Supervisor Harvey Milk appeared in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. (Photo by Daniel Nicoletta)

A look at San Francisco Pride through 50 years

Civil rights quest a cycle of celebrations and challenges throughout the decades

Ever-changing and ever-growing, San Francisco Pride has had its share of ups and downs, celebrations and challenges.

“Pride goes in cycles,” said Teddy Basham-Witherington, SF Pride’s first executive director, who served in the position from 1997 to 2006.

As the event evolved from, “boys dancing onstage to a “real multicultural festival” during his tenure, he said, “We took heat, but we were glad.”

Though SF Pride’s parade and Civic Center party aren’t happening for its 50th anniversary this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival has a $3.5 million budget and bills itself as “the largest gathering of LBGT people and their allies in the nation.” Last year’s parade included nearly 300 contingents; before this year’s cancellations, 1 million people were expected to attend.

That wasn’t the case in 1972, when artist-filmmaker Ronald Chase, 85, made “Parade,” a 10-minute documentary of the modest San Francisco gathering in which he interviewed gay people about their experiences (screening online in this year’s Frameline Showcase with a Q&A on June 25).

“There really wasn’t any audience for it. Maybe three churches showed it once,” said Chase, who put the film in a mislabeled box in storage and only recently uncovered it after decades.

“People who came out in 1972 knew they had to march, people needed to be aware that gay people existed,” said Chase, adding that most straight people didn’t understand the incredible pressure gay people faced, having to lie, to worry about being fired from their jobs or arrested. “Now you don’t have to do that. Black lives matter brought it all back to me,” he said.

Marsha Levine, SF Pride community relations manager and Pride organizer for 35 years, came to San Francisco in 1985, when, she said, “’Castro clones,’ handsome men with great mustaches, flannel plaid shirts and tight blue jeans blaring disco from ‘floats’ that were 14-wheeler trucks with big cabs and massive sound systems from clubs like the I-Beam and the Stud” made an impression on her.

But at the onset of AIDS, things changed from a party, to fear and shock, said LGBT activist Ken Jones, the first African American president of the board of directors, whose tenure included controversy over whether to add the word lesbian to the then-named Gay Freedom Day Parade.

“We were lost,” Jones said, “but we marched.” In the late 1970s into the 1980s, he points to attempts to challenge the system, to make Pride a gathering “not just about pretty boys” organized by incestuous leaders, but educational and inclusive.

Things took a turn in the 1990s when Pride hired administrative staff, including an executive director, and made efforts to diversify and expand, and solidify funding.

Celebrity grand marshals were established, as was a program to help community groups create floats that could compete with lavish contributions by corporations. Meanwhile, money and budgeting woes grew and attendance skyrocketed.

“Serious elements vanished in the 1990s,” said Chase, who marched in the parade’s first decade and witnessed people die of AIDS in the second, then stopped participating. “Now it has a whole different shape because it’s so gigantic. All of these people don’t seem to know anything about their history. There was a lot of work to get there.”

While Chase does appreciate that today’s SF Pride helps people assert themselves and understand they have a support group, he adds that in many places, things haven’t changed for many people who are still struggling.

Yet as SF Pride continues to draw controversy over funding, inclusion, diversity and politics, while also celebrating civil rights victories and sometimes defeats, Basham-Witherington said it also continues to set one good example, that “No matter what your differences are, it’s possible to get together and get along.

San Francisco Pride over the years

1970: First Pride celebration included a march down Polk Street and Golden Gate Park “gay-in.”

In 1972, the gay pride celebration was called Christopher Street West, as seen in this brochure. (Courtesy Ephemera Collection, GLBT Historical Society)

1972: Pride parade named Christopher Street West attracts thousands, concludes with a party in Civic Center, laying groundwork for the future.

1973: Nearly 42,000 people joined the event, dubbed Gay Freedom Day Parade, as marchers, spectators or planners.

In 1973, the march was named the Gay Freedom Day Parade and it went down Polk Street. (Courtesy Crawford Barton Papers/GLBT Historical Society)

1976: Dykes on Bikes make first appearance in parade.

1978: Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag debuts in United Nations Plaza, as pioneering gay S.F. Supervisor Harvey Milk is a local hero.

1979: First records of the Gay Freedom Day Committee represent the work done by organizers in Pride’s first decade.

1980: Newly incorporated Lesbian/Gay Parade Committee advocates for equality in an effort to maintain “grassroots control.”

Dykes on Bikes, pictured in 2015 nearly 40 years after their first appearance in the parade, prepare to ride. (Natasha Dangond/Special to S.F. Examiner

1981: The event gets a new name, Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade, and Dykes on Bikes are lead contingent.

1982: The only death in parade history occurred when a 19-year-old Darryl Anderson was run over by a float.

San Francisco General Hospital AIDS Ward staff marched in the parade in 1988. (Courtesy San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library)

1984: With a theme battling ravages of HIV/AIDS and continuing the fight for civil and health care rights (“Unity and More in ‘84”) SFPride earns a significant profit for the first time.

1988: Art Agnos is first San Francisco mayor to appear in the Pride parade.

In 1988, Art Agnos was the first San Francisco mayor to appear in the Pride parade. (Kurt Rogers/S.F. Examiner)

1993: First San Francisco Dyke March begins in Dolores Park; “Year of the Queer” theme reflects a broadening group of event organizers and reaction to anti-gay U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

1995: The event is renamed San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebration.

1996: Post-parade celebration is at Market Street and The Embarcadero, not Civic Center.

1997: SF Pride hires first its full-time executive director.

1999: Community grand marshals make first appearance; a program assisting nonprofits in creating floats begins.

The 2003 Pride parade dovetailed with a far-reaching U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down laws criminalizing sodomy in Texas. (Cindy Chew/S.F. Examiner)

2003: Estimated attendance is 850,000 at the parade, which occurred just days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws across the county.

2004: Married same-sex couples rule the parade, months after Mayor Gavin Newsom authorizes City Hall to issue marriage licenses to homosexuals.

Hydie Downard, left, and her partner Beate Siedler were married by Glide’s Reverend Cecil Williams during the 45th annual San Francisco Pride festivities in 2015. (Natasha Dangond/Special to S.F. Examiner)

2005: First Trans March starts with a gathering in Dolores Park, which travels to Civic Center.

2010: Pride administrative staff put on furlough due to budget deficit.

2013: Controversy surrounds the naming of military whistleblower Chelsea (born Bradley) Manning as a grand marshal.

In 2015, parade participants and spectators celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to wed. (Natasha Dangond/Special to S.F. Examiner)

2015: Celebration soars as U.S. Supreme Court rules same-sex couples have fundamental right to marry.

2020: SF Pride cancels a 50th anniversary parade and party,replacing it with online programming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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