“I need to be careful that my parents don’t find out I’m here today”, says a dolled up teenage girl. She hurriedly walks by with some friends, towards the starting point of the Pride march, which will start in a few minutes in Montreal. It’s super crowded here, at this colourful festival. But who are the people behind all these daring outfits? And what is the history of this event?
Traditionally, the Pride march divides society: person x finds it a fascinating spectacle, person y considers it a political manifestation, while to person z it is nothing more than a vulgar show. What is never in doubt is that the Pride march is a rewarding theme for photographers. With a camera in hand, you always have a prize here. It is difficult not to hit the mark.
On her knees
Two blond girls stand side by side at the foot of Mount Royal, near the stately Jacques Cartier monument, the city’s anchor point. They stand out with their short skirts and translucent black shirts that stretch around their milky white skin. The long legs of one of them show striking tattoos. I recognise a scorpion, a large bee, a series of flowers and a skull.
Meanwhile, the owner of the richly inked legs stares at me through her sunglasses. In her hand, she holds the end of a metal chain that leads to the leather collar around her friend’s neck.
They form an intriguing duo and I ask, somewhat timidly, if I may photograph them. Unexpectedly, a broad smile immediately appears on their faces. The girl on the leash even spontaneously sits down on her knees, with her hands slightly out in front of her, like two paws of a loyal dog. Her tall friend looks sternly into the lens of my camera again and clearly holds the reins.
I see remarkable figures everywhere now, with make-up, glitter, fake eyelashes, fishnet stockings, bdsm corsets, chokers and other kinky gear. The pink unicorns are also well represented, but most of all I see the classic rainbow colours.
One would almost forget that behind this extravagant mass are individual stories that cannot be captured with a few sensational photos.
Lucca: “I still remember the moment when I had my ears pierced for the first time. Since then, I have started to wear my jewellery less and less discretely. Later, I got the courage to paint my nails, in the craziest colours even, and with glitter. But more than just a certain style of clothing with make-up and long hair, I have developed my identity, my pride and my self-confidence over the last few years. To dress as I please, with nothing else but my own happiness in mind.
The march is the parade of pride, as the word already says it. The energy created by the exchange of glances and smiles, compliments and hugs leads to a very special atmosphere. The existence of such a warm and representative community is essential. All those shocked and ignorant people who would normally give us a look of disgust no longer know where to look. They are silent and we can forget about them here.
We still have a long way to go, but participating in the Pride march fills me with love.“
The Pride march was first organized in the United States on June 28 1970, simultaneously in several cities. The marches were held to commemorate the riots that had taken place exactly one year earlier, in 1969, in New York, when the police had raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, at night. Not much later, the first Pride demonstrations would also be organized in Europe.
The Stonewall riots of 1969 were an absolute turning point for the gay community. In the United States of the 1950s, gays were still considered a security risk for the State, just like communists and anarchists were. The reasoning was that gays were emotionally unstable perverts, who could easily be blackmailed. Therefore, they were fired from their jobs and from the US Army.
Trapped by the cops
Since 1952, homosexuality had been listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the well-known manual for psychiatrists and psychologists. Both the police and the FBI kept lists of gay men, their friends and the bars they frequented. Bars that welcomed gays and lesbians were closed, and their customers arrested. Various actions were taken to cleanse not only bars, but also neighbourhoods and parks, of gays.
Back then, it was also forbidden to wear clothes intended for the other sex. Undercover agents actively tried to trap as many gays as possible. They talked to men in cafes and parks, and if the conversation led to the possibility of going somewhere together, those men were promptly arrested.
Léa: “The Pride march is a moment of celebration. We celebrate ourselves here, loudly and clearly, without fear or hesitation. You can show all your colours and shout out who you are deep inside, surrounded by the queer family who embraces you and supports you in that self-affirmation.
