SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – June is LGBTQ+ Pride month, and Savannah is ready to celebrate.

But what about the history of Pride itself? What should people know?

Dusty Church from First City Pride Center spoke with WSAV NOW about the history of Pride, both in the United States and locally in Savannah.

Church said it’s important for people to recognize that LGBTQ+ history did not start with the Stonewall riots.

“Pride commemorates Stonewall, but Stonewall was when the spark finally let all of that gunpowder that had been building for decades and decades and decades,” he explained.

What were the Stonewall riots?

The Stonewall riots — also referred to as the Stonewall uprising — began on June 28, 1969. They started as a confrontation between police officers and patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City.

Well-known activists involved in the Stonewall riots were Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie. You can watch a video about Stonewall explaining the myths and facts of the event in a New York Times video linked here.

‘The spark’

The Stonewall riots led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front, which planned three marches on the first anniversary of the riots. Though the riots had a great impact on the LGBTQ+ community in the United States, those involved were not the first people to advocate for and fight back against the oppression of the community.

“I think most people who are familiar with the story of the startup of Stonewall, they’re probably familiar with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera,” Church said. “There’s a long history of activism that led up to those two women being in a position to command an audience to be able to be successful.”

What should you be learning about in terms of that history?

There are so many places you could go with this but Church said you should focus on the people of color in history who have been integral to the advancement of the queer community.

An example of someone you might want to look into is William Dorsey Swann, a previously enslaved person who held drag balls in Washington, D.C.  

“Really, I think [Swann] is an example of the kind of extraordinary bravery and activism that has been happening for a long, long time within the community,” Church said.

Swann was arrested multiple times for the drag balls that he hosted at his home. Swann was eventually sentenced to 300 days in jail after being convicted of “keeping a disorderly house.” You can learn more about Swann and his activism by watching the PBS video linked here.

You could also look into the LGBTQ+ history of the Harlem Renaissance, which you can read about through the TIME article linked here.

“The Harlem Renaissance is about as queer a movement as you will find,” Church, pointing to figures like Ma Rainey and Alain Locke.

Ma Rainey, who influenced the development of the blues genre and has oftentimes been referred to as “the mother of the blues,” sang openly about her attraction to women. Alain Locke, who was a philosopher and the first Black Rhodes Scholar, was also gay.

You can read more about Ma Rainey through the Times article linked here and learn more about Locke on the Lamda Literacy site, linked here.

“I always think it’s important to give credit to what were largely Black, gender nonconforming individuals who really paved the way to the moments when folks started to really publicly become more activated,” Church said.

He said everything started with people who were furthest on the margins and those who didn’t have much to lose fighting for their rights to exist as queer people.

“They were going to stand up for themselves and they were going to be truly themselves,” Church said.

What history should people be aware of in Savannah?  

“There’s not, in my view, a lot more small towns that have the kind of queer history that we have here in Savannah,” Church said, “and it’s a very unique history.”

For Savannah, Pride has changed over the past few decades. From starting out as private, ticketed events to moving to various squares and parks in Savannah in the 2000s to where it is now in Ellis Square, a lot has changed over the years.

In addition to the changing of the space, the event itself has grown in the number of attendees as well. Church said that it’s gone from a small gathering to one that had over 30,000 attendees in 2019.

If you would like to learn more about LGBTQ+ people and history in Savannah, you’ll want to read up on Jim Williams and The Lady Chablis, who are well known in the city. You’ll also want to read up on General Casimir Pulaski who was more recently discovered to have likely been intersex according to researchers.

If you would like to get involved in supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Savannah, Church said First City Pride is always looking for volunteers to help out. You can find more information about volunteering by clicking/tapping on the link here.

First City Pride Center is also holding a Stonewall block party on Saturday, June 25, from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., which you can read more about through the link here.