Pride at 40: First NY Pride Marchers Remember

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This weekend, the New York gay pride parade celebrates its 40th anniversary. Before the throngs of crowds and corporate sponsors like Zipcar and Skyy Vodka, the march started with a question: What would happen if gay people stopped hiding and came out in the streets?

Those first marchers didn't know.

In June 1970, poet Fran Winant was planning a protest.

She was a member a group called Radicalesbians and the Gay Liberation Front. There was a lot of preparation, but what she remembers most is agreeing to be photographed.

“There's the Come Out poster. Small. That's me,” she points out.

In the black and white picture, a group of 15 men and women are running arm in arm down 19th Street. Winant was right in front. She's the shortest one, just 26 years old. She wears glasses and her jeans are paint-stained from filling nail holes in her new apartment a few days earlier.

In big letters above the picture are the words COME OUT!! -– with two exclamation points. It's the poster advertising the first gay pride march in New York City.

It was a year after a riot at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village galvanized New York's gay community. This march –- never called a parade by organizers -– was built around a simple, yet radical idea: Come out and show that you're here.

“The thing that had to be done first in the movement, in the post-Stonewall movement, was to prove that you could come out and not get killed, and I mean that pretty literally,” says Rich Wandel, the archivist at New York's LGBT Community Center.

Video footage of that first march is hard to come by, but the Lesbian Herstory archives in Park Slope does have a fuzzy VHS of the march two years later.

It shows men and women -- mostly men – filling the streets.

They chant and spell out Gay Power. The sidewalks are full of people, just watching. Some with their arms crossed, others expressionless. Everyone looks like they're noticing.

The first march started small, but Fran Winant says it was part of the strategy to meet onlookers straight in the eye.

“We looked toward all the people on the street, and we said, join us, join us," recalls Winant. "And there were people who joined our march who weren't there at the beginning, who had banners from different states and schools, so with just a little prompting, they were ready.”

One of the current bartenders at the Stonewall Inn is 71 years old and goes by the name Tree. “We saw a couple of friends. They said, 'Join us!' We said, 'No, if my mom sees me, she'll kill me' -– because, you know, we're still closeted,” Tree says.

“And we said we'll only go to 14th street, but when people, including the cops, called us fags, lesbians, queers, dykes, we got a little pissed and we decided to march up to 34th Street, then to 47th Street. Next thing you know we're in Central Park."

Wandel, the archivist, remembers the view.

“There was a small rise in Central Park,” he says. “And so when you turn around at that point, you can see quite a fair distance, and those 40 or so people had turned into hundreds if not thousands. And that alone was like, Oh, wow. Look at what has happened here.”

What has happened since elicits mixed feelings among some of the original marchers. Today's party atmosphere and corporate sponsorships feel like an entirely different universe to Fran Winant.

“I guess there is a 1970 me inside of this one, and that person sometimes has problems putting the two together,” she says.

The scene today would have been unimaginable to that young woman in the poster forty years ago.

“And I have to constantly remind myself that whatever brings people out is good. If they think that this is Mardi Gras, okay. It wasn't Mardi Gras for us, but okay. If people can just come out and be themselves, that's just sort really the basic bottom line,” she says.

Winant will be out there again this weekend. In 40 years, she hasn't missed one yet.