But the march is also a moment of remembrance. We remember the people who never had the chance to show the world who they really were, the people who suppressed a part of themselves and ran away from it. So many have felt shame, experienced fear, hidden themselves and endured pain.
We remember all those who were intimidated, rejected and abandoned only because they were gay. All those who suffered verbal, psychological, physical, sexual and economic violence simply because they were different. Those who have been beaten and killed. And we remember that many people still experience that horror today.
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At the same time, we honour our predecessors who, decades ago, were already fighting for our rights and were confronted with a lack of understanding, a hostile society and a violent police. With passion and rage, they have paved the way for the Pride march, as we know it today.
I hope that the unifying force of this massive gathering is strong enough to reach the hearts of those who feel all alone. I wish that a wave of warmth and relief reaches them, whether they are near or far. Participating in the Pride march makes me feel connected to them in that sense. We come together in the most inclusive and caring way, to celebrate and commemorate, to see each other and have faith in the course of history. We find the courage here to make our glitter shine even more, all together.“
The Stonewall Inn was a clandestine gay bar run by the Mafia in New York in the 1960s. Homosexual customers were extorted, alcohol was diluted and sold at inflated prices, there was no running water at the bar, no fire exit, and toilets were constantly overflowing. But it was the only place in town where gay people could meet and dance. The fraudulent owners bribed the police to keep the bar open. Meanwhile, the bar was used by the underworld to trade drugs and other items on the black market.
People who wanted to enter the Stonewall Inn were inspected by a bouncer through a peephole in the door. Visitors had to either be known to the man, or look gay. Inside, the Stonewall Inn was painted black, and the dance floor was lit with a set of pulsing lamps and blacklights.
Police regularly raided the Stonewall Inn, but because the owners paid bribes, they were tipped off in advance. Precautions were taken and as soon as the police showed up at the front door, the lights went on, the music stopped and the customers stopped dancing. The standard procedure was that all those present were lined up to show their IDs. Those without IDs were arrested, as were the men in drag.
Female officers took all customers dressed as women to the toilet to check their sex. The people who turned out to be men physically, but dressed as women, were also arrested. The women present who were not wearing at least three female garments were taken away as well. Cross-dressing was against the rules. After such a standard raid, the activities resumed and the evening continued in the Stonewall Inn.
Fighting drag queens
On June 28 1969, at half past one in the morning, a couple of policemen raided the bar, this time without notifying. There were about 205 customers present and the procedure did not go as usual. The people who were lined up refused to show their IDs, and the people dressed as women refused to go along with the policemen.
The police called for reinforcements, but a second patrol would only arrive fifteen minutes later. In the meantime, the customers who had been allowed to leave the bar did not go home immediately, but gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn, on the street. In a few minutes time, about 150 people gathered there. Some had come from the Stonewall Inn while others had come to the noise.
Not much later, 500-600 people were packed together and surrounded the police. Beer cans, bottles, stones, and even rubbish bins flew through the air. Fights broke out between police officers and drag queens, who furiously refused to get into the police van. At least one of them hit the police on the head with a handbag, witnesses said.
Others escaped handcuffed from the van, when the officers left them unattended. A few protesters even tried to tip over a police vehicle. There was complete chaos, electricity was in the air. It was not until four o’clock in the morning that things finally calmed down again, that June 29, 1969.
Neven: “The Pride march is the annual moment when I can completely be myself, without shame, surrounded by people from my community, who look like me, who understand me, who may or may not be going through the same traumas as I am. All this automatically makes me stronger. It is something special that I enjoy very much. This march is an important safe space that should be cherished. It is vital to participate for many reasons such as to honour our sisters, who fought for our rights for many years. It is also to set an example of inclusion and tolerance for the next generations and to show the whole world that, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, we unite against intolerance and ignorance.“
In 1969, people were fed-up with the harassment. There was a collective feeling in the gay scene that enough was enough. Yet the Stonewall riots were not orchestrated. They arose spontaneously and had an impact. The New York Times, the New York Post and the Daily News reported on them immediately, the latter even on the front page, and the following evening there was another uproar. Thousands of people once again gathered in front of the notorious bar. People climbed on lampposts, and trashcans went up in flames. More than a hundred police officers were present. Just like the night before, there were injuries on both sides.
