Resistance is the stuff LGBT Pride was once made of.
Los Angeles in the late 1960s, like much of America, was a hotbed of resistance of every kind: the women’s movement, the hippie movement, the antiwar movement and, yes, even a nascent movement for LGBT rights, all combined here to fuel the winds of change. The LGBT community in Los Angeles, as in New York and around the country, lived under constant threat of official violence and the oppression of pervasive hostility.
In 1966 Los Angeles, affection between men was officially condemned as a mental illness and viewed as a moral disorder. Sexual relations between people of the same sex — even hand holding — was a crime. Careers were destroyed by whisper or innuendo and extortion was rampant. There were precious few safe social spaces for LGBT people other than a dozen or so nightclubs in close proximity to one another near Silver Lake — Black Cat, Ram’s Head and Stage Door — and a couple, like The Patch near Long Beach.
And so when routine police raids on these establishments escalated and turned violent, the community was deeply traumatized. Finally, a breaking point came on New Year’s Eve 1967 when a celebration at Black Cat turned into a bloodbath; at five minutes past midnight, plainclothes police officers began tackling patrons, swinging billy clubs and pool sticks, dragging people into the streets, pulling bartenders facedown over broken glass across the bar, chasing patrons down the streets, breaking bones and doing severe bodily injury to some, arresting 16 people who were charged with lewd conduct for simply kissing, according to witnesses of the time and published accounts.
A community that had long hidden in the shadows suddenly found itself seeking intersectional allies. Police violence against civilians was attracting more attention than ever and activist groups, like Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE) distributed fliers that read, “PRIDE DEMONSTRATION: join Negroes, Mexicans, hippies” and demonstrate against “the Establishment war on minorities.” The Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile urged action by activating a phone-tree with the message that “Homosexuals, who have always been dependably meek, are fighting back.”
An unprecedented number of people turned out — one of the first mass gatherings in the United States protesting police harassment of LGBT people — protesting at the corner of Sunset and Hyperion.
Until recently, the action, groundbreaking though it was, has rarely been hailed as such. It has been almost buried in LA’s psyche. Even Troy Perry, one of the founders of Christopher Street West, says he “never viewed the Black Cat as a demonstration for LGBTQ rights but as an action against police brutality at that time in LA.”
Two and a half years later, in June 1969, a police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn captured the attention of the world, however.
Six powerful days of resistance in 1969 between young gay, lesbian, and transgender people and the New York Police Department continue to define who we are as a people, a movement and a community. After an intense escalation of brutal police raids on gay bars in New York City, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a Christopher Street bar in Manhattan’s West Village, fought back and won.
Though police turned fire hoses on the crowd, it swelled to thousands; chorus lines of drag queens and lesbian and gay youth overtook barricades, taunting police with campy chants and performing a Rockette-like show for the jaw-dropped police. “Occupy — take over, take over” they shouted. “Fag power!” “Liberate the bar! We’re the pink panthers!” They pulled cobblestones from the streets, smashed windows, threw bottles, even uprooting parking meters and cornering terrified policemen while singing a campy version of “We Shall Overcome.”
While news of the riots spread quickly around the world, Angelenos Rev. Troy Perry, Rev. Bob Humphries and Morris Kight, formed Christopher Street West (CSW) to honor the uprising in New York and to tap into a burgeoning sense of “gay power” by launching the world’s first Gay Pride Parade.
On June 28, 1970, thousands of jubilant people celebrated and danced their way west along Hollywood Boulevard, some chanting “two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight” and hoisting placards calling for equality and justice.
“At the time we had no idea what we were creating, we just wanted to acknowledge a courageous group that stood up to being bullied by police. It was a microcosm of what was taking place throughout the country and we thought, what better way to make noise, get attention and excite our community than by dressing up and putting on a parade,” said Perry.
Over the years the event evolved along with the community.
