June 28: when we celebrate and acknowledge that courageous group of people of 1969 who said “no more” and fought back against the control and oppression of the larger society to create the modern day visible movement for gay equality, although I’m not sure they knew it at the time.
July 4: when we celebrate the 1776 formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence, in which our courageous founders legally articulated their “no more” position with regard to the control and oppression of the throne and Kingdom of Great Britain; they clearly did know what they were doing at the time.
I’m not saying the founding of our country and the historic Stonewall Riots are the same.
But what has become the gay community “Pride” season of June is in many ways our personal opportunity to declare our independence too. We consciously choose to declare our independence from the closets we might have been in, which for whatever reasons were real to us for the time we inhabited them. We declare our independence of the shame previous generations and institutions placed on us for just being who we are. And we declare our pride in ourselves for choosing to stand up to the control and oppression of a society still evolving and learning about issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, and accept that we play a large role in continuing to move the culture toward acceptance and, ultimately, full equality.
I had many experiences of great pride while serving as mayor of Tempe Arizona from 1994 to 2004. For six of those years, Tempe was the largest city in American with an openly gay mayor. Now Congressman David Cicilline’s election as mayor of Providence, Rhode Island in 2003 followed and we have gone on to have openly gay mayors in other larger cities: Portland, Lexington, Redondo Beach, Calif., Houston and, hopefully, in 2013: New York City.
One of my proudest moments came on July 4, 2004. I was a few days away from ending my decade of service as mayor and many gay friends from all over the country wanted to celebrate my tenure as well. We planned a weekend of events, with a theme of course: “Red, White and You.” People flew in from all over, we stayed at a fun resort in Tempe, threw a huge pool party with hundreds of guys and then attended the city’s 4th of July fireworks display over Tempe Town Lake which attracted more than 150,000 people.
That evening as the fireworks blasted into the hot, dry Arizona sky, my gay friends stood among the local dignitaries in the VIP section, the couples arm-in-arm or holding hands, fully interspersed and accepted guests at the celebration. Watching fireworks that way with your boyfriend might have been common in NYC, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles, where some of them were from. But we were in Arizona and men showing affection for other men outside of a gay bar or private party just did not happen. Yet there they were. I stood off and to the back of the crowd and observed it all and thought of the journey I had been on, and that I had led my community on, as the “openly gay” mayor. I’m sure no one else thought much of it at all, but arriving to that point created one of my proudest moments. My community had transformed and evolved to a much better place, even if the rest of Arizona was not quite there as yet, or still.
My hope is we find and create more and more moments to declare and show our pride, not just in June each year but throughout the year as well. To declare our independence from the remaining oppression that prevents us from obtaining the full equality we deserve. To stand proudly with each other. To invite and welcome our allies to stand with us. To truly celebrate our independence with pride.
NEIL GIULIANO is the author of The Campaign Within, A Mayor's Private Journey to Public Leadership.