The first Pride was a riot.
Police stormed through the doors of the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, New York, on the morning of June 28, 1969. Stonewall was a gay bar, and catered to the most marginalized members of the LGBTQA community: trans people, prostitutes, homeless youth, drag queens, and queer people of color. Police raids on such establishments were commonplace at the time, but at Stonewall the situation escalated as LGBTQA rights activists fought back.
Details about how the riots were sparked are mixed, and conjecture on who threw the first brick is still discussed today, though Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women and LGBTQA rights activists, are most often named as the ones who began fighting back. The following several days saw widespread protests, rioting and demonstrations which led to a wider movement over the next few years to establish safe places for people to openly express their sexuality without fear of persecution. One year later, New York held its first gay pride march, a tradition that has echoed through cities across the nation.
This year was the 50th anniversary of Pride, but Columbia Heights held its first-ever Pride festival in Sullivan Lake Park on July 13, a couple of weeks after Minneapolis held their parade downtown. Lindsay Schell-Edwards, creative and social media manager for HeightsNEXT, said, “A lot of cities choose to have their pride event outside of June. For us it was based on when our organizers would be available to put on this event, as well as the availability of the park. We also believe pride is so much more than just a month!”
It was an intensely hot day on the 13th, but that didn’t stop Betsy Stemple and Lisa Mutch-Regge from coming to represent Free Mom Hugs MN, a branch of a larger non-profit organization that was founded in 2014 to provide an affirming and supportive foundation of parental love and guidance for queer youth who might not be able to find it amongst members of their own family after coming out of the closet. The Minnesota branch of Free Mom Hugs opened in April of this year and celebrated their first Pride when Minneapolis hosted their parade on June 28th. Stemple, Mutch-Regge and many other supportive moms joined Columbia Heights’ celebration to continue spreading the love.
“We’re letting people know they’re valuable and loved,” said Stemple, who has been to several towns’ first Prides to show her support. “This idea that we [straight people and LGBTQA people] are separate, it just doesn’t work. Queer people have always been here and they don’t cause any problems.”
Susan Casebeer ran the Free Mom Hugs tent at the far end of the park, where moms (and dads) offered hugs and kind words to anyone who needed them. Casebeer explained that the organization was founded by a woman named Sara Cunningham after her youngest son came out to her. It took Cunningham a while to come to terms with it, but she stood up for her son regardless, putting her at odds with her conservative Baptist church community. Surrounded by a community of parents who would disown their children were they in her position, Cunningham decided to be a stand-in mom at gay weddings and founded Free Mom Hugs for like-minded mothers across the country to do the same.
Casebeer has thought a lot about what Heights embracing Pride for the first time means to her.
“It kills me to think about someone not being accepted,” she said. “We’re here to provide support for anyone who feels put out by their family.”
Quite a few speakers and performers were featured at the Sullivan Lake Park pavilion. Lakisha Latham spoke first, telling the story of how she came out of the closet. She grew up in a conservative religious household, but she knew from a very young age that she was gay regardless of her family’s ideologies; she also knew she would be kicked out if she ever confirmed what her family suspected about her. Choosing to blend in, she doubled down on her faith.
“I got sucked back into that same cultic background again. Hands were laid on me, people prayed for me … I thought I was this super religious superhero telling people they were wrong all the time,” Latham said. “Now, not all people from church are bad. I was just around a bad crowd.”
Latham’s first Pride was last year in Minneapolis. She met a lesbian couple with whom she quickly became friends, and they encouraged her to openly embrace who she was for the sake of her mental health. Her family hasn’t spoken to her since, but she has made innumerable friends, friends who accept her.
“I promise you … Family is more than just your immediate family, but the people around you who support you,” she said.
It used to be that Latham had to go to Minneapolis to find a tightly knit gay community. She described seeing the town she came to for a new start open up to support her as “so healing, it’s mind blowing.”
Other performers did live readings, sang songs and danced. Lily Noonan, performing as the drag king Captain Thunderpants, read a few stories to an assembly of kids and afterward played games for a while before sitting down for an interview. Noonan currently lives in Minneapolis and heard that Heights was looking for performers for the festival, so she wanted to come and be a part of it. Originally, she came from a much smaller town, and she explained that there is a perception that events like Pride are something that can only happen in a big city. Seeing a suburb hold their own celebration meant something special to her.
“I think when we think about where LGBTQA people live, a lot of people think they have to leave their hometowns,” she said. “You can live anywhere and be able to be queer.”
A lot of people shared with us what Heights’ first Pride meant to them, and there was a common thread between all of them: support, healing and visibility. Pride is more than a celebration; it’s a chance for one part of the community to open up to another for a deeper understanding to be reached, both about the history that has taken them here, and the struggles they will go through together in the future. Change comes in increments, and this first Pride celebration set the stage for celebrating and honoring Heights’ LGBTQA community in the future.
“Love and equality is spreading,” said Mara Glubka, who was stationed at a tent promoting transgender resources and services. A banner bearing portraits of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera reading “remember” hung over her. “And hopefully, it will continue to spread.”
Additional coverage of Heights Pride can be found here.
Below: Top left: Drag king “Captain Thunderpants,” Lily Noonan read and sang to kids. Right: Even though the live music stopped between performances, Jodi Evans and daughter Elizabeth kept on dancing in the shade of the pavilion. (Photos by Alex Schlee) Adults at Pride at Sullivan Park July 13. (Photo by Karen Kraco)