It moved to West Hollywood and became a fee-based, three-day festival to help pay the growing expense of the event. It was never without controversy, but fast-forward to 2016 and both the festival and the parade had nearly collapsed in the heat of withering criticism over the direction of the event and whether history or LGBT identity even matters.
From its founding in 1970 to 2016, the parade reflected the concerns of a community fighting for basic dignity, political rights, against violence and for government recognition of a health crisis that killed hundreds of thousands of gay men. In recent years, as the community enjoyed civil rights victories and gained social, cultural and political power, the Parade’s identity began to blur.
Last year, when CSW attempted to rebrand the three-day festival into a Music Festival, critics derided the group for attempting to turn LA Pride into “Gay Coachella.” CSW, they said, was hell-bent on ignoring the event’s legacy and on edging out more senior members of the community. CSW President Chris Classen, perhaps unintentionally, reinforced that notion while addressing the controversy to the West Hollywood City Council, saying that by “adding the word ‘music’ to the title of L.A. Pride is a subtle welcome to a younger generation who does not inherently understand the historical context of the event.”
Indeed, his plan, by rearranging or removing sacred elements of the festival, seemed to minimize the visibility of lesbians, transgender, Latino and leather community members and paid no homage to seniors or to history. Even country-western people felt they’d been given the boot in favor of a post-gay Music Festival.
Groups formed to protest CSW and critics blasted the organization at the group’s open board meetings and City Council meetings. Ivy Bottini, a 90-year-old lesbian resident of West Hollywood demanded change: “I consider the board a lame duck board…It doesn’t feel like CSW understands what Pride is.”
CSW corrected most of its mistakes and issued a mea culpa. Last May, CSW issued a statement saying it had “made a few missteps along the way that have left valued members of our community feeling left out or underappreciated. This was never our intention. We’ve heard your concerns and objections and we sincerely apologize.” It seemed to work.
But events conspired to remind everyone about the historical context of the event — a response to violent oppression — that gave rise to Christopher Street West’s existence.
Mourning for Orlando
Los Angeles, like everyone in America, was stunned to wake up on the morning of June 12, 2016, to the news that a madman had opened fire on the dance floor of a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding dozens more. That morning, Santa Monica Police Department arrested 20-year-old James Wessley Howell, an Indiana man, who was found with an arsenal of assault rifles, ammunition and explosives in his car; he told police he ‘wanted to harm’ people at the Los Angeles Pride festival.
A pall was cast over the annual LA Pride Parade but in a defiant move, Christopher Street West chose to continue with the Parade and it quickly became a march honoring of the victims in Orlando.
But questions about CSW just wouldn’t go away.
In late 2016, it was revealed the organization had lost several hundred thousand dollars, renewing outrage and provoking allegations of mismanagement. West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister, concerned about city involvement with potentially troubled non-profit organizations, required financial disclosure from subsidized organizers. LA Pride has for years been partially subsidized by West Hollywood because it is estimated to generate more than $5,000,000 in tax revenues.
Complicating matters for CSW, in January 2017, several senior board members resigned and complained publicly that the top-down management style of the board resulted in making their service useless. Chief among their complaints was the requirement of non-disclosure agreements that prevented board members from discussing organizational matters outside the board. The board members who resigned were representative of the issues that sparked the most concern in 2016; a prominent transgender woman, a senior man, a documentarian of LGBT history, a legacy CSW president and a Latino man and chairman of LA Leather Pride Week.
The resignations resurrected community frustrations about CSW’s direction yet the organization appeared to be singularly focused on the impact the closure of West Hollywood Park had on its Music Festival plans. But the election of Donald Trump and his anti-LGBT vice president, along with the installation of an almost uniformly anti-LGBT cabinet was top of mind for the community at large.
Enter LA-based philanthropist, activist and entrepreneur Brian Pendleton, inspired by the women’s march (which attracted several hundred thousand people to downtown LA) seized on what he saw as pent-up demand for action that he, perhaps incidentally, felt could give LA Pride revitalized mission. He posted a frustrated comment on Facebook, “before my first cup of coffee,” declaring that the parade should be turned into a protest march.
