June is National LGBT Pride month, and we have much to celebrate. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia and laws banning gay marriage have been struck down by federal judges more than a dozen times since January. The Defense of Marriage Act is history. Last month, President Obama issued his fifth consecutive proclamation declaring June "National LGBT Pride Month" and just last week announced he would sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors.
Closer to home, in his first official act as Governor, Terry McAuliffe, banned workplace discrimination against LGBT state employees and recently became the first Governor in history to issue a proclamation declaring June as LGBT Pride month in the Commonwealth. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
There's no question that the wheels of progress are turning for the LGBT community, nationally and locally. For many LGBT Americans, today is better than yesterday. But as we revel in our successes with Pride celebrations in big cities around the country and prepare for our own in Virginia, it is important that we understand how we got to this point and acknowledge the work of those who came before us.
The first LGBT Pride March was held in New York City on Sunday , June 29, 1970 to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots which ensued following a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, an underground gay bar in Greenwich Village, the year before. That night, fed up with being oppressed and harassed by law enforcement, the patrons of the bar--many of whom were drag queens--fought back against police with acts of violence and disobedience.
LGBT community leaders in New York seized on the Stonewall riots as a watershed moment and sought to transfer the anger and energy released by the raid into a powerful movement for equality and justice for LGBT people. Beginning in January of 1970, a small group of volunteers, led by a bisexual woman named Brenda Howard (considered by many to be the "Mother of Pride") began planning for a massive political march in New York to mark the anniversary of Stonewall.
On the last Sunday of June, 1970, despite threats of violence against them and damage to their personal and professional reputations, thousands of LGBT people took to the streets of Manhattan, with crowds stretching for 15 blocks or more, to march for equality. Similar events were held in other major cities, including Chicago and San Francisco. LGBT Pride was born.
Today, LGBT Pride festivals and parades typically have a more party-like atmosphere and attract people from every spectrum of the rainbow. And while today, we have much to celebrate in terms of our progress towards equality, we still have much work to do.
A few years ago, the New York Times profiled a woman named Storme (pronounced Storm-e) DeLarvarie, who was among the patrons at the Stonewall Inn that fateful June night. She died earlier this month at the age of 91, having lived a long life of protecting patrons as a bouncer in lesbian bars in New York. In the article, when asked what she hoped for the hundreds of thousands of people attending LGBT Pride in New York, she replied, simply, "Just be themselves, like they've always been. They don't have to pretend anything. They are who they are." Thanks to her and countless others who've come before us, we can be ourselves. We don't have to pretend. And we can be who we are.
Forty-five years after Stonewall, we have much of which we can and should be proud.
-James R. Millner II
James Millner is a Richmond transplant, having lived most of his adult life in Washington, DC and New York. Over the last twenty years, he has worked with and for dozens of LGBT organizations to develop strategic plans, social marketing campaign and communications programs.