Every year, June 1st marks the start of Pride Month in the United States and across the world. It means that you will start to see a lot of rainbows, and parades full of drag queens and events celebrating the community.
It’s fun and festive, designed to bring people from all walks of life together. But there is so much more to Pride Month than flags and flamboyance. It’s about breaking down barriers, and upholding the message that love shouldn’t require labels or limitations.
And if there is anything we’ve all learned over the past couple of years, nothing is more important than being with the people we love. As such, I wanted to provide some history of the LGBTQ+ community and the Pride Month celebrations to help spread some of that love a little further.
A Life Beyond the Closet
I was 23 when I finally stopped hiding and came out to my family. Looking back, hiding from my family was a silly choice. I grew up with a lesbian aunt that was loved and cherished by the entire family. I took my first step by coming out to my mom, slowly coming out to the rest of my family.
One thing many people do not realize is that coming out is not a one-time deal. It is something that we do every time we meet someone.
It is going to the vet and explaining it is under my husband’s name. It is going to the bank and explaining that the man with you is not your roommate. It is explaining to the waiter that we’re not brothers. It is going to a professional conference and being asked about your wife and deciding each time if it’s worth correcting the person you are talking to.
Each time I have to make that decision – do I come out or not? Do I correct the person I am talking to when they think I have a wife? Is it safe to do so? Will the person I am speaking to continue to be respectful even if they do not agree?
The Origins of Pride Month
Pride month came about after a series of police raids on a bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City that was suspected of serving gay patrons. On June 28, 1969 the police raided this bar because it was actually illegal to employ or serve gay people. It lasted several days and resulted in terrible violence and arrests as clashes between the community and police escalated. These raids are now known as the “Stonewall Riots.”
The First Ever Pride Parade
On June 28th, 1970, the first ever Gay Pride Parade set off from from the Stonewall Inn with several hundred people and finished with thousands from the crowd joining in solidarity. The Stonewall Riots would go on to inspire the fight for equal rights across the country and world.
In 1978 Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, commissioned a Vietnam veteran (and fantastic drag queen) Gilbert Baker to create the rainbow flag, now used across the world as a sign of pride and acceptance.
The AIDS Epidemic
In the 80’s and early 90’s, the gay community saw the AIDs epidemic quickly erasing an entire generation of gay men. At the time, the entire world was terrified of this disease. Those diagnosed with AIDs were left to die alone in hospitals with hospital staff and family members afraid to even touch them in fear of catching the disease.
It was a terrible time for the gay community, and did further harm to our place in society, as it was seen as a gay disease. When the late Princess Diana visited a newly opened AIDs unit in London and was photographed shaking hands with a patient, that stigma began to lift and it became a human disease devastating the world.
The Burden of Fear
Despite some progress in decades past, growing up as a gay man in Nebraska was terrifying. One of my first memories of the gay community was the death of Brandon Teena near Lincoln. In 1993, Brandon was murdered at 21 years old because he was trans man who chose to live his authentic life. His tragic story was later told in the movie Boys Don’t Cry starring Hillary Swank.
In 1998, 21-year-old student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tortured, and left for dead tied to a fence pole in Wyoming. It was a murder that changed America. It brought attention to hate crime legislation at both the state and federal level, and in October 2009 the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, later signed into law by President Barack Obama.
It was a scary time to be understanding I was different, then seeing someone being brutally murdered for that same reason. This was also the same year I was referred to as a “faggot” for the first time. Not by a classmate, but by a fully grown adult. I was nine years old. It would not be the last time I had that word, and many others, shouted at me. This tragedy and those like it still influence me today as I consider how open I want to be.
Changing the Laws on Gay Rights
In 1994, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was passed. While President Clinton used this to remove the ban against gays in the military, it still meant that gay men and women in the military had to keep their personal lives a secret, something their heterosexual counterparts did not. By the time DADT was repealed in 2011, more than 12,000 officers had been discharged from the military for being gay.
In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed, allowing the government to prevent same-sex couples from receiving Federal benefits and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
In 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, finally making marriage between same-sex partners federally recognized.
I can still recall the day that the decision and opinion were released. I was surrounded by my friends as we all celebrated that we finally had a right to marry who we loved. But this equality is still contingent on the ruling of the Supreme Court, meaning that the 1996 DOMA is still the law in effect, if the 2015 decision were to be overturned by the Supreme Court.
The Joy of Marriage Equality
Last year, I married my best friend in a small but perfect ceremony. Something that would not have been possible even a decade prior. Our marriage is no different than any other marriage but we feel how shaky the foundation is right now.
It just seems funny how something so personal, like making a lifetime commitment to the person you love and want to share your life with, can be decided by something so impersonal as a court or a legislative body.
Moving Forward with Pride
Being different is not easy, but with every generation it gets a little bit better. During this month we stand with pride on the shoulders of the men and women that came before us. They challenged the status quo and stood up for themselves and everyone that came after them. People like Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, RuPaul Charles and many, many more have used their lives to change the public perception of the community.
The work isn’t done – and might never be – but sometimes it’s nice to look back and reflect on how far we’ve come. I hope I can do my small part to help continue to change the perception of our community.