As I’ve mentioned before, being from Rhode Island the local LGBTQ+ history here is something I’m particularly passionate about. It’s amazing to see firsthand where this journey’s taken us and get to be a part of where this journey is going at the same time. Of all the Prides that I’ve gone to, Rhode Island Pride is my clear favorite, bar none. Maybe I’m biased because it’s my home and it’s my fabulously queer chosen family celebrating. But to be fair, we’ve been called one of the best Prides in the world too. (That was a shameless plug and I’m not even sorry about it.)
These days, Rhode Island is pretty supportive of its LGBTQ+ community — Providence City Hall proudly announces the start of Pride season for the state of Rhode Island, and political leaders like Mayor Jorge Elorza speak at the event each year. But to get to the point (and the history), we have had to come a long way since our first Pride in 1976.
Nowhere in the country was particularly welcoming to LGBTQ+ people by 1976, and Rhode Island was not an exception. Sodomy was still against the law Federally and in the state — let alone any other rights that we’ve fought for since. And yet, the LGBTQ+ community of the state of Rhode Island wanted to march to recognize their contributions to the state in the previous 200 years. Other communities, like the Portuguese community, had arranged parades for the bicentennial. Reverend Joe Gilbert of the Metropolitan Community Church saw no reason the LGBT community could not also participate in these celebrations.
However, Mayor Buddy Cianci (also the Public Safety Commissioner at the time) and police chief Col. Walter McQueeney opposed the idea of the parade. (McQueeney, for his part, later explained that it was just because it would have been a parade promoting an illegal behavior.) And so, the Rhode Island ACLU went to Federal court — and Judge Raymond J. Pettine hastily ruled in favor of granting the parade permit. Subsequently, roughly 70 (or 75, I’ve heard it both ways) marchers (including Belle A Pellegrino who is still a vibrant part of our community and part of the Imperial Court of Rhode Island) wearing bright clothing and wielding kazoos held their parade from Kennedy Plaza on June 26, 1976. The parade, named “Toward a Gayer Bicentennial” was described in the Providence Journal in an article entitled “City tolerates first homosexual parade”.
Walter McQueeney, despite his opposition to the march, worked to control the crowd who came out to see and threaten the marchers. He told reporters “This is the first time they marched and I hope it’s the last.” It wouldn’t be the last. 2018 will mark our 42nd year of marching, and celebrating.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)