I spent some time at the San Francisco Public Library last week going through the historical photo collections and found some fantastic prints from pride parades over the last 40 years. Some of them were shot by Harvey Milk, some by his friends. I also found an interesting LA Times article from 1979 when it was simply called, “Gay Freedom Day.”

The article and photos painted a picture that was both familiar and foreign. They marched on the same streets for many of the same reasons but the atmosphere was different in a few poignant ways. The crowds of drunken 20-somethings were conspicuously absent, the intolerance of out-of-towners was shockingly apparent, and the whole production felt much more organic. The soul of the event was pure and meaningful. Just by being there, participants were making a clear statement in a time of extreme civil unrest. When you’re out this weekend enjoying the festivities, take a moment to appreciate the people who came before and laid the foundation for this San Francisco institution.

The photos are from different years but the "Gay Freedom Day" article accurately described the attitude of that period in history. The following are excerpts and quotes from the LA Times from June 25, 1979.

“Like years past, the 1979 gay parade featured a wide assortment of colorful floats, costumed marchers, and sign-waving demonstrators—some in lavender and some in leather, some men in women’s clothes and some women in men’s clothes. The bizarre procession began at the Ferry Building shortly before noon, making its way up Market St. to the City Hall, nearly a mile away.”

“The massive event—the largest such gathering of homosexuals in the country—was held under strict security precautions in the wake of the so-called “gay riot” at City Hall last May.”

“Scores of organizations were represented in the parade, among them Parents of Gay People, Dykes on Bikes, Gay Psychotherapists, Lesbian School Workers, Gay American Indians and Pacific Telephone Co. Employees.”

“About 1,000 members of the American Water Works Assn. and their spouses took time out from their annual convention to watch the rally and snap their Instamatics for the disbelievers back home. ‘I grew up on a farm and went to school and I never saw anything like this. Now it’s out in the open and they’re flaunting it. I just don’t know.’”

“Maybe in down-state New York it’s like this, but where I’m from, if my kids could see this… if anyone ever called one of them a fag they’d punch their lights out, but here they’re all just parading around…”

“Hearing these reactions, one demonstrator who had been trying to explain the purposes of the rally to a few of the conventioneers said: ‘You’ll find that reaction from the Bible Belt. The major opposition we have now is from religion. The only point we’re trying to make here is that we don’t want violence and we don’t want to be locked away in our closets. All we’re looking for is the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution, rights that other people don’t think of as rights but as normal.’"

“It seems like they’re a happy group and they’re not bothering anyone, so let them do their thing.”

"The celebration was elaborately and carefully organized. Monitors kept the crowd—smaller than previous years but nonetheless estimated by police at 100,000—beyond rock-throwing range of City Hall. News media guidelines were issued, requesting among other things that the press ‘refrain from photographing any individual who is naked.’”

“It’s very interesting. I am surprised and amazed. I never thought there were so many of them. It’s unusual for me to see a guy walking hand-in-hand with another guy in public.”

“Many of the speakers at the rally recalled the riot of May 21, when thousands of persons stoned City Hall, burned police cars and clashed with officers in the stormy aftermath of a jury’s manslaughter verdict in the case of Dan White, the former supervisor who fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk last November. White, using a defense of diminished mental capacity, faces a maximum sentence of only seven years in prison but has not yet been sentenced.”

All photos courtesy of the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, Gay and Lesbian Center, San Francisco Public Library:Harvey Milk Archives -Scott Smith Collection (GLC 35), David R. King Gay Rights Collection (GLC 81), David Lourea Papers (GLC 55)

And if you're still making Pride plans, our Big Gay Birthday party is TONIGHT at Mezzanine. More info/tickets here. (Insider tip- get a VIP ticket while you can. $50 = unlimited free drinks plus a gift bag worth $250.)