Marchers in NYC’s ’77 gay Pride parade wanted protection from discrimination and sodomy laws; same-sex marriage wasn’t even a dream
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 16 announcement that it would decide if the Constitution guarantees the rights of same-sex couples to marry wherever they reside, and whether states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages sanctioned by other states left me marveling at the advancements of the gay rights movement in my adult life.
In 1977 I lived and worked for a time in New York City where I marched in my first gay rights parade at the age of 27. Up until that point I had not participated in any sort of activism, even though I had made no secret of my sexual orientation in Dallas prior to joining a couple of friends in Manhattan in search of excitement. During those days I aspired only to go out every night and to enjoy every bit of entertainment I could squeeze out of the big city that never slept.
The three of us shared a three-room boxcar-style apartment, and I worked for a temporary agency that sent me on office assignments across the city when I wanted to work. I felt like I had struck gold when the agency sent me to a public relations agency that represented all of the Broadway theaters, and they gave me free tickets to shows. God I loved that dead end job — answering the phone, typing and assisting the employees of the theaters and the celebrities the agency represented. I kept that assignment as long as possible.
I lacked purpose in my life in those days, and my friends shared my lack of enthusiasm for pursuing a career. We all worked just enough to pay the rent and utilities and to eat and drink in the endless array of restaurants and bars in the city. Weekends we spent at the beach when the weather turned warm enough. Sometimes people we met in the bars invited us to their weekend homes on the New Jersey Shore and Fire Island.
I couldn’t imagine life beyond 30, and I wanted to extend my search for adventure indefinitely.
When June rolled around that year we started noticing fliers posted in the bars about the upcoming gay rights parade, and we decided to join in the fun.
I had watched a small parade in downtown Dallas in 1972 with one of my New York roommates, but he and I had stayed on the sidewalk, unmoved by the experience. That would change in New York.
On the Sunday morning of the parade, my roommates and I made signs to carry in the parade. Mine said, “Gay freedom is my right.” I doubt that I even knew what I meant when I wrote those words.
I’m positive same-sex marriage didn’t inspire me, and I doubt anyone else thought about it in 1977. We did fume about singer Anita Bryant’s campaign in Florida to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Fla., that succeeded June 7, 1977.
That became the rallying cry in gay rights parades across the country that summer. Everyone wanted protection from discrimination in jobs and housing, and we wanted the abolishment of sodomy laws. Few people in my presence ever mentioned the Stonewall Riots, which are widely viewed today as the start of the modern-day gay rights movement.
When my roommates and I arrived after a short subway ride for the start of the parade on Fifth Avenue, the sight stunned me. Many thousands of people were lined up for the parade in New York, compared to less than a hundred people I had seen in Dallas getting ready to march. It overwhelmed me, and I sensed something earthshaking would be happening.
The parade got underway late as people continued to arrive for the lineup. The numbers astonished me, and I said that I had no idea so many gay people lived in the whole world, let alone the New York City area.
When the parade finally got underway it eventually stretched the entire length of Fifth Avenue, and I remember seeing people all along the route hanging out of windows and cheering. As we passed the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, gay instructors with their straight female clients yelled and waved.
For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged, and it motivated me to take a stand.
Before the summer ended, I decided to return to Texas so I could finally finish college. Almost 40 years later, those days in New York seem like a dream.
My two roommates — who remained in New York and never knew LGBT activists would focus on marriage equality — no longer are living.
Had I remained in New York City, I probably would be dead today, too.
Instead, I returned to Dallas and I enrolled in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin as soon as I could. One of my first stories for the Daily Texan explored a deadly new disease striking gay men in San Francisco and New York City. From then on I came across stories about the LGBT community that needed to be told at every newspaper for which I worked.
Sometimes I told the stories over the objections of others in the newsroom who failed to grasp the significance of the gay rights movement. At the same time I frequently attended the funerals of my friends, and I wrote their obituaries.
Over the years, I came to realize that every person who came out to a straight relative, friend or coworker contributed to the gay rights movement, whether they ever marched in a parade or otherwise demonstrated for the cause. As activist and former Dallasite William Waybourn pointed out to me in a discussion in the early 1990s when he led a national organization in Washington D.C., “If every gay and lesbian person in the country came out today, the discrimination would end tomorrow.”
Eventually, I made my way to the Dallas Voice where I covered LGBT issues solely. But despite my specialization in LGBT issues and my association with local, state and national LGBT leaders, the marriage equality story caught me off guard. I never dreamed same-sex marriage would receive so much support in state governments, the courts and the American public in general. It took so long to get the sodomy law overturned that I thought marriage equality would be many decades off, if it even happened in my lifetime.
I’m glad that, at the age of 65, I’ve lived to see the gay rights movement succeeding in ways that seemed impossible a little more than a decade ago. But it is a bittersweet moment. So many people who helped lay the foundation for the success of the gay rights movement will never get to enjoy it.
Still, I’d like to think that they somehow know what they helped achieve. And if so, they are no doubt as amazed as I am.
David Webb is a veteran journalist with more than three decades of experience, including a stint as a staff reporter for Dallas Voice. He now lives on Cedar Creek Lake and writes for publications nationwide.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 23, 2015.