A Facebook page and other social media using #resistmarch was created along with a website and the idea went viral. More than 33,000 people have joined.
Pendleton found himself on the board of CSW.
“There was a hesitation to have me join the board,” he said. “CSW has policies and procedures about how to add board members and in order for me to join, I understand, the board had to waive those procedures. But once the groundswell of grassroots support became so strong it was clear that it made the most sense for CSW to add me as an exception.”
He refused to sign the controversial non-disclosure agreement.
The idea has been adopted by Christopher Street West, sending the parade off into a whole new direction that more closely resembles the intentions of its founders.
The march will even begin at the 1970 founding location at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland to La Brea before continuing onto Santa Monica Boulevard and into West Hollywood.
Over the past 40 years, local merchants have grown to rely on the event’s ability to attract more than 100,000 people and generate millions of dollars in income, according to studies by the City of West Hollywood. Organizers are hoping to at least double the participation this year.
Significantly, the Resist March idea requires outreach to allied communities and that work is in full swing. Among the growing number of signees: Equality California, Los Angeles LGBT Center, APLA Health, Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project, Family Equality Council, Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, City of West Hollywood, Women Against Gun Violence, IBEW Local 11, UNITE HERE! Local 11, CA NOW, National Council of Jewish Women NARAL Pro-Choice California, Hollywood N.O.W., California Women’s Law Center, Victory Institute, The Next Family, LASC, Project Angel Food, Tegan and Sara Foundation, Trans Can Work, West Hollywood City Council members Heilman, Duran and Horvath, Christopher Street West, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor, Los Angeles City Attorney, and Gina Belafonte.
Pendleton told City Watch, “This year, because of the political winds and forces, we’re sort of wrapping the iconic rainbow flag of LGBTQ around women fighting for reproductive rights, the dreamers who want to stay in this country and recent immigrants who want to come here, anyone who feels impacted by the forces against human rights.
“We’ve been fighting for our rights for decades now but the last eight years, we’ve had wind in our sails and seen tremendous progress. Not wanting to have any of our rights rolled back, we stand up with our trans brothers and sisters whose fates are being decided by state governments. In South Dakota, LGBTQ people can no longer adopt. We want our rights restored.”
The idea has spread around the country.
In New York City, Matt Foreman, the former executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, has also been advocating for a Resistance March there. On Facebook he wrote: “WTF Heritage of Pride?! Why do people have to plead with you for the Resistance to be front and center in this year’s pride march?! YOU should be taking the lead and embracing the legacy of Stonewall. Aren’t you humiliated that LA Pride is ahead of HOP on this? Why court controversy and retreat into the dank well of “process”? Come on folks, you’re better than this!”
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a National March is taking shape, planned for Sunday, June 11, that was instigated by a New York activist who also took to social media to call for a march.
David Bruinooge, 42, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, said he was inspired to create a Facebook page announcing the march on Jan. 21 while he was watching the Women’s March on Washington at home on television.
“I was watching the events unfold on TV and I was very proud and inspired by all the women, the strong women in our country who were kind of taking this to the street and getting their voices heard,” he told the Blade. “And in the back of my mind as an openly gay man I thought the gay community should be doing something like this to follow up on the momentum,” he said.
He said he intentionally chose June 11 for the march because it’s the same day that D.C.’s Capital Pride Festival is scheduled to be held on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. near the U.S. Capitol. Bruinooge said his thought was the march would start in the morning and end at the site of the Pride festival.
Rev. Perry said in a statement to the Los Angeles Blade, “As the co-founder of Christopher Street West, I am thrilled to see them change the 2017 pride parade to a human rights march. For me it’s always been about humanizing our community, standing up for those who need us most, and giving a voice to those who are sometimes invisible. Marching for human rights fits squarely within the principles of CSW’s founding. I’ll see you all on June 11th!”
Lou Chibbaro Jr. contributed to this report.