50 Years of Pittsburgh Pride

Still strong, no fear

Dena Stanley & Dalen Hooks, 2023 Pittsburgh Pride organizers, with Jim Huggins & Wendy Bell, LGBTQ advocates from 1973 and the first Pittsburgh Pride. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

This June, we march again. To those who were there at the beginning, we thank you. To those who joined in the years following, we thank you. To those yet to come, we march for you.

Fifty years ago, fifty brave members of the LGBTQ+ community marched from Market Square to Schenley Park in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. June 17,1973 will always be remembered as Pittsburgh’s first LGBTQ Pride Parade. Though it was unlike the modern parades most of us have become accustomed to, it was by far the most significant in our city’s and community’s history. There were no floats, no joyous dancing in the streets, no elected officials walking as allies, and no rainbow Pride flags. Chants such as, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” were echoed through the streets of Pittsburgh. There were protest signs and banners held by men and women who feared for their safety and possible repercussions as they made the 3-mile march in solidarity. It was a proclamation by the LGBTQ people of Pittsburgh who wanted their human rights. This was a time when being gay was still criminalized in many parts of the United States. When gay bars and establishments were raided and people inside were arrested for being gay. People were afraid to be out, as it was dangerous.

Very few photos remain from the first Pittsburgh Pride march in June 1973. Here are three that we found.

QBurgh is committed to documenting Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history with our Q Archives project. Help us preserve Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history by contributing to our GoFundMe.

Participants were permitted to start the march downtown but were not allowed to congregate there so they ended in Schenley Park. As they continued from Forbes Avenue to Bigelow Boulevard more people joined. By the time the marchers reached Flagstaff Hill, the crowd had doubled in size. Upon arriving at Flagstaff Hill, a short rally was held before the first-ever Pittsburgh Pride concluded with a planned picnic in North Park. The picnic was attended by several hundred people, most likely due to its isolated location.

According to Jim Huggins, who had organized some of the other events for the first Pride Week (June 12-17,1973) Pittsburgh Pride was successful.  Huggins and his late partner Randy Forrester also marched that day.

“When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1972 to live with Randy, there were a few queer bars, no organizations, churches, political or social groups. There were periodic police raids at the bars and people could be arrested for being there. The prejudice, hatred, and discrimination were ever present. You could be fired from your job, denied housing, denied public accommodations (like hotels), denied credit, denied entrance into the military, and you could be dishonorably discharged from the military because you were queer. You certainly couldn’t be married. Your children could be taken away from you if it was discovered that you were a member of our community, especially if there was a custody battle with a heterosexual spouse. Queer people were frequently determined by the courts to be unfit parents. Some children ended up being placed with grandparents instead of their queer parents. Being assaulted was common. It’s hard to imagine if you didn’t go through it,” Huggins told Qburgh.

“Being in the first Pittsburgh Pride was a thrill. In 1973, there were very few of us who were openly out, so it was very gratifying to see how many people joined us.”

Jim Huggins

“Being in the first Pittsburgh Pride was a thrill. In 1973, there were very few of us who were openly out, so it was very gratifying to see how many people joined us in the parade. By today’s standards, we were a very small group, but I was very proud of everyone because we were all taking a risk. We didn’t know if we would be taunted or physically harmed because no one in Pittsburgh had done what we were doing – being open and prideful about our community. Some bystanders were appalled by our presence and let us know that, but no one physically assaulted us. Pride Week was fantastic. The city had never seen anything like this. So many people put so much time and energy into making all the events happen. It was truly a successful community project.”

Jim helped create GAP (Gay Alternatives Pittsburgh) and was its first president. Members of GAP organized the first Pittsburgh Pride Week. Jim, Randy, and a secretary helped other groups get started, like Metropolitan Church, PFLAG Pittsburgh with Randy’s mother as the first president, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center now known as the Pittsburgh Equality Center, a lesbian and feminist group, and more. As a result, other people started groups and services and, over time, our community became what it is today.

Randy Forrester. Year unknown.

Wendy Bell talked about her experience, as well as other women’s experiences during this time.

“The Gay Pride Celebration in 1973 was a little bit different for us lesbians than it was for the men. We were experiencing the Women’s Movement then and the process of redefining ourselves with female-centered images and rejecting male-based definitions of ourselves was a tumultuous process. Many of us chose to become “separatists” and remove ourselves entirely from activities that involved men and that included gay men, some of whom could be bitingly misogynist.  So, we retreated to our consciousness raising groups.  We called those groups “Defucking Sessions” for obvious reasons. They consisted of small groups of women who met in the small rooms, told their stories, shed their male-defined selves, recreated themselves in our own images and made lifelong friends. And we benefited from the guys marching,” Bell recalled.

“In addition to this recreating activity, I also went with Jim Huggins to universities and churches, by invitation, to speak to straight groups of people about the gay experience and answer their questions.  In doing this we presented real-life examples of everyday gay folk to counteract some of the myths propagated by the media, religious bigots, and homophobes in general in the straight culture of the day.  It was eye-opening for us, too.  We learned that there were people out there who were not bigoted and did not hate gay people.  It gave us a glimmer of hope there at the beginning of our movement.”