The remarkable thing about these riots was that people suddenly stopped hiding their homosexuality. They were out and about in the public space. That was a huge revolution. People who felt oppressed before, now felt empowered and demanded respect. The riots lasted six days in total and it was the first time in history that the concerns of the gay scene had generated so much media attention. It led to the creation of several gay rights movements and action groups.
Rim: “When I was sixteen, I went to the Pride march for the first time. I still remember how forbidden it felt, how subversive, and how exciting as well. I also remember how quickly I felt at home there. I admired the ease with which all those people showed themselves to the outside world, how confident they were.
It looked like a big party, but I felt that above all it was a demonstration. A demonstration for the right to exist outside of heteronormativity.
During my first Pride marches, I celebrated both my homosexuality and the feeling that I belonged to a community in which I recognized myself. Since I moved from France to Montreal, three years ago, the Pride march has become a moment of reclaiming for me, a moment of rage against a normative and oppressive system.
It’s a necessary event to help the norm evolve, so that we are no longer put in oppressive boxes. In recent years, I have become aware of different systems of oppression, of my identity, and of the extent to which we live in a gendered and binary world. In most languages, there is no other option besides ‘man’ or ‘woman’, which makes it difficult to think in other terms about our identities.
People with breasts
I identify as a non-binary, gender fluid and pansexual person. It is with this identity that I parade today, bare-chested, because I deeply want people to stop sexualizing chests and bodies in general, bust mostly those chests and bodies that are labeled feminine.
It is totally insane that people without breasts can parade in the street in bare torso, at any time, without causing any problems, and that people with breasts have to cover them up. That indicates a hierarchy of bodies and an inequality among so many other inequalities that I want to fight against.
The Pride march also remains a celebration though. It symbolises pride in our infinitely diverse bodies and identities. Besides that, it’s also an acknowledgement of the pain that has been inflicted on queers for centuries. On our bodies that challenge the classical concept of gender and play with it, to get closer to our complex and fluid truths.
The march proves that people are too multiple and varied to remain stuck in a narrow box. We need to stop thinking that there are only men and women on this planet. Many of us exist outside these boxes, and are creating new designations and terms to be recognised and to exist socially.
The Pride march is, in fact, the parade of our yet misunderstood identities, expressed with enormous creativity. For if we do not recognise ourselves in the world that is offered to us, we create new worlds, and the possibilities are endless.“
One year after the Stonewall riots, on June 28 1970, the first anniversary of the riots was celebrated with a rally on New York’s Christopher Street, the street where the Stonewall Inn was located. This event was called Christopher Street Liberation Day and was also commemorated in LA and Chicago at the same time, with a march. A year later, it was repeated in more North-American cities, which marked the birth of gay pride on a larger scale. In 1972, the first Pride march was organized in London. In Amsterdam, the first demonstration took place in 1977, in Belgium in 1978.
From then on, things started to change for the gay community, that is certain. But the struggle is far from over. According to David Carter (1952-2020), who documented the Stonewall riots in detail in his book Stonewall, the legacy of the riots is the ongoing struggle of the LGBTQ+ community for equal rights.
Thanks for reading. Did you enjoy it?
You’ll find the complete set of pictures from the Pride on my Instagram account.
Note: The marches and demonstrations organized in the 1970s were explicitly dedicated to ‘Gay Liberation’ and ‘Gay Freedom’, which were often the designations used to refer to these events. In the 1980s a cultural shift took place evolving into the less activist sounding ‘Gay Pride’. Today, the simpler term ‘Pride’ is used. For consistency I have used the term ‘Pride’ throughout my text here.