BARchive: Polk on Parade

An early 1970s gay parade down Polk Street.

by Coy Ellison & Sal Meza

With Pride month upon us we wanted to take a minute to remember the origins of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade. Our local activists were no strangers to conflict with police. The first recorded scuffle took place at the California Hall on Polk Street during a fundraiser for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual on new year’s day 1965 when a ticket taker and three gay lawyers were arrested.

The next recorded altercation took place in 1966 at the Compton Cafeteria located at 101 Taylor Street. The manhandling of a transwoman by a police officer sparked riots lasting three nights, and galvanized San Francisco’s gay movement.

The national tipping point came in 1969 when the police made a routine yet unconstitutional raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn. One year later, in 1970 a group calling itself the San Francisco Gay Celebration Front organized a birthday party for the Stonewall Riots calling it the “Christopher Street Liberation Day Gay-in.” In this parade, roughly 30 “hair fairies” or crossdressers marched from Aquatic Park down Polk Street to Civic Center where there was a rally followed by a festive gay-in at Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadows.

cockettes-style drag queens ride atop a car at a 1970sw Polk Street gay parade.

Rev. Ray Broshears, H.L. Perry, and Rev. Bob Humphries organized the first officially recognized Gay Freedom Parade in 1972 calling it “Christopher Street West.” While Mayor Joseph Alioto refused to participate, then Police Chief Richard Hongisto was the first politician to go down the original parade route from Montgomery and Pine to Polk Street. This first parade attracted an estimated 50,000 people and set off what would become the largest gay pride celebration in the country attracting over 200,000 people by 1977.

The early parades were an entirely grassroots effort. The Tavern Guild – through fundraisers at bars such as the Gang Way, the Kokpit, the New Belle Saloon and the Leaping Frog – raised all the necessary funds to produce the parades. A great example of the community effort took place in the 1974 parade when performers donated their rhinestones to help Empress Doris make her costume. Doris managed to borrow an elephant from Ringling Brother’s Circus and planned to be a sparkling diamond on top of the mammoth beast. We understand that Doris fell off the elephant three times on the parade route from Grant Street to O’Farrell and Polk.

In 1976 the parade route was altered, linking the city’s two gay neighborhoods, the Tenderloin and the Castro. The following year, 1977, the parade was moved to nearly the same route that will be marched this month.

Regardless of the route, funding and official parade name, the message remains the same. We will no longer be pushed into the shadows and closets. Our gender identities and sexual orientations are a gift and not something that can or should be altered. We are a community with an ancient and rich history and for that we are proud.

To see learn more about the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade & Celebration, visit www.sfpride.org

More videos are at the GLBT History channel on YouTube.com

1976 Gay Freedom Day parade, 1977’s parade, and the 1979 Parade up Market Street. the 1978 parade includes footage of Harvey Milk.

For more about San Francisco’s gay past, visit FoundSF.org, and the GLBT Historical society’s online version of the Polk Street Project exhibit.

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