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A look at the history of Pride celebrations in Charlotte and nationwide 

Lighting the fuse

The upcoming release of the film Stonewall has a lot of people upset over the apparent white-washing of the historic gay struggle. The film casts white male Jeremy Irvine as the leader of the Stonewall riots, which are credited by most historians as being started by black transgender activists such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Advocates have called for a boycott of the movie, and an online petition supporting the boycott has garnered more than 13,000 signatures. What else can we expect, however, in a world where Tom Cruise is The Last Samurai and Daniel Day-Lewis is among The Last of the Mohicans? The controversy did get us thinking about the true story of how Pride celebrations like the one to be celebrated in Charlotte this weekend got kicked off.

For that story, we turned to Joshua Burford. Burford is the assistant director for sexual & gender diversity at UNC Charlotte. He is a queer-identified archivist, historian and activist whose work seeks to preserve Southern queer history and expand opportunities for queer southerners. The following is his account:

The Stonewall Riots were not the beginning of the LGBTQ movement for liberation in the United States. Groups began forming as early as the 1920s and later, trans and queer people of color in Los Angeles in the 1950s and San Francisco in the early '60s carried out riots. Stonewall has taken on a mythic quality in the queer community as trans people and queer people of color pushed back in a way that garnered national attention to a movement with deep roots in resistance in the 20th century.

The first Pride celebration in the United States happened in June of 1970 to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that took place a year earlier in New York. The Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration was intended as a reminder of the political power that the community had expressed at Stonewall, but also as a place to for the community to express itself in all its complexity. The "liberation" theme was vital for the community because so many community members were at risk and systems of oppression were fully in place in order to keep queer people outside of society. We began to call these events "Pride" because a feeling of pride in our identities as queer people was vital if we were ever to pull ourselves out of the shame and discrimination of the previous 70 years. There were simultaneous Pride celebrations in Los Angeles and Chicago in the first year and in subsequent years, Pride celebrations sprang up all over the country including in Atlanta, which hosted the first Pride celebration in the South.

In Charlotte, the first Gay Pride Day was held in Marshall Park in 1980, where 50 to 60 participants pulled together an event that was (at the time) unprecedented in the Queen City. As the community developed more social infrastructure and visibility, Charlotte won the bid to hold the statewide Pride festival in 1994. This was the first year that a pride parade was held in Uptown and the idea of a celebration of this size in Charlotte galvanized local activists into a new era of activism and social change.

Pride celebrations were for a long time local affairs that mirrored both the social and political climates of the cities that hosted them. Pride celebrations existed for a long time as large urban affairs simply because the cost of these types of events could be expensive for smaller cities. Also LGBTQ life in the U.S. has always been imagined as an "urban affair" and until very recently smaller cites or rural communities defaulted to larger celebrations. We have come a long way from the Christopher Street Liberation parade and some have argued that we have moved too far away from our original roots. As Pride celebrations become more corporate affairs and our language moves away from 'liberation" to "equality" many feel that the sprit of Pride has forgotten its history in an effort to appear more family friendly. Regardless of why people go, our local Pride grows each year and newer generations of queer people find ways to connect and grow the communities they live in.

For more information on Burford's work, visit www.joshburford.com.

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