — this month and well into the future.●
Rodney Wilson, the first openly gay public schoolteacher in Missouri, is the founder of LGBTQ+ History Month USA. He is co-founder of the International Committee on LGBTQ+ History Months, a collaborative body of representatives for the world’s 19 LGBTQ+ History Months. He is the subject of the docu-short “Taboo Teaching.”
This article was published in our June 2023 issue.