25 years of Pride

Austin’s LGBT community began organizing in 1970 and launched official Austin Pride events in 1990.

(Above: Steve Cronin and other members of the Heart of Texas Bears carry a 20-by-30-foot rainbow flag at the Pride Parade on June 3, 2006.)

The 2014 Austin Pride Parade filed down Congress Avenue with the usual pomp, purpose and playfulness that observers have come to expect since such expressions of LGBT support were launched nationally during the early 1970s.

Then, without warning, around the corner came a buoyant army of people in bright white T-shirts bearing a potent symbol of the 21st century: Apple.

“Our family walked with our daughter, and all 3,000 or so of her fellow Apple folks,” said Austin’s Sally Fly. “It was an amazing, love-filled evening for all of us! We’ll be there again if they’ll have us.”

That one of the country’s leading corporations assembled more than 3,000 supporters — twice the total number of participants in the first Gay and Lesbian Pride Fiesta in 1990 — for a Pride Parade that attracted north of 125,000 spectators to downtown Austin last year says something about the seismic shifts in social attitudes during the past 25 years.

Consider, too, that in April 1970, not long after the Stonewall Riots ushered in the modern era of gay rights, the first publicly promoted meeting of Austin homosexuals drew only 25 brave souls to the University Y on Guadalupe Street.

As the Austin Gay & Lesbian Pride Foundation toasts 25 years of official annual Austin events with a festival and parade on Saturday, the emphasis is on awareness, but also on fun.

Few, however, will forget Apple’s symbolic impact last year, months before the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

“The reaction was: Wow!” said Shannon House, a young mother with a spirited 3-year-old, about the Apple troops. “So much support!”

Before Austin Pride

(Pictured: Marchers with the Metropolitan Community Church of Austin cross the Congress Avenue Bridge during the Pride as Big as Texas Parade on June 5, 2004. Photo by Jay Janner / American-Statesman)

One can find evidence of local gay pride before Austin Pride came around 25 years ago.

Written fragments of pre-1990 gay Austin history are housed at the Austin History Center, as is Eric Jason Ganther’s 1990 thesis, “From Closet to Crusade: The Struggle for Lesbian-Gay Civil Rights in Austin, Texas, 1970-1982.”

A city accustomed to political organizing and protest rallies, Austin was hosting a chapter of the short-lived Gay Liberation Front by 1970, less than a year after the June 1969 Stonewall Riots. Even earlier, in February 1970, the Austin underground newspaper the Rag called for “Pink Power!”

At the time, Austin supported at least five gay clubs: the Cabaret, Manhattan Club, Red River Lounge, Pearl Street Warehouse and Apartment. It appears that the older Insomnia Club, active as late as 1967, had closed by then.

The Gay Liberation Front strove to be recognized by the University of Texas for four years. By 1974, the city was also home to the Austin Lesbian Organization. One of its parties was raided by UT’s Silver Spurs spirit group in 1975, and as late as the 1980s, some students pelted the gay pride float during the Greek community’s Round-Up Weekend with bottles and cans.

Without apparent incident, a mostly student group called Gay People of Austin staged the Gay Picnic and Cultural Celebration at Shoal Creek Park in 1974, followed by a party at the Student Union Ballroom, attended by an estimated 300 people.

In the late 1970s, three resilient support groups emerged: Gay Community Services, Austin Lambda and Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus. The number of nightclubs grew to six: Austin Country, the New Apartment, Hollywood, Private Cellar, Pearl Street Warehouse and Friends and Lovers.

In June 1976, Mayor Jeff Friedman — leading what has been called the “hippie” Austin City Council — proclaimed a Gay Pride Week Celebration. A parade was organized at Second Street and Congress Avenue. Participants were urged to bring signs, friends, costumes and pride for a march to the Capitol.

The seriousness of LGBT assemblies intensified in the 1980s as the AIDS crisis made public action a matter of life or death. Biennial marches on the Capitol drew as many as 25,000 protesters.

In 1987, Austin’s Glen Maxey, who had been politically active since 1968 and had served for years as a legislative aide, became executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. His election in 1991 to the Texas House of Representatives — the year after the first Gay and Lesbian Pride Fiesta started raising money for such causes — was seen as a sign of growing acceptance in a state that still criminalized same-gender sexual contact. The U.S. Supreme Court struck that down in 2003.

Maxey told an American-Statesman reporter in 1991: “It is perhaps the end of the beginning of the fight for equal rights for gay Texans.”

