Despite popular misconception, the LGBT civil rights movement did not start with Stonewall. Like the Boston Tea Party, it was an important event.
In the early 1960s, there were about 200 gay activists in the U.S. Most were located in New York, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The largest umbrella organization was the Eastern Conference of Homophile Organizations (ECHO).
While there were gay demonstrations in New York and D.C. in late 1964 and early 1965, they were about a single issue, such as Fidel Castro rounding up gays. In early 1965, ECHO organized the first multi-city demonstrations for equality. They decided on July 4 at Independence Hall for what were called “Annual Reminders.”
Independence Hall was chosen because it was where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were drafted and the Liberty Bell was then located. The Liberty Bell, previously known as the State House Bell came into prominence when the abolitionists and then suffragettes used the bell as their logo. The Gay Pioneers decided to demonstrate at the Liberty Bell to link their aspirations to the African-American and women’s civil rights movements.
At the first Annual Reminder on July 4, 1965, 40 demonstrators with men in suits and ties and women in dresses carried picketing signs for equality. Those 40 picketers were the largest gay demonstration in world history at the time. Instead of a one-time demonstration, the Annual Reminders were the first to be repeated. By the 1969 Annual Reminder, the numbers swelled to 150 equality picketers.
The principal organizers of the Annual Reminders were Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the father and mother of the LGBT civil rights movement. When Stonewall occurred, they and others recognized it as akin to the Boston Tea Party. They suspended the Annual Reminders to focus their energy on a 1970 first anniversary Stonewall march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. They held their collective breath not sure how many people would participate. Between 2,000 to 5,000 joined the march, now known as the first New York Pride Parade.
Stonewall in 1969 was not the first time gays, lesbians and transgender people clashed with police. In Los Angeles, there were clashes at Coopers Donut in 1959 and the Black Cat Riot in 1967. The difference was that there was no follow up demonstration to remember gays taking on police harassment and misconduct. But for the skills of Kameny, Gittings and others in organizing the 1970 first anniversary Stonewall march, it is unlikely that Stonewall would be well remembered.
With 50 years of perspective, we celebrate the Annual Reminders as a seminal and transformational moment. The one-hour ceremony will commemorate the Gay Pioneers, celebrate LGBT civil rights progress and address future challenges. The ceremony occurs 50 years later on the day and at the iconic location selected by the Gay Pioneers.
With Wanda Sykes as master of ceremonies, James Obergefell as a featured speaker, Edie Windsor, Judy Shepard, Bishop Gene Robinson and other movement leaders and entertainers, we will gather on Independence Mall over the July 4 weekend to make history where history was made. For more information on this weekend-long celebration, visit lgbt50.org.
Malcolm Lazin is chair of the National LGBT 50th Anniversary Celebration. Reach him via lgbt50.org.