I am a proud gay humanist. I came out of the closet seven years ago, after ten years of struggle with my sexuality, ten years in the closet. One of the first things I did when I came out was march in Boston’s Pride parade. I still remember marching through Boston on a sweltering summer’s day, chanting “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous—come march with us!” Our little group of activists kept going up to people standing in the crowd and inviting them to step off the sidewalk and into the streets. We wanted people to participate, not just spectate, and by the end of the march our little contingent had grown significantly. Incidentally, this was totally against the rules of Boston Pride, but we didn’t care. Every June I remember the powerful feelings of affirmation and love that accompanied my first Pride march.
We hold Pride in June because, as the popular saying among activists has it, “the first gay Pride was a riot.” As many of you may know, we’re commemorating an event that occurred in the early morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City— a police raid that didn’t go as planned. In 1969 homosexuality was still officially classified as a mental disorder, and the term “transgender” had only just been coined. In those days, police harassment and abuse of the queer community was extremely overt and legally sanctioned. Many gay bars and clubs were run by the mafia and maintained through payments to the police, who took the money and were supposed to look the other way. The Stonewall Inn regularly paid off the police so that it could stay in business and serve its marginalized clients (the Stonewall was popular with drag queens, transgender people, and the poorer members of the queer community). But that didn’t stop the police from regularly turning up to raid the premises, arresting people and conducting a “sweep” to “clean up” the premises—sweeping away people like me, they meant. Cleaning up the place because people like me made it dirty.
Because these raids were routine they usually met with little resistance—people would cooperate to avoid being arrested and publicly shamed for their membership in the queer community. The police would take everyone’s information, then take the people who looked like they might be cross-dressing into the bathroom to “check their sex,” before arresting people they perceived to be men dressed as women. And this totally invasive, humiliating procedure was all carried out by an arm of the police called the “Public Morals Squad.” You don’t get much more Orwellian than that. Perhaps you can see why many of us aren’t thrilled at the idea of police leading a Pride parade: for decades the police were our among our main oppressors, and for many trans people and queer people of color that remains true today.
But in the early morning of June 28, patrons refused to go along with the regular routine. (The events described here are recounted in David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution). People would not give their identification and resisted being led to the bathroom to have their sex organs checked. They took exception to the police officers groping some of the lesbians while frisking them. A crowd began to grow outside, as people released from the bar by the police refused to go home, and others joined them to see what was up. Then, as police began leading arrestees to the wagons, some of the crowd started singing: “We Shall Overcome.” The atmosphere became more intense—somewhere an officer shoved a trans woman, who struck back with her purse. People started throwing pennies and beer bottles at the police vehicles. One lesbian woman, who had been hit and manhandled as the police tried to lead her to the wagon, called out to the crowd: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
And people did do something. People rioted.
This wasn’t the first time LGBTQIA+ people had fought for their rights: there had been protests and even riots before in our movement. But in some ways Stonewall was different. In contrast to some of the typical queer activism that was occurring in the 1960s before Stonewall, in which the participants were instructed to wear suits and dresses and look “normal” and “unthreatening”—hand-holding and cross-dressing were strictly forbidden on some marches, for instance—on Christopher Street in 1969 queer people asserted their power in a queer way. Spontaneous chorus lines sprung up dancing high kicks in front of police lines; patrons performed exaggerated pantomime mocking the police; and the leadership of trans people (including trans people of color) and drag queens and homeless queer youth was at the forefront. This was not a polite call for participation in “normal” straight society (“Be nice to us because we’re just like you!”).This was a fierce explosion of anger, energy, and pride. Pride in ourselves. We were finding a way to celebrate our difference, rather than to fit ourselves into the already existing mold. That is why Stonewall was important, and that is what Pride is all about—an unapologetic reveling in our own transgressive identities, a discovery of the power of queer selfhood.
This is why in the month of June people all over the world celebrate Pride. We call it Pride, in my mind, because the most deeply damaging thing which has been done to queer people is the constant cultural messaging suggesting that we are unworthy creatures, inherently flawed and disgusting. Yes, we have been violently oppressed (throughout history we have faced some of the most extreme and violent discrimination and oppression possible), but we have also been shamed, and that is in some senses worse because when you’re ashamed of yourself you are your own oppressor. When you learn to hate yourself it can be more difficult than other people hating you. Self-made prisons can be particularly hard to escape. Self-hatred drains your inner life, leaving you just a shell. I know, because I was in that place for ten years.
This is why, in response to millennia of targeted shaming, we assert our pride. It’s what Pride is all about—an unapologetic reveling in our own transgressive identities, a discovery of the power of queer and trans selfhood. We celebrate a month of Pride because we have suffered millennia of shame.
The focus on pride in ourselves over stultifying social norms defines the LGBTQIA+ movement and makes it, in my mind, a distinctively humanist tendency. Queer liberation, like humanism, is focused on people over tradition. Creativity over what is normal. Embracing life rather than denying it. I’m proud to be queer, because in the face of extraordinary prejudice and pain, we have found a way to not just accept ourselves, but to celebrate our uniqueness and demand that the world reshape itself so that it can celebrate us too. I’m proud to be a humanist because our human-centered values demand the same.