Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Capital Pride. Here’s some context for each decade of our local celebration.
The street party ‘70s
Deacon Maccubbin, owner of gay bookstore Lambda Rising (which closed in 2010), started what has become Capital Pride in 1975 with a one-day community block party on 20th St., N.W. where his store was at the time. About 2,000 attended the gathering, held on Father’s Day with a dozen booths and vendors set up. Several candidates for D.C. City Council attended as well.
In its heyday, Lambda Rising was a de facto gay community center of sorts and frequently hosted author readings/book signings and other LGBT events. Within a few years, the event was attracting about 10,000 and had spread out to three blocks.
It was a heady time for the movement. Inspired by the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City, commemoration events were burgeoning around the country and Washington had a thriving gay and lesbian scene of its own (the LGBT moniker didn’t come into wide use until much later). Several local groups were well established by this time — The Academy of Washington (founded 1961), Washington Blade (founded 1969), the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (then known as the GAA, founded 1971), Metropolitan Community Church of Washington (founded 1970) and others.
Early D.C. Pride events had a family-type appeal and were — as they are today — a place for various arms of the community, from drag outfits to activist groups to leather lovers and beyond, to let their gay hair down for the day. Then-Mayor Marion Barry, elected the previous November, attended his first Gay Pride Day in 1979 and continued throughout his years in office and beyond.
Ups and downs of the ‘80s
The P Street Festival Committee was formed in 1980 to take over Gay Pride Day, as the festival was known, and the annual event was held at Francis Junior High School at 24th and N streets, N.W. By the following year, the event had been dubbed Gay and Lesbian Pride Day and the first parade was held beginning on 16th St. N.W. and Meridian Hill Park and ending at Dupont Circle.
The event grew exponentially in those years from about 11,000 in 1981 to 20,000 by 1983, though it ebbed and flowed with fewer than 10,000 attending in 1986 and 1987.
Washington, like San Francisco and New York, was hit particularly hard by HIV and AIDS and the urgency and frustration of the time was well represented at the gatherings, which had expanded to a week-long event by 1984 with about 28,000 at the street festival and parade combined. The first Pride Heroes were named in 1984.
Turning tide of the 1990s
The P Street Festival disbanded in 1990 and Pride continued with a new entity, Pride of Washington. The event was also moved to the week before Father’s Day so as not to impede on the family holiday.
By 1991, the street festival had expanded to about 200 booths and for the first time, active duty and retired American military personnel marched in the parade. Rain affected attendance several years in a row and the festival flirted with bankruptcy.
In 1995, One in Ten, a D.C. organization that hosted an annual film festival, took over and moved the festival to Freedom Plaza while the parade route started at Francis Junior High School and ended at the plaza. Attendance picked up going from about 25,000 in 1994 to more than 100,000 by 1996.
In 1997, Whitman-Walker Clinic, as it was then known, joined One in Ten as a co-sponsor and the event was renamed Capital Pride. Corporate sponsorships rose dramatically going from $80,000 to nearly $250,000 the following year.
A new millennium, a new day
In 2000, Whitman-Walker became the sole sponsor and the festival moved again, this time to Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. between 4th and 7th streets, N.W. and the festival’s main stage was repositioned so that the U.S. Capitol building was visible in the background.
By 2002, parade contingents reached 200 and in 2004, about 100,000 attended the various Pride events. Financial problems, however, continued to plague the event with the city agreeing in 2005 to waive thousands in street closing and police overtime fees while the Human Rights Campaign, agreed to an emergency donation of $30,000.
Attendance, however, remained strong with about 200,000 attending in 2006 making it the fourth-largest Pride event in the U.S. Several events such as dance parties, a youth prom, a transgender event, leather pride and more were now under the overall Capital Pride umbrella.
By 2007, several other local non-profits joined Whitman-Walker to form the Capital Pride Planning Committee. In March 2008, Whitman-Walker awarded the production rights to the newly formed Capital Pride Alliance, a group of volunteers and organizations formed by members of the Capital Pride Planning Committee. By 2009, the Alliance was the sole producer of the event.
The tipping point ‘10s
The event reached its 35th anniversary in 2010 and continued to expand its offerings with about 60 events held over a 10-day period and a record high of 250,000 attending the street festival. About 100,000 watched the 2013 parade.
A color guard officially sanctioned by the U.S. Armed Forces joined the 2014 parade, an unprecedented event. The eight-member guard represented each branch of the U.S. armed forces.
Numbers remained strong for the 2014 parade with about 100,000 again at the parade and about 250,000 estimated in total for the various week-long events. Rita Ora, Karmin, Bonnie McKee, Betty Who and DJ Cassidy performed. The theme was “#BuildOurBrightFuture.” Former Minnesota Vikings player Chris Kluwe, an ally, was grand marshal.
The Blade reported more than 150,000 attended the 40th anniversary parade in 2015. A shirtless Wilson Cruz was grand marshal. The Boy Scouts marched for the first time. About 250,000 attended the festival the following day. Musical headliners at the festival grew in stature as Hot 99.5 became the presenter. Carly Rae Jepsen, Wilson Phillips, Amber, En Vogue and Katy Tiz performed amidst ominous skies. The theme was “Flashback.”
In 2016, headliners were Melanie Martinez, Alex Newell (of “Glee”), Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth. The theme was “Make Magic Happen!” Gay actor Leslie Jordan (“Will & Grace”) was grand marshal. In 2017, the theme was “Unapologetically Proud.” Headliners were The Pointer Sisters, Tinashe and Miley Cyrus. Marriage case plaintiff Edith Windsor was grand marshal.
In 2018: Alessia Cara, Troye Sivan and MAX headlined. The theme was “Elements of Us.” Activist Judy Shepard (mother of hate crime victim Matthew) was grand marshal. In 2019: Shea Diamond, Todrick Hall, Zara Larsson, Marshmellow, Calum Scott and Nina West (of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) headlined. Earline Budd, Brandon Wolf, Matt Easton and the cast of “Pose” were grand marshals. The theme was “shhhOUT: Past, Present & Proud” to honor the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.
Several Pride events in recent years have been upended. A group of protesters from a local entity called No Justice No Pride blocked the parade route in 2017 forcing it to be re-routed and delayed. They objected to the lack of trans women of color in leadership positions within Capital Pride, lax vetting of corporate Pride sponsors and the presence of uniformed police officers at the parade.
The sound of what people thought were gunshots in Dupont Circle during the 2019 parade brought the proceedings to a halt. It turned out to be a false alarm — no shots were fired. Dozens of participants didn’t get to be in the parade.
And this year the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to concede, in an unprecedented move, that there was no responsible way to have the parade and festival. Some events were held virtually.
Editor’s note: Information taken from various sources such as previous Washington Blade articles, previous Capital Pride pride guide books, Capital Pride’s own history and more.