Knox Pride Month: An Introduction and History Lesson

Pridefest, Knoxville, June 2016
Pridefest, Knoxville, June 2016

*Today we welcome guest writer and local architect, Oren Yarbrough. Oren will explore several topics related to Pride Month over the next weeks. Here’s Oren:

Today is the first day of June and the official beginning of Pride Month throughout the U.S. and much of the world. This time of year, LGBTQ people, friends, and allies from all walks of life celebrate diversity and honor the struggles and triumphs of prior generations.

The queer community at large has much to be thankful for and to be proud of, but we also, unfortunately, have a long way to go for full rights and protections for LGBTQ persons both here and around the world. It’s through education and a continued dialogue that the gay community will develop better relationships and even friendships with people who surround us, no matter their political affiliation, background, or religion.

At lunch with Alan, once, he referenced “Inside of Knoxville” as a tool for archiving the events and stories from Knoxville’s ongoing history. This idea of archiving for a future generation really struck me when I was describing with nostalgia what it was like for me to go with my college friends to the Carousel. Current UT students and LGBTQ youths cannot imagine watching a drag show in the upstairs show bar or dancing to some new top 40 pop hit in the sunken dance floor for hours. I want to document important local gay institutions like the Carousel.

Pride Parade, Knoxville, June 2016

I reached out to Alan with an idea for this series of articles in the hope of accomplishing two major goals for Pride Month. My first goal is simple; to catalog and archive a small portion of Knoxville LGBTQ history and share significant people, places, and major events. I would love for others to use the comment section to contribute stories about Knoxville’s LGBT history. It is important that we, as a community, tell a more complete story to future generations.

The second goal I have for writing articles for Pride Month, is to inform and connect a larger audience of people to the story of being gay in Knoxville, both in the past and today. Some of the stories are sad, but I hope that by reading them we will all develop greater love and compassion through the knowledge and understanding of each other. I have been overwhelmed with emotion while interviewing people in the Knoxville community about their experiences of being gay in previous decades.

Over the next few weeks, some articles will be more analytical with mostly dates and names and places, while others will be more subdued and personal, both about me and also about those that I have had the pleasure to interview. I ask that all of the readers of this wonderful blog take the time to read each of the guest articles I write this month. I also request that we keep the comment section civil and productive.

Let’s start at the beginning:

What led to the first Gay Pride March and subsequently to Pride Parades and Festivals all over the globe?

In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969 New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the heavily LGBTQ neighborhood of Greenwich Village. The bar patron’s response to the police raid triggered a series of violent protests which many consider the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement.

In order to understand the intense reaction from the patrons and the bystanders on Christopher Street, you also must know some prior LGBTQ history.

Following the end of the Second World War a large number of LGBTQ people moved to cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, & New York City in the hopes of finding greater acceptance and a fresh start. This movement presented the opportunity to create gay communities for increased safety and the sharing of culture and placemaking.

Federal, state, and city laws became heavily anti-homosexual in the decades following the Second World War due to a media fueled panic that began with the McCarthy hearings and the “Red Scare”. The federal government promoted the view that people who led a homosexual lifestyle or performed homosexual acts were more likely to be blackmailed into giving away government secrets or actively spying for a communist organization.

The US Government also believed that homosexuals were emotionally and mentally inferior to normal persons and were a great security risk. In 1953 President Eisenhower signed Executive order 10450 which immediately barred homosexuals from working in government. The mass firing of nearly 5,000 persons in the State Department, Military, and other DC agencies is now known as the “Lavender Scare.”

The firings also resulted in the employee’s outing and many would lose their homes and families. For two decades following Executive Order 10450, thousands of job applications were denied throughout the US government, effectively ensuring that there was no one in a position of power who could advocate for LGBT rights.


Through the 1950’s and 1960’s the FBI tracked the names and addresses of known homosexuals and gathered as much information as possible on their activities as part of the US Governments efforts to fight communism. The US Postal Service recorded all addresses that had mail sent to and from known homosexuals.

Many state and city governments shut down establishments owned by or catering to a gay clientele. In cities throughout the US raids expelled gay people from bars, beaches, parks, and even neighborhoods. Patrons were arrested on public indecency charges and their names and photographs were published. The exposure often resulted in loss of job, families and homes. Given the prevailing belief that being gay was a form of mental illness, some were institutionalized in mental hospitals.

While in more conservative parts of the country, homosexuals were essentially forced to live a double life in order to keep a job and function in day to day society, in larger cities like New York City and San Francisco their larger numbers gave a sense of protection not found elsewhere. While the public view of gay people remained very negative even in these larger cities, the regular police raids in these gay districts were less effective.