Jim Huggins and Wendy Bell. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

Jim and Wendy made a lifelong connection back then and Jim notes that he took a page out of the Women’s movement ‘rulebook’ on how to start a movement.

Between the first Pittsburgh Pride until now, there have been many changes. It’s been quite an evolution. As Wendy puts it, “It never looked back. It got bigger and bigger with more and more people. More impact.”

“We learned that there were people out there who were not bigoted and did not hate gay people. It gave us a glimmer of hope.”

Wendy Bell

Pittsburgh Pride has been planned by different organizations over the course of 50 years from Gay Alternatives Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Pride Committee, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, and now the Pittsburgh Pride Group, a consortium of Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ non-profits and community groups lead by TransYouniting. Alternative Prides popped up along the way as well.

Under the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Pride grew exponentially and some thought that to be a good thing at the beginning. However, there was much controversy over the years with Delta at the helm. Rick Allison, creator of OUTrageous Bingo, was active with the GLCC from 2001 to 2021, and served as Pride Chair for several of those years. Rick says that the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh approached the GLCC and gave them an ultimatum to give up Pride or be put out of business. He said the Delta Foundation threatened to have their own Pride on the same day that the GLCC held Pittsburgh Pride. The GLCC didn’t have the resources to spend the money the way that the Delta Foundation could so the GLCC handed over Pittsburgh Pride.

“Those years when we had a few hundred people at Pride were just as important to the community as it is now. It’s many people’s first opportunity to be out in public and see others like themselves and celebrate. Most people are overwhelmed in a good way at their first Pride experience. It was always a group of the people, for the people without any corporate sponsorship. Like a hometown Veterans parade. I think we did a pretty good job,” Rick told QBurgh.

“Fifty years later, I stand in awe of how much progress has been made.”

Jim Huggins

The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh was the sole planner of Pittsburgh Pride events from 2008 until 2015 when cracks began to show that the LGBTQ community’s best interests were not at the heart of the foundation or its employee.

Local activists formed Roots Pride Pittsburgh in 2015, organized by The Garden of Peace Project, as an alternative to the Delta Foundation Pride events after the Delta Foundation booked Iggy Azalea to headline Pride in The Street. Iggy Azalea was known to make racist and homophobic comments and tweets on social media. Roots Pride Pittsburgh was the first set of alternative Pride events — pitched as more inclusive of queer and trans people of color.

In 2017, People’s Pride Pittsburgh was formed by SisTers PGH after the Delta Foundation sold the naming rights of the Pittsburgh Pride parade to EQT, an oil and gas corporation, and the centering of Delta’s Pride events around corporate interests. Pittsburgh Pride had become something completely different than what the 1973 parade stood for.

Allegedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in August of 2020, the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh announced the cancellation of Pittsburgh Pride and that the organization would close its doors. The next day, the Pittsburgh Pride Group was formed and announced that they would reclaim Pittsburgh Pride for the community. Their goal was a more inclusive and diverse Pride centered on community. However, in a desperate last attempt to hold on to Pittsburgh Pride, the Delta Foundation filed to own the trademark “Pittsburgh Pride” in September of 2020. QBurgh LLC, the publisher of this magazine, sued the Delta Foundation to prevent that ownership and in August of 2022 the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh formally withdrew their application to own “Pittsburgh Pride.”

Pittsburgh Pride had been liberated for the community.

2023 is the third Pittsburgh Pride thrown by the Pittsburgh Pride Group with an emphasis on community, diversity, and accessibility. Local, neighborhood Prides have begun to pop up and flourish spreading the power of Pride to Millvale, Swissvale, Mt. Lebanon, Fox Chapel and more.

We’ve come a long way since June 17, 1973.

Pittsburgh Pride 2021. Photo by G Michael Beigay.

“Fifty years later, I stand in awe of how much progress has been made in securing civil rights for our community. I did not believe that I would be able to legally marry another man in my lifetime. A gay man being a serious candidate for president – in 1973, I couldn’t imagine that ever happening. At the same time, I’m afraid that the far right will systematically erode our rights. The hateful targeting of the trans community breaks my heart,” says Jim Huggins.

Wendy Bell is still in disbelief over marriage equality. As for the modern-day Pride events Wendy said, “I remember getting off the trolley stop downtown and it was wall-to-wall rainbows. It was amazing.” Wendy also notes, “There are still the haters out there, as evidenced by the evil persecution of trans people that is going on today. But there are a majority of people who support the LGBTQ+ right to live their lives without oppression and violence. We’ve come a long way from the days when one couldn’t congregate in a bar and dance with one’s partner without fear of arrest. But, we also have a long way to go so that all of our community can live without fear and abridged rights.”

This June 3, we march again. To those who were there at the beginning, we thank you. To those who joined in the years following, we thank you. To those yet to come, we march for you.

Happy 50 years of Pride, Pittsburgh.

Chrissy Costa is a local comedian known for her dry wit, satirical style of comedy, and big earrings. Before doing stand-up she studied sketch comedy at Chicago’s famed Second City. You can follow her on Instragram and Facebook. (She / Her / Hers)