New York’s June 2020 Pride marches were cancelled this year for the first time ever because of COVID-19. Yes, that’s marches—plural. While the march through Manhattan is widely known as one of the world’s largest, every borough holds its own unique events for Pride. The Queens Pride parade, which stepped off from Jackson Heights for the first time on Sunday June 6, 1993, was the first one held outside of Manhattan, and is the second oldest and the second largest Pride event in New York City.
Last year, Pride commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, when patrons fought back during a routine police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The subsequent protests against police harassment and discrimination went on for days, catalyzing the nationwide growth of the gay liberation movement. The events that spurred the founding of Queens Pride nearly 25 years later reflected the accomplishments made by LGBTQ activists in the intervening time, yet their achievements remained fiercely contested. As public school teacher, Queens Pride co-founder, and later City Council member Daniel Dromm noted, prior to the early 1990s, the Queens lesbian and gay community was sizable—second only to Greenwich Village’s—but not highly visible. Queens residents formed small chapters of national organizations such as Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and Dignity (which supports LGBTQ Catholics). Jeanne Manford, who co-founded Parents of Gays in 1973 (now PFLAG) was a schoolteacher from Flushing, and while most meetings took place at a Manhattan church, Dromm recalled that the Manford home was a haven for young people estranged from their own families. However, local politicians and residents organized to oppose building the AIDS Center of Queens County in the midst of the mid-1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. And in 1990, the brutal murder of Julio Rivera in a Jackson Heights schoolyard horrified the LGBTQ community.
Rivera, a 29-year-old bartender, was part of Jackson Heights’ fast-growing Puerto Rican population. On July 2, Alan Sack, a longtime friend and ex-partner, found him beaten and stabbed in the yard of Queens P.S. 69. He died hours later. Police initially refused to consider Rivera’s killing a bias crime. Instead, it was classified as drug-related, and the investigation was slow-paced and cursory—of the three murder weapons, two were discovered by the school custodian and the third was never found. Outraged, Sack and Rivera’s family contacted the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project and Queer Nation—two groups dedicated to combatting the rising number of anti-LGBTQ attacks in New York City. Together, they organized a vigil which took place on August 18, 1990.
Months of pressure from the community successfully forced Mayor David Dinkins’s administration to acknowledge the surge in bias crimes against LGBTQ New Yorkers, and also offer a reward for information about Rivera’s killing. In November 1990, police finally arrested three members of a skinhead street gang, and the case became the first tried in the state of New York as a hate crime against a gay person. As one of the assailants testified, they had targeted and killed Rivera because of his sexuality, and, the prosecutor argued, because they assumed society would not mourn the loss of a gay man out cruising.
The Queens LGBTQ community proved them wrong. Rivera’s murder inspired the formation of new organizations, including the Julio Rivera Anti-Violence Coalition and Queens Gays and Lesbians United (Q-GLU). As Ed Sedarbaum, a founding member of both groups, explained:
“The fact that Julio was murdered by his own neighbors, and the city’s response, has motivated people who in the past were scared to take risks, to come out of the closet enough to attend public forums and politically organize.”
Thus, in 1992 the community was primed to respond forcefully to homophobic attacks on a new school curriculum, called “Children of the Rainbow.” Championed by then-Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, the Rainbow curriculum had been in the works since 1989 as part of the city’s response to the racist murder of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins by a mob of white teenagers in Bensonhurst. Over 400 pages in length, the curriculum was intended to teach schoolchildren the values of tolerance and diversity through multicultural games, songs, and stories. However, controversy exploded when Queens Community School Board 24, led by Mary A. Cummins, became the first of six local boards to reject it, starting an acrimonious year-long fight. (Board 24’s membership was all-white from its founding in 1970 until the election of Louisa Chan in 1993, even though Asian, Hispanic, and Black children made up 80% of the student body.)
Opponents of the Rainbow curriculum fixated on three passages that urged teachers to make positive references to gay and lesbian families, acknowledged the existence of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis, and suggested books like Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride in an optional bibliography. Cummins, who presented herself as a grandmotherly senior citizen, took a page from conservative entertainer Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save the Children” campaign to claim that the Rainbow curriculum sought to “indoctrinate” students with “dangerously misleading lesbian/homosexual propaganda.”
The controversy grew and prompted a citywide response from gay and lesbian activists, ranging from testimony delivered before the Board of Education to a first-day-of-school parade staged by the Lesbian Avengers. The Avengers, a newly formed direct-action group focused on lesbian survival and visibility, demonstrated in front of Queens P.S. 87 with a banner reading “Teach About Lesbian Lives,” handed out lavender balloons reading “Ask about lesbian lives,” and wore t-shirts emblazoned with the message, “I was a lesbian child.” Marcher Kelly Cogswell later recalled the group, 60 strong, singing “Oh when the dykes go marching in” to the music of a brass band, and the press coverage that followed.
Opponents of the curriculum mobilized as well. One Brooklyn organization with ties to the Christian right produced a video featuring spokeswoman Dolores Ayling, who compared the curriculum to “brainwashing” techniques used by “Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism.” The video circulated widely at P.T.A. meetings, alarming parents and eroding support for Fernandez and the Rainbow curriculum. By late January 1993, Fernandez retreated, eliminating the picture books on gay and lesbian families and any mention of HIV/AIDS. (Nevertheless, in February 1993, he was ousted by the Board of Education.)
“I feel like we were thrown to the wolves and eaten alive,” said Anti-Violence Project head Matt Foreman. Yet the Queens community rallied once again. In March, Q-GLU and the Anti-Violence Project held a March for Truth to counter the homophobic lies still circulating around Children of the Rainbow, and, at a meeting of Q-GLU, Daniel Dromm and Maritza Martinez formed the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee (QLGPC) to celebrate community with a family-friendly parade and multicultural festival. Martinez and Dromm raised funds and spread the word throughout the neighborhood’s gay and lesbian bars, where Martinez also recruited drag queens and transgender performers for the festival.
The Sirens Women’s Motorcyle Club led the parade, which honored three Grand Marshals: Jeanne Manford of PFLAG, Tom Duane, the first openly gay member of the New York City Council, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the first openly lesbian woman elected to the New York State Legislature. Dromm and Martinez carried the QLGPC banner along with Brendan Fay (who would later found the Queens St. Pat’s For All parade) and Felicity Kacsik, the committee’s transgender group coordinator. When the parade passed the corner where Julio Rivera was murdered, the marchers paused for a moment of silence. A second moment of silence commemorated people who had died of AIDS.
In keeping with its home in one of the most diverse areas in the United States, Queens Pride has always included marchers from many different backgrounds and members of many multiethnic and multicultural organizations. Last year, the march welcomed tens of thousands of participants, but there was another reason to celebrate: In 2019, nearly 30 years after the fight over Children of the Rainbow, Councilmember and Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm and Speaker Corey Johnson finally secured a $600,000 city allocation to create an LGBTQ-inclusive history curriculum.
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History
Top image: Queens Lesbian & Gay Pride Committee First Annual Parade, 1993. Daniel Dromm Collection, LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, LaGuardia Community College