in pictures and stories

The Gay Parades of the Seventies

On Saturday, June 27, 1970, a handful of people marched in San Francisco from Aquatic Park along Polk Street to City Hall where they held a rally. A "Gay-In" was held at Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park the next day. It was called "Christopher Street Liberation Day". These events were in celebration of the first anniversary of the June 27, 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village. Like on so many other nights, the police arrived on Christopher Street to routinely harass and arrest the gay patrons of the Stonewall Bar. It was against the law to serve a drink to a known homosexual and it was illegal for same-sex couples to hold hands or dance together. The police said the bar was operating without a license. As the street filled with people watching the bust, something snapped and the crowd turned hostile. They started throwing coins and then bottles and rocks at the cops who then locked themselves inside the bar while awaiting reinforcements. The scene escalated into a wild riot that lasted for several nights. Stonewall is considered by many to be the incident that inspired the gay rights movement in America.

There was no organized event in San Francisco commemorating Stonewall in 1971, but a small lively caravan of vehicles drove up Folsom Street with all the enthusiasm and festive mood that is at the core of every gay parade. Participants included the Stud Bar and the Cockettes who mooned the onlookers.

Three thousand people marched down Polk Street in June 1972 in an event called "Christopher Street West", the first organized San Francisco Gay Parade. It received little press coverage, but was far more significant than anyone realized. In just five years the parade grew to become the largest social/political event in San Francisco with 350,000 participants in the 1977 parade.

Two different events were held in 1973 at the same time. The parade was called "The Gay Freedom Day Parade", and a "Gay Liberation Festival" was staged in the Civic Center by a different group. Later in the year a non-profit group, The Pride Foundation, was established to coordinate future parade activities.

The focus of the parade varies from year to year depending on the social and political issues affecting the gay community. It began as a demonstration to demand equal civil rights and became a celebration of the gains we had made in that struggle for equality. It was also a demonstration of some of those gains. We could march together, arm-in-arm, in the light of day and not be afraid. This was something that few of the participants, just a few years earlier, thought they would ever be able to do. Those who wanted to march in drag did, and there were many who demonstrated their freedom to march wearing little or nothing. Some felt that this behavior was detrimental to the 'respectable' image we 'should' be presenting to mainstream society, but most felt that denying the rights of any members of the community was denying the rights of all the community. After all, this would be the same oppression we were fighting to abolish. There wasn't a great deal of political activity associated with the parades until 1977 when we were confronted with attacks from the religious right and, in particular, Anita Bryant. The first five San Francisco parades were simply a joyful celebration of life, our new-found liberty, and, as always, the pursuit of happiness.

So, there was little or no censorship and very few rules governing the early parades. There are always some people stressing their sexual nature and a few who go beyond 'good taste.' There are many very good looking men in the gay community in San Francisco and the air crackles with erotic energy at every gathering. I believe the community, for the most part, finds that energy to be part of the excitement of the parade, even if most wouldn't admit it. Occasionally, we are blessed with a warm sunny day for our parade and on those days the sexual energy crests. That happened in 1976. The weather was unseasonably warm for the entire week before the parade. With each passing day the temperature rose. On parade day the sun was blazing hot and the temperature was in the mid-nineties.

In 1976 the Civic Center was getting a face lift and was not available for the post parade celebration. Plans were made for a parade route up Market to the Castro and ending at Duboce Park. Free bus service was provided for everyone to go to a festival site in Golden Gate Park. Ninety-thousand people were reported to have been at the parade. (The gay population of the city was estimated to be 140,000.) The sun was so intense along the parade route that when the Stud float, a firetruck, sprayed the crowd with water, everyone welcomed the temporary relief. People wore minimal clothing and nudity was not uncommon.

It doesn't take much imagination to figure out what happened when an enormous group of horny, semi-naked people were transported to a hot sunny field surrounded by cool shady woods in Golden Gate Park on a scorcher day. There was trouble with the sound system and, without entertainment, people soon found 'Nature Walks' to be a pleasant diversion. At Duboce Park the float from the North Beach disco, 'The City', was providing music for those waiting for busses. When word of the power failure reached Duboce Park, the decorative flat bed truck drove across town through neighborhood streets to Golden Gate Park, the music at full volume, the truck fully loaded with high spirited, high energy dancers. By the time the truck reached the festival site the other system was back in service, so the crowd was treated to entertainment at both ends of the field. It was the most outrageous fabulous party that Golden Gate Park ever witnessed. Unfortunately, not everyone everywhere has the same liberal attitude as the people of San Francisco.

In 1977, Anita Bryant launched a campaign, 'Save Our Children', to make it illegal for gays to teach in schools in Miami and Dade County, Florida. She poured every bit of her energy into trying to convince the people of Dade County that gay people are not fit to be part of the community. Much of her rhetoric was based on stereotypes, untruths and faulty logic. To validate her claims she often used San Francisco's 1976 Gay parade for evidence. According to Bryant, gay people were wicked and godless and out to recruit the children of America. In the name of God she stirred up a backlash of hatred and anti-gay violence that spread throughout the land. We lost Miami to Anita Bryant on June 7, 1977, but in spite of the suffering she caused for so many, she actually did us a lot of good. She provided a focus for the community and a platform for presenting our case. 'Gay' became a household word. We became front page news.

