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Pandemonium 2021  •  26 July 2021

The First Pride Was a Riot: From Chaos to Corporate Sponsorship

By Erin Ewen
Content Warning: Queerphobia, violence, suicide, alcohol
The First Pride Was a Riot: From Chaos to Corporate Sponsorship

On the 28th of June, 1969, New York City police violently raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gathering place for the Queer community in NYC. 

Resistance led by trans women of colour, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riveria, supported by the surrounding Queer community, resulted in six days of protests. During this time, violent clashes with law enforcement, subsequent arrests and even an attempt to set the Inn on fire, further increased tensions between Queer individuals and their oppressors. 

These events, now known as the Stonewall Riots or Stonewall Uprisings, acted as one of the catalysts for the Gay Liberation movement and took place in the month many of us now celebrate as Pride. While it can be argued that this movement began decades earlier in Europe, there is little doubt that the events that happened at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 were instrumental in the mainstream understanding of Gay Liberation, and in the development of Queer activism today.

It is poignant to recognise the use of the term 'riot' in the context of 1969 as this term was originally used to warrant the excessive force displayed by police during the Stonewall Uprisings. However, LGBTQ+ press covering the events at the time immediately described the events as a riot, and this phrasing has been readapted into the Queer lexicon of today as a way of recognising the anger and sever indignation expressed by the community at the time.

In Australia, on the 24th of June, 1978 — almost ten years after the events of the Stonewall Riots — the first Mardi Gras parade happened in Sydney. 

As an act of Gay solidarity, this day-time march turned into a larger parade come nightfall. This celebration was said to be somewhat reminiscent of the Mardi Gras we know today. A flatbed truck blasting ‘Glad to be Gay’, lead a succession of jubilant, chanting Queer people in colourful outfits down Oxford Street. However, when the contingent continued, they were met with extreme violence from police officers when they reached Darlinghurst. Brutal bashings and 53 arrests spurred retaliation from the community. What started as a peaceful and joy-filled demonstration quickly turned into a horrific display of homophobia. 

The actions of these original protestors, now known as the 78’ers, have become integral to the equality movement in Australia, from the eventual legalisation of homosexuality in NSW in 1984, to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017. Their activism created built the Queer community we know today.

Each year, Mardi Gras rolls around with a wave of glitter and rainbow-coloured products. June follows in similar fashion. The first Mardi Gras I attended was in 2016, well after corporate sponsorship of the parade. Seeing the rainbow ANZ logo and buying pride-themed bottles of vodka seemed par-for-the-course. While it is important to recognise the collective joy felt at this time and the immense power and freedom found in expressing one's self, it remains equally important to acknowledge the history of Queer resistance. We now wave pride flags with joy because Queer — significantly trans women of colour — resisted violence and homophobia. 

As young, Queer individuals, remembering the legacy and struggle of those in the community who came before us has become paramount to appreciating the full Queer experience. These legacies are also the reason why so many of us continue to defend the everyday rights and freedoms of LGBTQI+ individuals, which unfortunately still come into question in 2021. Whether it be by discriminatory legislation, lack of cultural acceptance or concerning statistics, regarding homelessness and suicide, the oppression of Queer individuals is sadly still felt today across the world. 

Through activism and Queer allyship, we can continue to fight against discrimination and oppression. This pride, let’s commemorate those who came before us and acknowledge that there is no Queer liberation without Bla(c)k liberation. Let’s continue, until the day we can celebrate truly intersectional equality.

​The following are a collection of responses from queer UTS students, responding to the prompt, The First Pride Was A Riot. The varied perspectives within these responses highlight some of the challenges faced in the Queer community today, and the ongoing legacy of Queer resistance.

Riley Ellis (she/they), Mechatronics Engineering:

“I’m over the One Night Annually Allies. All the protests we’ve had this year for trans rights, yet they’d only show up if it’s in the form of a glitter party.

They ask me how ‘gay’ they can dress as an ally. Is a rainbow pantsuit too much for an all cis/straight Mardi Gras party? What about rainbow socks from Typo? Would I like to join them — essentially as part of their outfit? 

They praise themselves for appearing supportive but collectively draw the line at actually helping us.” 

EC, Communications: 

“After attending a Marriage Equality rally in 2015, I came out publicly. The energy I felt that day emboldened me to fully accept myself, and my community.” 

MC, Environmental Science: 

“When discussing pride and its origins in the Queer liberation movement, we need to better acknowledge the role of Black & Indigenous Queer activists, especially Bla(c)k  trans women who still to this day face disproportionate violence and oppression.1 We see Queer rights being viciously under attack globally from Hungary to Arkansas, but even in NSW, we have Mark Latham's disgusting anti-trans rhetoric working its way through parliament.2,3 

Pride was never founded as a festival, diluted with neoliberal pinkwashing and for as long as it remains as such, Queer liberation will keep taking steps backwards. To all my Queer friends out there, I see you, I hear you, and I'll be there with you at the protests (or riots) to come."

Emily James (she/her), Media Arts and Production and Creative Writing: 

“I’m eternally grateful for the generations of Queer people that have come before me and whose relentless activism has made my life that little bit easier. Whether they shared the first gay kiss or the first coming out on Australian TV, or uprooted their ‘heterosexual’ lives in order to live authentically, their strength and perseverance is the reason we can enjoy Queer community and safer celebrations of Queer identity. So many minorities reach out to their elders for guidance and celebrate their selfless contributions to their communities — so why don’t we?"


1. 2021 on pace to be deadliest yet for trans and gender non-conforming Americans.

2. Mark Latham's bill seeks to ensure trans and queer children remain in the closet.

3. ‘We deserve the dignity of being known’: Teddy Cook’s transgender speech.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Stonewall Uprisings and the first Mardi Gras in Sydney, please check out these sources:

Netflix documentary: The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson:

The first Pride was a riot. Let's honour the trans women of colour behind it:

What happened at the first Mardi Gras:

The Stonewall You Know is a Myth: 


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