June is Pride Month and a time to celebrate diversity, recognize and memorialize the lives and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community, and demonstrate for equal rights.
A year after the Stonewall riots began on June 28, 1969, the nation’s inaugural Gay Pride marches were held on that day in New York City, 1970.
Brenda Howard, the bisexual “Mother of Pride” from New York, organized the first Pride parade to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
Following the first Pride march, Gay Pride Day generally took place on the last Sunday in June. In major cities, celebrations continued throughout the month, which continues today.
Today, millions of people march worldwide each year, although festivities were held virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic. This year, many US cities will hold a hybrid of in-person and virtual events throughout June.
Today, we celebrate Pride Month by recognizing three LGBTQ trailblazers whose lives changed history.
See a short animated history of LGBTQ+ history with Wanda Sykes below:
The Mother of Pride, Brenda Howard
Pioneering bisexual Bronx native Brenda Howard was known for wearing a bright pink button that read, “Bi, ply, switch – I’m not greedy, I know what I want.”
Howard co-founded the New York Area Bisexual Network in 1988. Before the 1993 March on Washington, the grassroots activist lobbied for bisexual inclusion in the event.
An excellent organizer, Howard coordinated a rally followed by the Christopher Street Liberation Day March to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprisings. Howard’s idea was to have a week-long series of events and “Pride Day,” which led to today’s Pride Month.
According to Howard’s partner, Larry Nelson:
“You needed some kind of help organizing some type of protest or something in social justice?” recalled Nelson. “All you had to do was call her and she’ll just say when and where.”
Over the years, Howard was arrested multiple times for social justice causes and kept on fighting.
“She was an in-your-face activist,” Nelson said. “She fought for anyone who had their rights trampled on.”
See more about Brenda Howard with Matthew Hertel:
Marsha P. Johnson
After years of harassment from New York City police, Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman, and others at the Stonewall Inn decided to fight back.
Police raided the Inn, one of the only places that had offered a haven for the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community since 1930. Then, police forced over 200 people onto the street, treating them with excessive force.
“We were … throwing over cars and screaming in the middle of the street ’cause we were so upset ’cause they closed that place,” Johnson told historian Eric Marcus in a 1989.
“We were just saying, ‘no more police brutality’ and ‘we had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places.'”
In the ensuing protests, many LGBTQ people took a stand against the latest of the ongoing police raids.
However, Marsha P. Johnson is widely known for throwing the first brick (or shot glass?) in the scuffle. However, nobody knows for sure if this is historically accurate, and it has become a sort of origin myth.
Certainly, Marsha P. Johnson was one of the leading figures at Stonewall, resisting arrest and leading the protests against police harassment and abuse. For her, the fight would not end until everyone had their rights.
“You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.”- Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
Following the Stonewall Uprising, protests continued over six days. Then, the events encouraged activists to continue pushing for rights in the coming years. Consequently, Johnson’s bravery helped spark a movement that allows everyone to celebrate Pride today. The cumulative effect of each small effort was something that Johnson later reflected on.
“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”- Marsha P. Johnson.
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Later, along with fellow activist drag performer, and close friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded STAR Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to help gay and trans homeless people. Rivera had joined Johnson at the Stonewall protest.
Amazingly, Johnson and Rivera also opened the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in North America. As such, they were the first Trans women of color to lead an organization in the United States.
Due to her ongoing efforts to help marginalized people, she was called the “Saint of Christopher Street,” where the Stonewall Inn still stands.
See more from Inside Edition below:
An Unsolved Murder
In 2015, the Stonewall Inn became a New York City landmark. Thus, it was the first time a site was named primarily because of its significance in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history.
In 1992, Johson was mysteriously found floating in the river at age 46. Although many regard her death as an apparent murder, her death was ruled a suicide and later a drowning by undetermined causes. However, the case remains open, subject of a documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
Twenty years after Marsha’s death, the District Attorney’s office agreed to reopen the case, but it remains unsolved almost 30 years later.
In 2019, the head of New York’s Police Department apologized for what happened at Stonewall, saying, “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong.”
See Laverne Cox speak about Marsha P. Johnson below from Lifetime:
LGBTQ Trailblazer Randy Wicker
For twelve years, Marsha P. Johnson lived with roommate Randy Wicker, one of the most visible gay rights activists in New York City during the 1960s.
However, Wicker was initially wary of Johnson, who he initially saw as a potential “public relations nightmare” as a transgender sex worker. While Johnson dressed in outlandish drag, Wicker wore a trademark suit and tie.
For Wicker, it was best to take a more conservative approach to gain public acceptance.
“I always believed if you’re going out to fight any battle with controversy surrounding it, nothing empowers you further than a respectable appearance,” Wicker told Vogue.
A First Public LGBTQ Protest
In the 60s, it was radical to suggest that people should accept LGBTQ people because they were just like everyone else. At the time, society prohibited homosexuality and deemed it a “psychological illness.” Law enforcement could arrest people for wearing drag, and subject people to humiliating and demeaning questions and body searches.
When he began publicly protesting, his parents, though accepting, asked him to change his given name of Charles Gervin Hayden Jr.
However, Wicker believed the best way to change prevailing attitudes was to discuss the matter in a sophisticated way in the media.
“From the beginning, I believed in publicity and discussion as a means to change attitudes,” Wicker said.
In 1962, Wicker founded the Homosexual League of New York. Then, he became the first-ever openly gay person to talk live on the radio. Appearing on WBAI radio, he confronted the idea that homosexuality was a mental illness.
“People challenged WBAI’s license,” Wicker said. “But once the Federal Communications Commission ruled that homosexuality was a legitimate issue for discussion on public airwaves, all these radio stations and TV stations wanted a homosexual to interview.”
In September 1964, he led the first public protest against anti-gay discrimination. Standing in front of the US Army building, he protested the military’s discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Remembering Marsha P. Johnson
Today, Wicker says offering Marsha P. Johnson a place to stay as his roommate was one of the best decisions he ever made. Although he was initially hesitant to embrace her, he came to love her and value her lasting contributions to equality.
“That was the greatest blessing I had in life, having a roommate like Marsha,” he says.
“The real secret to my life is having a big enough apartment to make room for people like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.”
When asked what her middle initial stood for, Marsha P. Johnson said, “Pay no mind.” Today, Wicker still lives by the motto.
However, his advice for other activists:
“Self-preservation is the first rule. Do what you can, but in a way that you’re able to survive doing it.” He adds: “Stand up as much as you can for what is right.”
Below, Randy Wicker discussed the social scene at the Stonewall Inn for LGBTCenterNYC:
Featured images: Screenshots via YouTube