The Stonewall Riots Taught Gay Activists to Fight Back
These days, we take it for granted that June is Pride month, and that we celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots as the start of the modern queer liberation movement. But for several years prior to Stonewall, LGBT activists held a very different event every year on July 4th: They were called the Annual Reminders, and they set the stage for the rallies and protests and parades that we know today.
How the Annual Reminders Began
It started after a protest at the White House in 1965. Member of the Mattachine Society, the Janus Society and the Daughters of Bilitis — under the combined name of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) — picketed the White House on April 17, 1965.
However, this only became an annual event, thanks to Craig Rodwell, a longtime New York activist. Founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, Rodwell dated Harvey Milk, organized “sip-ins” to protest laws against serving alcohol to gay people, and picketed Cuba’s violence against gays at the United Nations.
Rodwell was inspired to start something similar to the White House protest in Philadelphia, near the Liberty Bell. ECHO coordinated the picket, which was attended by just thirty-nine people. (Nationally, there were only about 200 out and public LGBT activists at the time.)
Those thirty-nine were a who’s who of queer activism in the ’60s: Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, Kay Tobin and more. It was the most people who had ever gathered to publicly protest for LGBT rights.
It was a vastly different affair from Prides today. There was a strict dress code of suits and ties for men, dresses for women. It was important to organizers that gays look respectable and familiar to straight society.
A Stagnant Protest
Although the protests occurred every year on July 4th, they attracted little attention and did not grow in size. The pickets were peaceful affairs, and barely registered on anyone’s radar. Perhaps because everyone was so well-behaved, it was easy for the public to ignore what was going on.
The emphasis on looking acceptable was so severe that one of the organizers, Frank Kameny, tried to separate two women who were holding hands. Rodwell denounced him for it.
Re-Invigorated by Stonewall
Stonewall changed everything. After three years of quiet Annual Reminders, the Stonewall Riots happened in late June of 1969. The riots were raucous and violent and drew media attention; the Annual Reminder organizers saw that there was suddenly public interest in outraged homosexuals. And importantly, outrage was drawing more people into the streets.
The final Annual Reminder happened just a few weeks after the riots, and organizers could tell that a change was needed. Dissent was far more effective.
Turning the Annual Reminder into Pride
A few weeks after the riots, ECHO met to discuss changes to the Annual Reminders. They decided to move the event from Philadelphia to New York and shift it to June, commemorating the riots. It would also be renamed Christopher Street Liberation Day, and simultaneous events were to be held across the country.
That was when everything changed. The next year, Christopher Street Liberation Day was a huge success, drawing large crowds. There were additional marches in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In the intervening years, the event became known as “Gay Liberation Day,” and then finally “Gay Pride.”
There was a perfect confluence of events that made Pride possible — without the Annual Reminders, without Stonewall, and without the organizing behind the scenes, we likely wouldn’t have a reason to celebrate in June. And we likely wouldn’t have the rights and freedoms that today are so easy to take for granted.
Featured image by nito100 via iStockPhoto.