City and state governments use police raids to gain media coverage to increase public support during election campaigns, often scaring the public into believing that the opposition candidate would open the doors to homosexual hordes bringing an impending wave of immorality. Use of this tactic continues today.

States established laws barring the wearing of the other gender’s clothing and used this law at gay establishments, forcing patrons to prove their gender. Anyone wearing more than a certain number other-gendered clothing items were arrested and publicly shamed in the media.

Years of this kind of environment led to riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969. Central to the gay district, the diverse ethnic makeup of patrons at the Stonewall Inn added to the image of the bar being “the Gay Bar in the city”. Like many gay bars in the area at this time, it was owned and operated by the mafia, which exploited the market demand for gay gathering places, the community’s inferior legal standing, and constant fear of being arrested and outed. Conditions were often poor in the bars, but the gay community embraced them out of necessity.

Because the bar was operated by the mafia, they were usually tipped off to police raids. The bar manager would turn on the overhead lights and signal everyone to stop dancing or being too close to someone of the same sex. Upon entering, the police would make everyone line up in a row to check ID’s and evaluate the gender dress code.

It was during a raid like this on June 28th, 1969 that the police arrested a handful of gay and transgender men who were dressed in women’s clothing, along with a handful of lesbian women dressed as men. During the arrests, the crowd became , confrontational, refusing to showing their identification or allowing the female officers to check their gender. Police officers separated the crowd into two rooms and announced they would arrest all persons in one of the two rooms. As the police began frisking and handcuffing the group of people in the second room the mood turned even more hostile, some sources say because police officers inappropriately touched the lesbians while frisking them.

Meanwhile, outside of Stonewall, a curious and increasingly crowd had begun to form. Individuals inside the bar who were released, joined the growing crowd and repeated what was happening inside. The crowd outside the bar grew to over one hundred people waiting for the inevitable perp walk.

There was just one problem. The paddy wagons had been delayed due to confusion over the radio. The first wagon didn’t arrive for over 15 minutes, by which time the crowd grew to outnumber the police by hundreds. The wagon arrived, mafia members and bar patrons were forced inside. A rumor spread that the police were beating the people inside the bar. An officer shoved a lesbian, causing a rumble in the crowd and a purse to hit him over the head. Objects were thrown at police cars in protest.

One tough lesbian brought out of the bar began to fight the police, was hit in the head, ran and was chased by several police officers. She yelled, “why don’t you guys do something?” as she was picked up and thrown into the back of the paddy wagon.

The reaction from the crowd was explosive and quick. Large numbers of people rushed the police cars, attempting to flip them. Beer cans, coins, and rocks were thrown at the police and their vehicles. Some officers fled the scene in the intact vehicles, while a small number fled into the bar for protection. The crowd threw objects at the building and attempted to gain entrance, at one point lighting garbage on fire and stuffing it between the cracks in the wood that covered the front windows.

The most visible individuals during this moment of the protest were the “flame queens, hustlers, and street kids;” the most oppressed portion of the gay community. The street kids allegedly uprooted a parking meter to beat down the front door. This intense standoff with the police trapped inside the bar finally came to an end after backup officers, fire trucks, and a Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) arrived on the scene to disperse the riot and free them.

The mob mocked the TPF, forming a kick line and chanting like chorus girls, angering the officers who then rushed the line. More vehicles were overturned, glass was smashed in all directions. Thirteen people were arrested and four police officers injured. Many of the people arrested were transvestites because they fought back. Streets were not completely cleared until 4AM, almost three hours after the riot began.

The next day the streets in front of the Stonewall Inn were quiet. Small groups wandered up to see the burned and pock-marked facade of the bar. The New York Times, New York Post, & Daily News ran articles on the previous night’s events. Rumors of the cause of the riots spread throughout the city, but the LGBT people living in NYC and all over the United States at this time knew what caused the Riot at Stonewall Inn.

A quote by Stonewall Protester, Michael Fader:

We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of s**t. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place . . . It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us. . . And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.

For days after the initial riot, crowds in the thousands gathered each night in front of Stonewall Inn and held less violent, but very passionate demonstrations to voice their refusal to accept the status quo. While not the first protest by the gay community, the Stonewall Riots became a catalyst for other LGBTQ movements and resistance organizations across the country, an impact still felt today.

One year later, on June 28th, 1970, the NYC gay community celebrated “Christopher Street Liberation Day” by holding a large assembly in front of the Stonewall Inn and marching 51 blocks to Central Park. This was the first LGBT Pride March in US History.

Happy Pride Month Everyone.