The history of TLGB Pride celebrations is uniquely Los Angeles’ because of Christopher Street West. It was CSW that produced the world’s first PRIDE Parade. A year after the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liberation movement was launched by the mob-led rebellion at the Stonewall Inn on New York's Christopher Street in June 1969, activists around the country were thinking of ways to mark the anniversary. Three leaders came together to figure out what to do here in LA.
Reverend Bob Humphries, United States Mission founder, a gay welfare organization; Morris Kight, Gay Liberation Front founder; and Reverend Troy Perry, Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches founder; gathered at Rev. Perry’s home to discuss how to commemorate the one year anniversary of Stonewall. Before the three left that evening, Christopher Street West was born and calls went out, "We are going to have a parade!"
Soon after, Rev. Perry stunned his congregation announcing that MCC and GLF would sponsor the parade. Aware that some identifying graphic was needed, Morris took a pop bottle and sketched out a pin. Rev. Humphries set about getting together a steering committee.
As Rev. Perry remembers, "We went to the Los Angeles Police Commission to secure a permit. When we got there, we met a policeman. He informed us that our hearing wouldn't come up until about 3:00 pm. If we wanted to leave, we could. He informed us that the Police Commission was having lunch with the Parks Commission and they were going to be late in getting started. When we came back around 2:15 pm they'd already passed everything on the agenda, except us. The committee asked me to act as spokesperson for our group. I didn't know that Edward M. Davis, the chief of police of the City of Los Angeles, was going to be there. They started questioning me. It seemed like an eternity. Chief Davis then spoke up. He said, ‘Did you know that homosexuality is illegal in the state of California?' I looked at him, and I said, ‘No, sir, it's not.' We then debated the issue. And he said, ‘Well, I want to tell you something. As far as I'm concerned, granting a parade permit to a group of homosexuals to parade down Hollywood Boulevard would be the same as giving a permit to a group of thieves and robbers.' Finally, the motion was made. One commissioner said, ‘There'll be violence in the streets.'”
Rev. Perry recalls, "They debated among themselves. The commission was against it, but they said, ‘We're going to give the permit, if you can post two bonds, one in the amount of $1 million, one in the amount of $500,000. And you will post in cash the amount of $1,500 to pay for the policemen that it will take to protect you. And, you must have at least 3,000 people marching. If not, you go to the sidewalks.' I thanked them and left. We called the American Civil Liberties Union and they then entered the case. We were determined to hold that parade on June the 28th!”
The next day Rev. Perry met with Herbert Selwyn, an ACLU attorney. They appeared at the Police Commission the following Friday. The Commission dropped all of its specifications except the requirement to pay $1,500 for police protection.
The following Monday the California Superior Court ordered that CSW was to receive the parade permit but also required the police to provide whatever protection needed to maintain an order. In making his ruling, the judge said “all citizens of the State of California are entitled to equal protection under its laws”. The Los Angeles Police Department was ordered to protect the participants as they would any other group, and CSW would not pay any extra taxes or fees.
With the court order secured, the ambitious team had exactly two days to throw together a parade. It was decided to march down Hollywood Boulevard from an assembly area near Hollywood and Highland, east to Vine Street and then back to their starting point.
The parade was an opportunity to be proud, see and be seen, and experience, in a public setting, that you were not alone. The parade kicked off with a VW Microbus playing some recordings of marches over an amplification system. The order ran the gamut of just about anything you could name, from the Advocate Magazine’s float with a carload of men in swimsuits, to a conservative gay group in business suits from extremely conservative Orange County.
The Gay Liberation Front came marching down the street carrying banners and shouting, "Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight." Another organization marching was a group of friends carrying a large sign reading, "Heterosexuals for Homosexual Freedom." It was a direct, welcome, and reassuring gesture.
What they didn’t know at the time was that while other cities were hosting marches, it was Los Angeles that held the world’s first TLGB Pride Parade. The success of the 1970 parade led immediately to talk of making the parade an annual event. The 1971 and 1972 parades had entries that created controversies; and disagreements within the steering committee lead to no parade being produced in 1973.
