Gay Pride Parade

Anthropology: The History of Pride Month in America and Europe

When is Pride Month?

For many people living in the northern hemisphere, the month of June typically signals the arrival of summer. But for European and American members of the LGBT+ community, June often signals the arrival of ‘Gay Christmas’ or as it is more commonly referred to, Pride month.

Gay Pride Parade
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What is Pride Month for?

When one thinks of Pride Month, the typical images usually come to mind. A sea of rainbow flags, parade floats and glitter: Pride Month celebrates an evolving culture of gay liberation and sexual freedom. To some, this may seem like an excuse to party and have fun. But Pride is much more than just a month of weekly parades and parties.

Many people are unaware that various workshops and community events also take place throughout LGBT+ pride month. While organisers want people to have a good time, they also want to educate attendees about current LGBT+ issues. These workshops are not only aimed at ‘the straight community’, but they are also designed for other queer people.

There is a festering culture of fear amongst older members of the queer community that the new generation of queer youth have forgotten what Pride is about. Some lament that the younger generation doesn’t know ‘how good they’ve got it’. This is largely due to the fact that they fear that the new generation are ignorant to current queer issues, believing that former gay rights movements were solely about fighting for marriage equality.

So, whilst Pride month has evolved into a culture of hedonism and joy, Pride event organisers are trying to ensure that Pride Month doesn’t stray too far from its roots.  They hope that Pride can be a celebration of liberation whilst raising awareness for the ongoing struggles faced by queer people today, particularly those faced by individuals with less mainstream queer identities.

Pride window display
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Gay Rights in Europe Before the 20th Century

While religious admonitions of homosexuality have long stigmatised gay relationships, British lawmakers only began to criminalise homosexuality in the mid 16th century. The criminalisation of homosexuality in Britain exacerbated a culture of discrimination and shame that existed not only in Britain, but across the world. In the late 19th century, the British Empire spread a set of legal codes and common law that criminalised homosexuality. This created a  somewhat global attitude of sexual immorality towards gay and lesbian sex.

In 2018 alone, at least 38 countries that were once subject to some sort of British colonial rule still had anti-gay laws in place. In fact, former British prime minister Theresa May encouraged nations of the Commonwealth to reform such anti-gay legislation. May also expressed her regret that this is part of the legacy that Britain has left on these nations.

Nonetheless, the extent to which different types of colonial rule influenced attitudes towards homosexuality in formerly colonised nations appears to remain inconclusive. One thing that remains clear, however, is that the notion of taking ‘pride’ in one’s sexuality was birthed from an attempt to escape a culture of sexual disgrace.

Photograph of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
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Liberated 1920s Berlin

The 1969 Stonewall Riots are  largely regarded as the catalyst of the gay rights movement. While this fatal day is deserving of its recognition as a landmark event in queer history, many people (queer and straight alike) remain unfamiliar with other political actions predating Stonewall that helped to advance the gay rights movement.

There were hardly any radical gay rights movements before the end of the 19th century until the founding of Berlin’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897, that is. The committee was one of the most visible organisations advocating for gay rights in the early 20th century. They made fairly significant progress, campaigning for legal reforms and organising rallies in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

The society’s work led to a period of liberation and tolerance for gay men and women in post-war Germany. It has been speculated that there were more gay bars in 1920s Berlin than in post-1950s New York. While the committee’s success is more noteworthy than other societies formed during this time, it was short lived. When the Nazi’s seized power in 19933, anti-gay law enforcement was reinvigorated, and Magnus Hirschfeld’s (the founder of the committee) archives were destroyed. Germany’s culture of anti-gay discrimination was revived.

It was only until after the second World War that gay men and women would find this same sense of community and visibility again, with the war bringing many young people to large cities.

Members of Scientific-Humanitarian Committee
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The Gay Societies of the 1950s and 60s America

In the early 1950s, Harry Hay established The Mattachine Society, which quickly spread across the US. The society allowed gay men and women to meet in safe places to share their experiences living as homosexuals in post-war America. They thrived on a sense of community and believed that by working together, they could rise out of oppression and overturn the anti-gay legislation of the time.

Though by 1953, many members believed that in order truly achieve equality, they needed to ditch their radical ideals of dismantling the patriarchy. The society instead adopted more accommodationist ideals that involved adhering to more traditional heterosexual lifestyles such as monogamous relationships.

Following this, the society achieved many political victories that advanced their movement. Most notably, a 1958 US Supreme Court ruling granted them the right to mail their magazine across the US. Similar ground-breaking victories were won in Britain, such as the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1967. However, historians largely debate the extent to which the adoption of a more accommodationist approach, in fact, directly advanced the gay rights movement.

Gay rights protest
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The Stonewall Riots

Although major political victories had been won since the formation of The Mattachine Society, the gay rights movement became much more aggressive towards the end of the 1960s, forcing the society to dissolve.

Despite making relatively significant progress, gay men and women were exhausted by constant police harassment and abuse. The laws had changed, but the culture of intense homophobia and discrimination remained the same. Homosexual men and women were allowed to be intimate with one another and gather in public spaces, yet they still felt shamed for being gay and did not feel respected by the police or general public.

Throughout the 1960s Gay bars across America were frequently raided. There was a culture of intense fear on both sides. But on June 28th, 1969, police interference at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village, New York, resulted in unexpected conflict. More than 400 people joined the riot against the police in the early hours of the morning that day, and the riots continued for several succeeding nights.

