June 25, 2020

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride at 50, a Legacy of Celebratory Protest

Many 2020 LGBT Pride celebrations have been curtailed by COVID-19 social distancing precautions and official events marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pride canceled or moved online. In support of the ongoing national uprisings against police violence and systemic racism, some annual June Pride parades will be replaced with independently organized street protests. These independent actions may more closely approximate the tactics and demands of the foundational events that are commemorated annually at Pride, the 1966 San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria and 1969 New York Stonewall Inn riots. Both protests, led by Black trans women, demanded an end to police violence and enforcement of discriminatory public decency laws.[1] The history of Pride includes many examples of this annual celebration as a venue of LGBT demands for justice.


Altman (Joe) photographs of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parades, Collections, , , , ,

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride at 50, a Legacy of Celebratory Protest

In February 1979, Sue Davis and Shirley Wilson were arrested by San Francisco Police after leaving Amelia’s, a now closed San Francisco lesbian bar. The two women were harassed, strip searched, beaten and held overnight without charge. A community meeting of over 100 women held in the following weeks resulted in the formation of Lesbians Against Police Violence (LAPV). LAPV organized for police abolition and highlighted a parallel between colonial violence and discriminatory policing of people of color, poor people, immigrants and LGBT people.[2]

Dan White Gets Special Treatment!, 1979; California social, protest, and counterculture movement ephemera collection, SOC MOV EPH; Box 1, Folder 13; California Historical Society.

In May 1979, anticipating lenient sentencing of former San Francisco Police Officer and City Supervisor Dan White, LAPV organized a march and rally on San Francisco City Hall. Mr. White had used his police department issued firearm to kill Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. He was found guilty only of manslaughter and sentenced to a seven-year prison term. Protesters responded by overturning and lighting fire to several police vehicles and breaking windows at City Hall.[3]

The police retaliated. Hours after the City Hall protesters dispersed, police indiscriminately arrested and beat people presumed to be gay and lesbian, including raiding and vandalizing Elephant Walk, a Castro neighborhood gay bar.[4] The violent police response led to the hospitalization of over 100 people in what is now known as the White Night riots. Later, a grand jury was formed by then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to identify and criminalize protest participants.

Lesbians and Gay Men The Grand Jury’s In Town, 1979; California social, protest, and counterculture movement ephemera collection, SOC MOV EPH; box 1, folder 13; California Historical Society.

LAPV described the grand jury as a political tool to shift blame for the White Night riots from police to LGBT protesters. LAPV organized against the grand jury by providing free legal defense education. At the June 1979 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, as San Francisco LGBT Pride was referred until 1995, LAPV marched with a large contingent demanding amnesty for demonstrators at the White Night riots.

Lesbians Against Police Violence at 1979 Gay Freedom Day parade, by Waverly Lowell, June 1979; San Francisco Subjects Photography Collection, PC-SF-Social Groups-Gays and Lesbians; California Historical Society.

During this fiftieth year, LGBT Pride remains a holiday of celebration and a demand for justice.

View the California Historical Society’s related collections:

Gay and lesbian rights movement ephemera collection, 1970s

Joe Altman Photographs of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parades, 1979-1985

Mitzi Hawkins, MD is a research Fellow in the Departments of Medicine and Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at UCSF.


[1] Stryker, Susan. 2008. Transgender History. Seal Studies. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press : Distributed by Publishers Group West.

[2] Hanhardt, Christina B. 2013. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence. Perverse Modernities. Durham: Duke University Press.

[3] Jochild, Maggie. 2008. “The White Night Riot, 21 May 1979 and Lesbians Against Police Violence.” Meta Watershed (blog). May 21, 2008. http://maggiesmetawatershed.blogspot.com/2008/05/white-night-riot-21-may-1979-and.html.

[4] Bay Area Reporter. 1979. “Gays Riot. Why – Why Not?,” May 24, 1979. https://archive.org/details/BAR_19790524