Pride: Gay History and Symbols

Every year the gay community and their supporters celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement. The community gathers to celebrate the most recent accomplishments and to take a moment to pause and recall those who called themselves gay and worked towards equality against often cruel repression and persecution. It was the altruistic acts and sacrifices of generations of gay individuals that blazed a trail allowing other gays to begin to stand proud and equal.

The Stonewall Riots

It is hard to imagine that events that unfolded the night of June 28, 1969. Located in Greenwich Village, Stonewall Inn would be the site constituting the single most important event leading to gay liberation and today’s gay rights movement. The remainder of the decade became very contentious as civil rights and anti-war demonstrations became very active social movements. Gay Americans faced a legal system that was openly hostile towards them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was difficult to find establishments that would cater to homosexuals. One of the few establishments that would allow gay men and/or women to gather naturally were bars and private ‘clubs’. The Stonewall Inn in the 1960s was one of the most popular among the gay community – particularly among those most marginalized by American society: The drag queens, sissy men, male prostitutes, homeless gay youth, gay singles to name a few.

During the 1950s and 60s in New York (as well as many other large cities in the U.S.), police raids were common. On June 28th, 1969, four plainclothes officers, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board agents, two uniformed policemen and a detective arrived at Stonewall Inn on a contrived ‘raid’. The officials claimed they were there to check on violations of the alcohol control laws but soon the officers began making homophobic comments, asking patrons for names and addresses and forcefully throwing people out of the bar.

Typically, the gay men and women would just go quietly and fade away into the night – this time it was different. Patrons began to resist and soon a full scale riot broke out. Plainly, the gay community had had enough. In a show of solidarity, the community of Greenwich Village assembled, joining those patrons of Stonewall Inn, fighting back against harassment and brutality. The riot would span three days and would soon involve protests by gay communities in a number of other U.S. cities.

The resulting aftermath became known as the gay liberation movement providing a formate for courageous individuals to step out of the shadows and discuss their sexual orientation. Rather than to continue to be shamed, leaders of the movement began to stress being proud of one’s self, and that included being gay – hence the beginning of the ‘gay pride’ concept that would evolve into the rainbow flay being displayed on gay run establishments to gay pride parades. All it took was the spark from those who on June 28th, 1969, decided they were just not going to take the abuse any longer and remain silent.

Even though it is easy for a current generation to see the recent victories within the U.S. by the gay community ranging from the right to marry to the right not to be discriminated against on the job, it is important to keep in mind that the struggle for freedom and equality started way before the events at Stonewall.

Gay Pride Symbols and History

Current gay culture is rich and remembering those gay individuals who had been marginalized, attacked, persecuted and even killed for their sexual orientation. An example is the pink triangle. Once a symbol of shame, if not meant to create intense fear, today the pink triangle is displayed as a form of pride and remembrance.

The Pink Triangle

The pink triangle patch or badge was sewed on to the uniforms of sexual deviants prisoners in Nazi Germany. Gay men wore an inverted pink triangle to single them out for additional shame. All it took was to be accused of being gay and a person could end up in court for the crime of being homosexual, and being a homosexual was a federal crime carrying a sentence of up to 20 years. Many pink triangle prisoners were eventually shipped to concentration camps, the same camps were millions of Jews were executed. The Jews were forced to wear a badge of 2 yellow triangles, one over the other, to form a star; gypsies were branded with brown badges; blue for forced labor; green for other criminals; and so forth. Some historians estimated that between 20,000 to 60,000 gay men were sent to the camps – many did not make it out alive.

When the Allies eventually liberated the concentration camps towards the end of World War II, the tragedy didn’t end for the gay community. The Germans want the gay prisoners to finish their prison sentences – and the Allies complied and transferred the pink triangle prisoners to standard prisons. Germany did not change the law making homosexuality a federal crime for another 24 years after the end of World War II. A new generation of gay activists seized on the pink triangle symbol both to remember the oppression and suffering that homophobia inflicted on gay people in the past, and to symbolize a form of resistance for such oppression to continue. Today, the pink triangle has become an international symbol for gay rights.

Arrival of the Rainbow Flag

The history of the rainbow flag, sometimes called the gay pride flag and the banner of the gay community is sketchy at best. Many say it was designed Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, who first displayed the rainbow flag in 1978. The rainbow flay caught on with gay community quickly and rapidly spread across the USA and then the world. At last, the gay community felt they had an original symbol they could display with pride to show they had a common cause.

Although the original flag had meanings attached to each of the colors of the rainbow flag, an even more important message evolved regarding the flag: The colors came to represent embracing diversity, and rejecting divisiveness.

Though much has been gained in terms of gay rights in the U.S., Canada and Europe, it is important to note that being gay, homosexual, is still a crime in many parts of the world, in some places punishable with prison or worse. The rainbow flag and it’s symbolism may yet prove to be the greatest instrument of change in the world’s opinion of the gay community. In the words of Edwin Markham, "He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout – But love and I had the wit to win – We drew a circle and took him In."

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