As the late 1960s saw the end of the peace and love era, the '70s retained the decade's ethos of equality and standing up for it with activism and even protest. Gathering in public places and shining a light on injustice became a powerful means for cultural and political change, but that doesn't mean it was easy.
Nobody knows this better than the Rev. Troy Perry, one of the three original founders of Christopher Street West and L.A. Gay Pride. Perry, 78, the only living founder, has seen what he created almost 50 years ago grow in magnificent ways, transcending a gathering and becoming an international movement.
This weekend, L.A. Pride marks its 48th year. After the Sunday parade was canceled and replaced with the #RESIST March in 2017, the floats and fanfare will return to Santa Monica Boulevard this year. Yes, the Trump administration is still promoting policies that threaten LGBTQ rights, but CSW's current campaign, #JUSTBE, has opted to shift its response, putting the spotlight on the personal before the political and focusing on celebration as demonstration, representing unification and strength in numbers and support as a form of resistance. Which is really how it all began.
It was 1970, and activists in New York City were mobilizing to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that had occurred the year before when a police raid on the mostly gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn triggered violent clashes between cops and the homosexual community in Greenwich Village.
Rev. Perry had formed the first gay congregation ever, the Metropolitan Municipal Church, just a couple years earlier after a similar discriminatory police raid at a bar in Wilmington called the Patch. Tapped along with Morris Kight, founder of the Gay Liberation Front, and the Rev. Bob Humphries, founder of the United States Mission, to spearhead the Los Angeles Stonewall protest, Perry already was known as an advocate for gay rights.
“Morris received a letter from somebody in New York City about doing something in L.A.,” Perry tells L.A. Weekly. “He said we want to hold a demonstration here. But I said, no, this is Hollywood! We want to hold a parade! Let's get the city's permission to hold a parade!”
The first gay pride parade in history was held on June 28, 1970, on Hollywood Boulevard, and Perry says it almost didn't happen. The event required pricy permits, and the trio encountered resistance at every turn. The permits would cost half a million dollars, and the city said organizers would need to guarantee 5,000 marchers. Ultimately Perry and his partners called the ACLU, who got them a lawyer. They sued the city and won, with a judge throwing out all permit fees.
“Thousands showed up,” says Perry, who came up with the name Christopher Street West with Kight as homage to the street where Stonewall took place. “We were so thrilled. People brought their pets, people had signs. There were floats. People were screaming for us.”
Over time the parade expanded into a proper festival with informational booths, tents and a carnival with rides and food. It moved to West Hollywood in the '80s, and Perry says things became a lot easier in terms of dealing with law enforcement.
“We had a lot of problems with the LAPD,” Perry recalls. “They were just awful back then. But when we moved to West Hollywood, we dealt with the Sheriff's Department, and they let us control everything. They never bothered us. They didn't try to make arrests the way the LAPD did. All that pressure was off.”
As L.A. Pride has grown (more than 400,000 people descend upon WeHo and surrounding area to attend various events from the end of May through Sunday, June 10), the event has attempted to evolve with the times. In the '80s and '90s, at the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis, the focus was on disseminating information as a means for survival. Later, the fight for rights for gays in the military and gay marriage took the spotlight for many years prior to attaining these victories.
More recently, transgender rights have been prioritized within the Pride platform, and Christopher Street West's current board members seem driven by inclusivity and diversity, representing all sexual lifestyles and perspectives, cultures and aesthetics, and providing people with a place to come together, to live their truth and have fun — at the event itself and beyond. (CSW will be incorporating the web, social media and year-round events into its new #JUSTBE campaign.)
“Our campaign in the past was 'Own Your Pride,' but this year we wanted to leave it a bit more open-ended, and give people an opportunity to “just be” in any way, shape or form that is most authentic to them,” explains Shayne Thomas, a CSW board member and head of its marketing and communications. “Pride is all about people and the different communities we serve and unifying different facets of the LGBTQ community along with our allies.”
CSW board president Estevan Montemayor, whose day job is director of communications and external affairs for Councilman David Ryu, concurs. “The environment has changed, and that's an incredible thing. We are seeking to really amplify that as much as we can. We've won many victories and there have been some setbacks, too, but we have to continue to fight for our rights,” he says. “What we try to do is lift people up with music, with love, with creating community and creating the opportunities to come together.”
The inclusive nature of L.A. Pride, particularly as it pertains to the music festival portion Friday and Saturday nights (which has featured everyone from Joan Jett to Li'l Kim to Kesha to Fifth Harmony and Wilson Phillips over the years), had raised some concerns within the West Hollywood community a few years ago. Some feared it might turn into the “gay Coachella” and lose its focus on history and its meaning in the shadow of bigger star bookings and subsequent higher ticket prices. But that hasn't happened.
Whether one attends L.A. Pride as a lesbian woman, gay man, bisexual, nonbinary, transgender person or straight ally, the inherent message and feel of the music fest isn't much different from the parade on Sunday: self-expression and equality.
This year's female-heavy lineup of performers is particularly hot, with Kehlani, Tove Lo, Eve, Icona Pop, Keri Hilson and more, but the festival's focus has always been about immersive expression as much as it is entertainment, with information booths, dance areas and DJs, a place for the leather community and fetish fans (the Erotic City tent) and other amusements (there was even a roller disco for VIPs for a couple of years).
Thomas says new programming for 2018 will aim to be more interactive and unifying than ever. There will be a special “trans station,” where several organizations will be on hand providing dialogue about everything from pronoun use to health and safety concerns.
The parade's grand marshal this year is Michaela Ivri Mendelsohn, CEO of Pollo West Group and founder of TransCanWork, a program promoting trans equality in the workplace by providing resources to transgender job seekers. “They have cultivated a rich, 48-year-old history as a bold and provocative voice for the LGBTQ+ community across Los Angeles County,” Mendelsohn says of Pride. “I am excited and deeply honored to be named the 2018 L.A. Pride Parade Grand Marshal — especially in a year when self-expression, female empowerment and trans inclusivity is at the very heart of this year's #JUSTBE message. I am so proud to #JUSTBE at L.A. Pride this year.”
To capture the personal journeys of the #JUSTBE mindset, CSW will be conducting on-the-street interviews during the fest and parade, in which patrons will share their stories about Pride, coming out and more. The videos will be seen on L.A. Pride's website and social media, and provide a individualized human element to Pride's history as the event gets closer to its 50-year milestone anniversary in 2020.
“The only way to change our culture is for all minority groups to get together and speak out,” says Rev. Perry, a true living legend, who has been invited to the White House three times (by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and has traveled around the world to see how his efforts so many years ago have manifested. He'll be a presence at Pride the year as he is every year. “We can't let our communities be divided by our government or by anyone,” he says.
“A lot has changed in 48 years,” Montemayor says. “We have LAPD marching in the parade with us, we have L.A. sheriffs marching in the parade with us. A lot of progress has been made and the fight for equality, a pillar of our mission, has evolved. We've seen victories, especially under the former presidential administration.
“But here we are again under this administration where things are in question. It's really important today that we create these inclusive and safe spaces so everyone feels welcome,” he continues. “That's what Christopher Street West does best. We've always celebrated our culture and the diversity of the LGBTQ community. And that's what we will continue to do. Rev. Troy Perry and the other founders created this and we're honoring what they did.”
Editor's note: Leaders from L.A. Pride helped curate content showcasing the local LGBT community for the June 8-14 issue of L.A. Weekly.