Far from Beads and Glitter: I Helped Organize a Pride March 30 Years Ago and It Was the Most Frightening Night of My Life

by Legendary Lew

Recently, there have been reports of corporations co-opting Pride Parades and non-profit groups using the events as marketing tools. In an astute article written last year, Nico Lang wrote about the problems of taking Pride events for granted. Marches were direct actions focusing on violence and intolerance against LGBT people. A case in point was the protest march I helped organize.

Thirty years ago, I lived in Rochester, NY, a young gay man not too long out of the closet and wondering how I can make a difference during the first wave of the nation’s AIDS crisis. President Reagan wasn’t mentioning AIDS and, at first, had health advisers so inadequate some of them believed HIV could be acquired via toilet seats. Through the AIDS panic, attacks on LGBT people skyrocketed nationally in a few short years.

It was in this climate that the Rochester chapter of the activist group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) decided to have a protest march on Stonewall Day in 1987.

We had no celebrities, no major politicians, no corporate sponsorship. This was a bare bones event and a serious reminder of the rights not yet gained. As the media spokesperson during that march, I can tell you, it was the most frightening night of my life.

I agreed to be a designated monitor for the group, heading up the back to keep the marchers close together. It’s commonplace that potential assailants seek out march stragglers as targets for harassment.

The hostility towards us, a group of people peacefully marching for rights, was the most intense I have encountered in any protest before or since, and I’ve been to at least 30 different rallies. Hours before the march began, we received a voicemail message stating there would be snipers on nearby roofs ready to shoot us. Across the street from our starting point, a red pickup truck entered a parking lot. Out of the vehicle emerged three young men carrying baseball bats. One of the armed individuals wore a T-shirt with “I Hate Fags” emblazoned on the front.

Since there were about 70 of us marching, we had to use the sidewalk. Don’t ever underestimate how ironically safe it is to march on the street. A street can offer some buffer, but when forced to march on sidewalks, you have many more interactions, good or bad. You are literally inches away from a sucker punch.

How bad was that night? We had eggs thrown at us, rocks hurled at us, people passing by in cars and yelling out obscenities. But we also had some very brave people join us during the march and at the end rally of 120 people.

The night’s most disturbing sight was the hatred of a man who brought his son and daughter, both no older than about 8 years old. He was screaming at the top of his lungs about how we were all going to Hell and all the et cetera that comes with the typical anti-gay faction of presumed Christianity. Screaming bigots cloaking themselves with the false armor of Biblical verse was nothing new. But I felt sorry for the children who had to be subjected to his psychological abuse. I will never forget the terrified looks on their faces.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Wow, we’ve come a long way since then!” You would be partially right. A lot of good has happened over the last thirty years in regard to Pride marches.

Companies are evolving in their LGBTQIA stances and policies. Huge billboard ads, TV and magazine ads celebrating LGBT couples were unheard of just a short time ago. Straight allies are marching with us and demanding equal rights. After a straight male friend marched with me in a Pride parade many years ago, I told him it was my proudest moment of our friendship.

With unity, however, comes responsibility. It’s one thing to recognize equality and attach your company’s logo or associate your non-profit’s mission to it. It’s entirely something else to co-opt a Pride Parade for marketing purposes.
A Pride Parade is not a tool to hide polluting industries and contributions to anti-gay politicians–an incredible irony, since the first pride marches were counteractions against the concealment of the closet. It’s not a marketing scheme template designed to attract more millennials hungry for music festivals.

A Pride Parade should reflect the ongoing struggle from outside our communities and call for a look at the rifts inside them as well. This is a continuous movement that will hopefully remain true to its roots now and for future generations. It’s not for any one entity to seize for their own purposes.

Remember the basic common courtesy when you are invited to a party. You’re the guest. Not the host.

 

Legendary Lew is the co-founder of The Underground Multiplex. An out gay man for over 35 years, he hosts Mediatrocities, Strike That Line! and has presented award-winning midnight movie screenings. He’s also a movie critic and game inventor.

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