In the fall of 1973, Rob Cole, Advocate News Editor, a member of the original steering committee, began a campaign to revive the parade. One of those who became involved was pioneer gay filmmaker, Pat Rocco, who later became CSW's first official board president. Once again, over the objections of Police Chief Davis, the Police Commission grudgingly granted the permit for 1974.
It was Rocco who came up with the idea for the festival, originally called a carnival, which was launched in a Hollywood parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and Cherokee. That first carnival was an amateur effort but it offered carnival rides, games, food and information booths operated by the gay organizations of the day.
Rocco's proposal for the initial carnival/festival in 1974 was a hard sell for the revived CSW Committee. "They thought I was crazy," Rocco recalls. "It was one thing to parade on Hollywood Boulevard but quite another for gay people to be on display for three days in the middle of Hollywood”. Eventually, several committee members changed their minds and the festival was born in 1974. In addition to adding a festival, 1974 saw CSW taking measures to formalize and incorporate, which was completed in 1976.
Part of the CSW Board in 1976: Lower foreground, Sharon Cornelison, president; Terry "Spider" Luton, vice president. On steps, left to right, John Toy, raffles chair; David Schwinkendorf, circus coordinator; Pat Rocco, carnival and circus chair; John Walsh, food concessions chair; Sharon Tobin, secretary; Morris Kight, parade theme chair, and Patricia Underwood, treasurer. The photo was by Steve Fleming, assistant coordinator of carnival lot decor.
Women have been key leaders in CSW from the beginning. Early pioneers include Sharon Cornelison, who served at various times as vice president, treasurer, and in a variety of other roles. Jeanne Barney, an advice columnist, and straight ally, was heavily involved in restarting CSW in 1974. Sharon Tobin served with CSW for just about 20 years, longer than any other individual. She joined in 1975 and was the first board secretary. Patricia Underwood was treasurer of the first 13-person board after incorporation, and served as president for several years around 1980, during the move to West Hollywood and throughout the festival's greatest expansion. Including today, as 2/3 of the executive committee is female.
1979 saw LA PRIDE move from its original Hollywood location to the fast growing TLGB enclave of what was to become West Hollywood. The move was in response to continued LAPD hostility and urban development of the festival grounds; as well as the population shift that saw more openly TLGB people residing in the unincorporated portion of LA County that became the city of West Hollywood.
Christopher Street West has had a long and beneficial relationship with the city of West Hollywood, since its incorporation in 1984. The city has continued to be a leading sponsor and partner in producing PRIDE; they waive permit fees, provide the park and street location for the festival and parade, and pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in LA County Sheriffs costs to police the events.
Christopher Street West has grown from a shoestring operation to a budget over $1 million, something unimaginable in the early days. This increase in revenue allows CSW to assist partner organizations as well as other non-profits with a variety of support both fiscal and experiential. Our continued success is due in part to strategic sponsorships of LA PRIDE, with pro-TLGB business and corporations.
Rev. Bob Humphries died in Fresno, California, on January 30, 2002. He was 67. The United States Mission now has facilities in 16 cities nationwide. Morris Kight died in Los Angeles on Jan. 19, 2003. He was 83 years old and left a lasting legacy that includes the co-founding of what was to become the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. In 2005, Rev. Perry retired as Moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches. He maintains an active speaking schedule, lecturing on the history of the gay rights movement, HIV issues, and marriage equality. He also regularly preaches in both MCC congregations and other faith communities.
Christopher Street West continues to be governed by a volunteer board of directors. Board Members take on individual responsibility for directing and overseeing the production of PRIDE each year with the assistance of committee members, numerous administrative and event volunteers and a few paid consultants and staff.
In keeping with our goals of being inclusive of the community at large, CSW’s board is ethnically and culturally diverse as well as representing multiple genders; including members from a variety of communities – Transgender, Latin, African-American and Asian-Pacific Islander.
The annual PRIDE celebration continues to draw over 500,000 people each year and remains a major focus for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride in the greater Los Angeles area. CSW works year round to ensure that our legacy is safe and will continue for generations to come.