What is the history behind Pride Month? How the LGBTQ celebration came to be

Cady Stanton
USA TODAY

Pride Month has taken many forms through the decades, framed by growing cultural acceptance for the LGBTQ community and evolving politics of the present moment.

This year, Pride will be celebrated – for many in-person for the first time in two years – with nationwide parades and education events at schools and community centers. Along with the joyful celebrations of identity and diversity: solemn reflections of those lost to violence in the community and mounting concerns over a troubling rash of anti-LGBTQ bills that have emerged from statehouses. 

LGBTQ history and its Pride celebrations are rooted in activism and protest, and the tradition of fighting for rights, acceptance and visibility has followed the community from past to present.

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Members of the LGBTI community carry posters and flags with the colors of the rainbow during a protest march called "I walk against discrimination" demanding respect of their rights in the framework of the gay pride month celebration in Caracas, on May 29, 2021.

How did Pride Month begin?

The month of June, designated as Pride Month, has its origins in one of the most well-known LGBTQ activist events: the Stonewall Riots.

On June 28, 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City, attempting to arrest those inside. Frequent raids of gay bars across the city had escalated frustration toward police and led patrons, including transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, to fight back against police.

The raid was followed by days of riots and protests involving hundreds of people clashing with police. The historic location of the Stonewall Inn can be visited today and was designated as a National Monument in 2016.

While activism was a core part of the community before Stonewall, the riots drew attention to the experience of LGBTQ individuals across the country, according to Cathy Renna, Communications Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force.

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The year following the riots, some of the first Gay Pride parades were held in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but not all members of the LGBTQ community were included. Despite their pivotal role in the riots and ensuing activism, trans women and other women of color were excluded from or silenced while attending some early Pride parades.

"The reality is that most of the folks on the front lines at the Stonewall uprising were trans women, trans women of color, other people of color, butch lesbians. And yet somehow, the power that was coming together ... to put together Pride events was from cisgender gay white men," Renna told USA TODAY. 

"There has always been some tension but in the early days, it was very, very, dramatic and stark ... we've made progress, in our community, but there was definitely tension," she said.

The celebrations continued expanding on their activist roots in the 1980s and 1990s with the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and those that followed have been used as platforms to draw attention to topics from marriage equality to racial justice.

This year, Pride events should look like the trademark celebrations of the recent past after two years of hiatus caused by COVID-19. But the pandemic has also exposed many inequalities and disparities in the LGBTQ community, leading to an overhaul in the festivities to make them more accessible and cognizant of race, income and more.

"Our community is much more sophisticated, and much more intersectional than it ever has been," Renna said.

What is Pride Month?

Cities around the world mark Pride Month as a celebration of the history and visibility of the LGBTQ community.

Similar to other monthly celebrations such as Black History Month in February and Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, Pride Month honors LGBTQ history and the challenges the community faces, past and present, according to Renna.

"The spirit of Pride, I always say, is like a Rorschach test: It's something different to everyone," Renna said. "Some people want to come and and be extremely political, to use it as a platform to talk about the issues that they care about, the things that we're fighting against. Then for other folks, it's an opportunity to celebrate ... their resiliency, or celebrate who they are because maybe they can't be that the rest of the year."

The largest Pride parade in the United States occurs annually in New York City, and the event drew an estimated attendance of 5 million people in 2019, according to former Mayor Bill De Blasio. The other biggest parades across the country include Chicago, San Francisco, Houston and Boston. Internationally, Sao Paolo, Brazil and Madrid, Spain's parade each also drew millions of participants each year prior to the pandemic.

As political issues and significant cultural events have changed, Pride celebrations – and debate on how they are held – have reflected these shifts. 

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Incidents of policy brutality against people of color in the U.S. have also commanded attention in recent years, and Pride leaders and participants have debated the role of a police presence at Pride. In New York City last year, organizers banned correction and law enforcement participation in the city's Pride parade until 2025, citing escalating violence "against marginalized groups, specifically BIPOC and trans communities."

Other activists have objected to the modern "corporatization" of Pride, including rainbow capitalism/rainbow-washing, or the practice of companies commodifying LGBTQ culture and Pride Month as a marketing ploy to drive consumer interest and purchases.

Particular complaints have been raised against companies who celebrate Pride with themed merchandise or marketing while simultaneously donating thousands of dollars to political action committees that support politicians who voted against The Equality Act, as INSIDER reported last year.

Alongside this cultural change, Renna, who has been organizing Pride events for more than three decades, said the largest difference from the early days is the size, scope and number of parades and events across the country and the world.

"Pride is an opportunity for people to really be visible in their communities, no matter where they are, whether they're in Birmingham, Alabama, whether they're in San Francisco," she said. "It's an opportunity to get to know LGBTQ people: who we are, what we care about, what our lives are, what our challenges are, what we're facing, right where you live."