The first pride marches were held the following year in Los Angeles, in Chicago, and a big week long celebration in New York City. But these marches took on a unique character. The parades became a critique of heteronormative and 'straight' culture. These parades became a place where gay culture was normalized, out of the closet and into the streets.
I’d grown up on the east coast, where folks hardly ever talked about such things, so when I moved to the Bay Area to attend seminary, my first semester I took a class called “LGBT Spiritualties” where I learned that people like me, who are attracted to both men and women, are called “bisexual.” (the “B” in LGBT). A friend who identified as Bi asked if I wanted to go to the San Francisco Pride Parade. Now I had attended the modest pride events in Baltimore but I’d heard about the massive Pride Parades in San Francisco, talked about with almost mythological reverence. I asked “are bi people allowed to go to that?” Yes! she said confidently. In fact, Brenda Howard, known as the "Mother of Pride", was Bi. As LGBT rights activist Tom Limoncelli put it, "The next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why [LGBT] Pride Month is June tell them 'A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be.'"
My friend and I arrived in time for the start of the parade, but since we hadn’t gotten up at the crack of dawn to put out chairs and claim our spot, it was hard for me, short as I am, to find a spot where I could see. We finally found a spot where we could see over the heads of parade viewers through the chain-link fence as this magnificent display of LGBT pride marched by. I realized the section we were standing behind was reserved for folks in wheelchairs and their partners. As the tears began to roll down my face, what moved me the most was not only the bravery of folks publicly outing themselves with such joy and flair in solidarity at a time when many lost jobs, family , friends by coming out of the closet, what also moved me was that of COURSE there was a section for folks in wheelchairs. This was THAT kind of movement, And as we wandered the events after the parade and found the tables set aside for bi-activists, I knew there was a place for me too.
When I heard the story of the 504 disability rights sit-in recently, I felt a wave of that same emotion sweep through me, so I want to tell you a bit of that story today. In 1973, just 4 years after the Stonewall riots, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act first acknowledged that Americans with disabilities experienced discrimination, and the first federal civil rights protections for persons with disabilities became law. Unfortunately, the Department of Health, Education Welfare failed to issue the regulations that would have put this new law into action. Years dragged by and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) formed to demand action. “Over months and years, they cultivated relationships with groups such as the Black Panther Party, Glide Memorial Church, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, Delancey Street, the United Farm Workers.” After many years of asking politely, the ACCD decided to stage a series of sit ins during the spring of 1977. The largest and longest sit in was in San Francisco.
In her article recounting her personal experience of those days “ Short History of the 504 Sit In” one of the organizers Kitty Cone reports that:
“In the Bay Area, a broad cross-disability coalition, the Emergency 504 Coalition, began building for a rally on April 5th, knowing we’d sit in afterwards. We set up committees to take on different tasks such as rally speakers, media, fund-raising, medics, monitors, publicity, and outreach.According to disability activist Corbett Joan O'Toole, in her book “Faded Scars: My Queer Disability History” One member of the Black Panther Party remarked “’We support you because you're asking America to change, to treat you like human beings, like you belong… We always support people fighting for their rights.’ When FBI agents tried to prevent them from delivering food, the Panthers held their ground. After that, the Panthers provided hot meals each day until the end of the occupation and never asked for money.” You know it’s a broad coalition when the Black Panthers, Labor Unions, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, and the Salvation Army are all working together.
The outreach committee was very successful in garnering broad community support: from churches, unions, civil rights organizations, gay groups, elected politicians, radical parties and others.
The work of that committee proved to be invaluable once we were inside the building. Those organizations built support rallies outside the building and the breath of the support made it more difficult to move against us. The International Association of Machinists facilitated our sending a delegation to Washington. Politicians sent mattresses and a shower hose to attach to the sink. Glide Memorial Church and the Black Panther party sent many delicious meals that nourished us between days of coffee and doughnuts.”
One key thing for us to remember, especially those of us who identify as temporarily able-bodied, those of us who are learning to understand and recognize privilege, and those of us learning what it means to be an ally, was that this coalition which came together to support the sit-in was not a paternalistic effort, but true allies supporting Disability activists who were defining their own agenda. In Kitty Cone’s words
“For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection. We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change. The sit in was a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again. Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were. And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems.Now almost 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, 40 years from the 504 sit-ins, it is time for us to come together again. Rev. William Barber, leader of the modern Poor Peoples Campaign, is calling us to this same kind of broad coalition. Rather than factions fighting for a slice of the pie, he calls us to recognize core moral issues that could bring us together. It is a time when we are called to find new ways to come together as one. Where intersectionality reminds us that not all queer people are able-bodied, not all queer people are white, Fusion politics asks us to come together with people who might seem very different from us, as different as the Gay Men’s Butterfly brigade and the Salvation Army, United Farm Workers and US senators. That kind of fusion is embodied in the process by which the “Gay Liberation” movement became LGBTQIA+; even though the needs of each identity are not identical, we come together to work for change.
Without 504 — its coverage and example and the disability civil rights principles contained in the regulations we fought so hard for, and the empowerment of tens of thousands of disability activists through 504 trainings, and activities and mobilizations — there might well be no Americans with Disabilities Act, that finally brought us up to parity with federal civil rights laws covering gender and race.”[iv]