For more about the impact of Anita Bryant on San Francisco, click here.



The creator of this popular and powerful entry in the 1977 parade tells how and why it happened.


Miami fell three weeks before the 1977 Gay Parade, triggering much anti-gay violence. A gardener, Robert Hillsborough, an employee of the City was viciously murdered by fag-bashers a few days before the parade. Fortunately, the 4 murderers were apprehended immediately. The gay community blamed Bryant for the murder which stimulated an enormous wave of anger and determination. More than 300,000 people turned out for the 1977 Gay Parade which was really a massive Civil Rights March. Suits and ties were seen throughout the parade.

The San Francisco gay community in response to the Miami vote staged an enormous unprecedented protest in a huge, very organized and respectable event. "WE ARE YOUR CHILDREN!" was seen on many posters and was a popular chant in the parade. The last marchers arrived at the Civic Center four hours after the first marchers arrived. Many carried flowers in memory of Robert Hillsborough and thousands of bouquets were laid on the steps of City Hall in an emotional tribute.

CLICK for more Hillsborough pictures.

The police were intentionally highly visible everywhere. Assemblyman Willie Brown, ( Mayor of San Francisco 1996-2004), had gone to Miami to campaign in behalf of the gay community. At the festival site at Civic Center, he requested a moment of silence in remembrance of Robert Hillsborough. Then he said "Anita Bryant! Eat your heart out. Come to San Francisco and we'll baptize you!" Harvey Milk, in his remarks, said "It's sensational! I hope everybody throughout the world felt the warmth and joy that I felt."

1978 was the first year that the City of San Francisco helped fund the parade. It provided $10,000 toward the parade's estimated $25,000 expenses. In previous years, requests were denied due to the controversial nature of the event. Once again politics dominated the parade. This year the Briggs Initiative, "Proposition 6", was the focal point. California State Senator John Briggs was a lackluster, little-known opportunist with a desire to run for governor. He saw Bryant's success in Miami as an opportunity for him to gain recognition among California's voters. His proposition would have denied teaching jobs to gays and also would have jeopardized the job of any teacher supporting gay rights! Briggs introduced his initiative immediately after Bryant's win in Miami in 1977, but it was too late to be included on the November 1977 ballot.

By June 1978, Proposition 6 seemed to be gaining wide support and polls indicated a likely win in November. The gay community, led by Harvey Milk, put heart and soul into the battle against Senator Briggs. BACABI, Bay Area Coalition Against the Briggs Initiative, coordinated the struggle against Briggs and BACABI signs were seen in almost every parade contingent. Again the parade was politically oriented and respectably staged. But there were reasons to celebrate as well. It was Harvey Milk's first parade as an elected official of the City of San Francisco. Due in part to the new District Elections, he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors the previous November. Mayor George Moscone signed the Human Rights Ordinance prohibiting anti-gay bias by companies doing business with the City. And, perhaps providing the biggest boost to the community's morale, Anita Bryant lost her job as co-host of the Rose Bowl Parade and was ousted as Florida's orange juice queen and her husband left her! (In May 1997 she reportedly filed for bankruptcy.) So, in the shadow of the frightening gloom of the Briggs Initiative, the Gay Parade of 1978 was a jubilant celebration of our progress. No one could have imagined the incredible tragedies that were to follow in November.

Election Day, the day of reckoning feared by the gays of California, turned into another day of victory for us when voters across the state soundly defeated Proposition 6, the anti-gay Briggs initiative. We celebrated late into the night, thankful to see that we hadn't lost our momentum in our quest for human rights. A week later the senseless suicides in Guyana of Jim Jones and hundreds of members of "Peoples Temple" threw the City into turmoil. Most of these people were from San Francisco. Two weeks after that we were devastated by the murders of our Mayor George Moscone and our gay leader Supervisor Harvey Milk. It seemed like the end of our world. Our hopes and dreams were shattered. Many of us saw this as the beginning of an all-out assault in a move to force us back into our closets. Some expected a blood bath. When ex-Supervisor Dan White was given a light sentence for committing these two murders our fears were confirmed. We had been pushed to the limit and we were furious. They were taking away all of our hard-earned rights. We had to fight back. The White Night Riot was the result. I think very few of us regret our behavior that night. It was the only choice left to us. Our silence would have been interpreted as weakness. After the riots were over, the police invaded our neighborhood, the Castro, and attacked us for the sole purpose of revenge. We were at war with the police!

The 1979 Gay Parade was held 5 weeks after the White Night Riots. We had no leader. The police hated us. Many expected the parade to turn into a violent confrontation. Fear was in our hearts, but 150,000 came out. We marched as we always did, but there weren't any protests against the Anita Bryants and the John Briggs. There wasn't even much mention of Dan White and the riot. There was no controversy, there were no incidents. We had our parade, we had our post parade festival, and we went home. It seemed to me that much of the spirit that inspired the first parade had gone out of our lives. The San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade and Pride Festival is still held every year on the last Sunday in June. It is always an enormous event and a good time is had by all, and we go home, proud of ourselves and proud of our community, but without the spirit and enthusiasm and mostly, without the innocence of the 1970's.


This page created May 25, 1997 and modified July 1, 2008
• Text and Graphics © 1997 - 1999 • UD Graphics • San Francisco •

The information presented here is entirely my own opinion
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