To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/pride
This is The Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, feed the linguistic ducks.
It’s June, the President of the USA has officially designated it LGBT Pride Month, and there’ll be Pride events around the world. So in today’s show, we’ll discover how the word ‘pride’ came to be the banner word for demonstrations and celebrations of LGBT rights and culture.
Prepare yourself with a little word history sponsored by Animoto, which lets you make great videos easily. You just drag and drop photos and video clips, add music from their library, and wallop, there you have it. I’m excited to try it. I’ve made more than 350 podcasts but never any videos, so by the time the next episode comes out, I WILL make one to show you. Send me yours too: visit animoto.com/words, use the free 14-day trial, and if you like it, get 15% off your annual pro subscription with the promo code ‘words’.
Because you Allusionist listeners are such fans of words. One of the reasons I like them so much is that they’re full of surprises. For instance, I thought it was pretty well known that the term ‘lesbian’ alludes to the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the poet Sappho, famous for her poems about love between women. The word was first used to describe same-sex relationships in the late 19th century, but what I didn’t know is that prior to then it had a quite different life: from around the year 1590, a lesbian rule was the name of a tool used by stonemasons - a stick, made of a kind of lead found on the isle of Lesbos, that was flexible, so it could be used to measure or be moulded to irregular shapes. And you can follow the lesbian rule back to the 4th century BC, when the Greek philosopher Aristotle used it as a simile for how the legal system had to be flexible and respond to the particulars of each case. He wrote:
“When the thing is indefinite, the rule also is indefinite, like the leaden rule used in making the Lesbian moulding; the rule adapts itself to the shape of the stone and is not rigid, and so too the decree is adapted to the facts.”
So from a flexible metal stick to women who love women - the word 'lesbian' has had quite a journey. As has 'pride'. The Old English word meant bravery or pomp with a touch of conceit.
Skip over 1000 years and the Atlantic Ocean, to New York City in 1970. Homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness; gay sex was punishable with fines and prison sentences. A police raid on the Stonewall Inn on Christopher St on 28th June 1969 sparked the Stonewall Riots, after which the gay civil rights movement was gathering momentum, and pride began to mean something more.
CS: My name is Craig Schoonmaker, and in 1970 I authored the word ‘pride’ for gay pride. Somebody had to come up with it!
We had a committee to commemorate the Stonewall riots. We were going to create a number of events the same weekend as the march to bring in people out of town, and wanted to unite the events under a label. First thought was ‘Gay Power’. I didn’t like that, so proposed gay pride.
There’s very little chance for people in the world to have power. People did not have power then; even now, we only have some. But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.
HZ: But the word pride carries negative connotations too, of conceit or vanity - after all, pride is one of the seven deadly sins.
CS: Oh, no. Not that kind of pridefulness; more like self-esteem. That was hackneyed even then. The poison was shame, and the antidote is pride. I understood that, and the Committee understood also, because they immediately voted to make it Gay Pride Weekend.
HZ: There were events with names like Gay Liberation and Gay Freedom, or named after Christopher St. But over the years, most of them have adopted the name Pride.
CS: It's always better to have a standard rubric everybody recognises. Pride is shorthand for gay pride. But it didn’t start out that way. A lot of people were very repressed, they were conflicted internally, and didn’t know how to come out and be proud. That’s how the movement was most useful, because they thought, “Maybe I should be proud.”
HZ: What was the context?
CS: The Stonewall riots resulted from police invasion of a gay bar and a form of opression. I was, for instance, arrested in august 1968 for talking to a friend on Christopher Street and refusing to break it up and move on, which was the standard language. We were not loud, and it was abusive. I spent the night in jail, and I went to Mattachine Society which was the only organisation for gay people at the time. Around that time, Mayor Lindsay made a change in police instructions, and had them stop harassing gay people. It was a fortunate confluence of events.
Mayor Lindsay had already made changes in police policy, so the police were either not noticeable, or were standing by to protect if there was any trouble, so that was a nice change. But the laws didn’t change for a long time, and we were constantly pushing. They would do things like invade the offices of a hostile magazine, just so they knew we were watching and we weren't going to put up with slander. So that was good. And they would also demonstrate outside the offices of hostile legislators. But it took a while, even with this kind of confrontation, to get things done. Meanwhile, there was still publishing organisations like mine, Homosexual Intransigent, and we continued to work on the intellectual underpinnings of the movement, and to try to bring people to terms with their sexuality.
We were always influenced in the United States by the black vicil rights movement, which preceded us, but not by that much. The black civil rights movement was a pathfinder, it showed us how to proceed in non-violent fashion. When we organised that first march we had Quakers as trainers, to tell us what to do and what to avoid doing on our first march.
We weren’t supposed to wander out of two lanes of Avenue of Americas, 6th Avenue in the original street grid. We were by no means to be aggressive towards the police police; we were not to be disrespectful, and certainly not violent in any way. It turned out to be a very orderly march; people did not violate the terms, and we weren’t interfered with by police.
It wasn’t very large in terms of the numbers of people. It might have been as many as 3000-5000 people in the street and people on the sidewalk; it had not yet caught on, because it had never happened before. We were chanting, things like ‘Gay is good,’ ‘Say it loud; I'm gay and I'm proud’ etc. It was quite festive; it was summer because that was when the Stonewall riots occurred, and the weather was nice, it wasn't rainy, it was quite festive. We went up to Central Park, where more people joined. Someone looked out over the group, which at that point was about 10,000 people, and said, "Just think, there’s someone out there for every one of us in that crowd." Which was a nice thing; people were able to acknowledge themselves and be able to be out in public, which was something you didn’t see before. Most gay life was at night, in bars and clubs, and in Greenwich Village people would walk around, especially on Sundays; but not generally outside of the gay mecca of the West Village.
HZ: Los Angeles and San Francisco held their own marches on the same weekend. Within a couple of years, LGBT rights marches were happening in cities across the US, and in the 45 years since, Pride events have been taking place in hundreds of cities around the world.
HZ: Do you still think the word ‘pride’ is necessary?
CS: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. It works internally, and it makes people more self-assertive. That's what really is going to make the change in people's lives: when they assert their rights to marry, they assert their right to be known, they assert their right to employment. There’s a lot of work to be done in the world at large. But the more people are open and self-assertive in the first world, the more people in the third world see they have the right to be self-assertive too.
HZ: Would you have anticipated Pride would still be the term used, all over the world, with a whole month devoted to it?
CS: I don't think so, but I'm very happy it did. We didn't anticipate that. We hoped it would in the United States at least, because there were other marches that year, in Los Angles and San Francisco. We certainly hoped it would catch on. Not as a slogan so much as an understanding that people should be proud and not ashamed.
HZ: How do you feel about the marches starting off political and evolving into parties and parades?
CS: I’m pretty happy about that; many of the goals have been achieved, so why not celebrate? Rarely has a social movement come so far in such a short time.
Craig Schoonmaker runs the Mr Gay Pride website and blog, as well as the Newark New Jersey photo journal. Nowadays, he’s also a linguistic campaigner, in favour of phonetic spellings of English words - I’ve linked to his websites at theallusionist.org/pride.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, and Eleanor McDowall from Falling Tree productions, with help from Peregrine Andrews. The music’s by Martin Austwick.
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congeries: noun, a disorderly collection.
That’s good, now I can use a classy sounding word like 'congeries' rather than saying, "My home is covered in piles of crap."
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