25 years of official Austin Pride

Another slice of visual symbolism: For years, supporters of gay rights rallied at the Capitol — they still do so each June with Austin Pride participation. These days, the huge Pride Parade, added to annual Austin events in 2002, emanates from the Capitol district — in other words, coming from a place of power.

In 1990, its first year, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Fiesta attracted a set of protesters from the American Family Association, and others in later years from church groups. Yet the family-friendly affair at Fiesta Gardens grew steadily. By 1992, a serious — even somber — conference was added as a preview to the fancy-free dance and fair.

In 1993, the Austin Pride event went statewide as part of Texas Pride Weekend. A march was added to the festival, which included a volleyball tournament, as well as a dance.

“I hope this will be a celebration of the good things,” said Dianne Hardy-Garcia of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. “It helps me remember good things and gives us some kind of rest from the stuff that is difficult.”

In June 1996, among the whimsical attractions were a lesbian kissing booth and mock same-sex marriage ceremonies. A court ruling in Hawaii had recently kicked off a national discussion about marriage equality.

Interviewed by the Statesman, one organizer, Jerry Townsend, said he didn’t think that the ban on gay marriage would change any time soon. “It’s progressively getting better, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” he said.

JANUS-1086 chromeless player template

By June 1999, the crowds had grown to more than 6,000 at Fiesta Gardens. The mood was somewhat dampened because anti-hate-crimes legislation had failed that year. It passed in 2001.

“It’s important that people come together and see each other and know that they’re not alone,” participant David Sweeney told the American-Statesman that year. “People can sometimes feel very isolated, especially because of their sexual orientation.”

In June 2000, a new Austin Pride twist popped up: A champagne brunch. By 2004, it had become, humorously, the “Sunrise Brunch at 11 a.m.”

Leaders pushed voter registration that year as Log Cabin Republicans joined the Human Rights Campaign in pressing their points of view. Mayor Kirk Watson worked the crowds in a Hawaiian shirt and lei. More corporate sponsors — Coors, Subaru, H-E-B — jumped on board.

Just before Austin Pride 2001, the American-Statesman published a sprawling study — authored by this reporter and social scientist Sean Massey — about the city’s gay community. The conclusion: “An overwhelming majority of lesbians and gay men feel safe, comfortable and satisfied with the quality of life in Central Texas. Yet they miss certain aspects of traditional gay culture and community, such as social spaces, businesses and other resources dedicated to gay men and, especially, lesbians.”

Participants in the Pride as Big as Texas Parade march and roll down Congress Avenue on June 5, 2004. (Jay Janner / American-Statesman)

Participants in the Pride as Big as Texas Parade march and roll down Congress Avenue on June 5, 2004. (Jay Janner / American-Statesman)

Where’s our parade?

In 2002, the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce launched the Pride Parade to go along with the festival. Taking various routes around downtown from year to year, it was attracting tens of thousands of spectators by 2008.

During the late 2000s, marriage equality replaced AIDS, hate crimes and other issues as the hot topic during the Austin Pride parade and festival, the latter bringing in estimated crowds of 10,000.

Long-simmering tensions between self-consciously radical and less-than-radical elements among the participants and organizers began to emerge in 2009. How much emphasis to put on drag and leather? How to connote sex in an increasingly mixed crowd? What is the place of corporate sponsorship?

“There cannot be no rules, but we don’t want too many rules,” Jimmy Flannigan, president of the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, told the Austin Chronicle that year. “At some point, you draw a line, and that’s always where the discussion lies. It’s not intended to whitewash anything.”

The social damage, however, was already done. A separate group, QueerBomb, staged an alternative rally and parade the following year. It has repeated its festivities each June.

According to the Chronicle, mismanagement in 2010 also left Pride organizers with “empty coffers, unpaid vendors and shaky leadership.”

The purpose-made Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation bounced back the following year, in part by moving the event to September — when more university students were in town — and by bringing in a fresh board of directors. Leaders also leaned heavily on entertainment value. Austin Pride’s winning 2013 theme, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, was “Love Unites.”

“We won advances for love and equality,” foundation president Paul Huddleston said that year.

By then, crowds for the parade — everyone is invited to join at the end — had grown to 100,000. With another Supreme Court decision to celebrate this year, organizers expect record masses who will be in a very good mood.

As Huddleston said in 2014: “We see all the colors of the rainbow — single, married, young, old, children, families, straight allies and a huge student turnout.”