Many questions about the Stonewall riots remained unanswered. Why did the police raided the Stonewall Inn? Who started the Stonewall riots? Who through the first brick? Why were the rioters angry? There are several theories, all of which are inconclusive. Some argue that America’s social and political climate at the time had finally given way for such significant acts of rebellion to take place that night. The 1960s is often referred to as a volatile decade. With the rise of the black civil rights movement and feminism in America, theorists claim that LGBT+ Americans saw other social minorities desperately fighting for their rights and eventually followed suit.

Marsha P. Johnson at LGBT+ rights protest
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The Legacy of Stonewall in America

The early morning of June 28th 1969 had given the LGBT+ community the visibility that other political movements that predate Stonewall had not quite managed to achieve. There was a growing spirit of resistance and agitation that began to migrate across to Europe and the rest of the globe.

In order to build upon this resistance, marches were organised the following year to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. These marches preceded every June throughout the 1970s and gradually spread across the US and Europe. Organisers referred to the marches as ‘Gay Pride’ to decentralise homosexuality away from themes of disgrace and immorality, encouraging others to take pride in their sexuality and ‘come out of the closet.’

At the beginning the new millennium, President Bill Clinton officially made June ‘Gay and Lesbian Pride Month’. And just over a decade later President Barack Obama called it ‘Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month’ to make it more inclusive. Four years later, gay marriage was legalised in all 50 states and as his final recognition of  Pride as president, Obama lifted the ban on openly transgender people being allowed to serve in the US military.

White House Pride Memorial
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The Future of Pride

With homosexuality becoming less taboo in Western society, many have questioned the need for Pride. Nevertheless, many LGBT+ activists argue that though the fight for marriage equality is important, the gay rights movement has somewhat lost its ‘radical edge’ since Stonewall. These activists argue that the narrow focus on marriage equality, in fact, reinforces accommodationist ideals similar to those endorsed by The Mattachine Society. Moreover, they suggest that there are much more pressing issues to focus on than marriage equality, such as ongoing transphobia, criminal justice reform, gun violence and income inequality.

According to activists, the gay rights movement so far has only advanced the positions of gay men, particularly those who are white and middle-class, and has left behind LGBT+ people who are people of colour, transgender, gender nonconforming, bisexual, indigenous as well as formerly incarcerated queer people.

Gay couple just married
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The Need for Intersectionality

There has been a rising sense of division between white gay men and other members of the queer community, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the feminist movement. Activists urge that in order for Pride to truly be a celebration for all LGBT+ people, the queer community needs to address intersectionality. The notion of intersectionality suggests that people experiencing various, intersecting forms of oppression (such as race, class and gender) cannot benefit from activism if such activism is based on broad issues. For instance, they claim that the general advocation for LGBT+ rights cannot account for the complex issues faced by a transgender woman of colour. Furthermore, they argue that the attainment of marriage equality serves little to those whose other civil liberties still remain at the centre of political contention.

Transgender Rights in the UK

Most notably, in the UK, there have been several debates about whether children who identify as transgender should be prescribed puberty blockers. LGBT+ activists argue that puberty blockers ensure that transgender children do not experience discomfort towards their changing bodies during puberty. Activists also claim that this this period offers families time to make appropriate decisions about how or whether to move forward with gender transitioning.

Though earlier this year, the High Court ruled that children under the age 16 cannot make informed decisions about undergoing such medical interventions. This ruling has been extremely controversial and has caused outrage amongst trans activists who believe that transgender people living in the UK are not given the same rights as other members of the LGBT+ community. They urge that the gay rights movement needs to take greater action to support transgender rights now that the issue of marriage equality has supposedly passed.

Trans rights protest
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The Commercialisation of Pride

Not only have recent Pride events ben criticised for losing the spirit of the 1970s gay rights movement and for allegedly only protecting certain members of the queer community, but Pride Moth has recently been criticised for becoming too commercialised.

In 2019, British retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) made headline news for launching a sandwich to honour Pride season. While many praised M&S for showing visible support for the LGBT+ community and donating to LGBT+ charities, others slated the campaign, calling it a calculated marketing ploy.

These critics have called out M&S and other large corporations for allegedly only showing support for the LGBT+ community when it is Pride Month. They argue that their ally ship is merely performative and used as a marketing tool. This argument raises questions not only about the extent to which businesses should show their support for Pride throughout the year, but also about the extent to which their current activism is effective.

It is clear that as society becomes more accepting of LGBT+ people, there is a greater incentive for businesses to align themselves with the LGBT+ rights movement. The extent to which this is beneficial to such communities, however, is still up for debate.

Marks and Spencer Pride sandwich
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Significance of Pride Month in Anthropology

Pride Month is important because it has largely altered Western attitudes towards homosexuality not only in Europe and America, but across the world. The gay rights movements in America and Europe have given platforms to queer people from across the globe, who have adopted similar themes of pride to encourage more liberal attitudes towards homosexuality in their own countries. Whilst Pride celebrations have become a lot more joyful over the years, they may not remain this way. Until LGBT+ activists feel that the all members of the LGBT+ community receive enough visibility and not just gay people, Pride could eventually revert back to a more aggressive culture similar to the Stonewall riots.

Cartoon of various Pride flags
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