By Tracy Bristol and Nino Testa
The first official Gay Pride parade in the world happened in Los Angeles 51 years ago, and it happened because of a TCU graduate.
Gay rights leader, labor organizer, and peace activist Morris Kight (’42), a government major and economics minor from Comanche County, is considered a founding figure in the modern American LGBTQ civil rights movement. In June 1970, Kight and others, including Rev. Troy Perry, applied for a permit to close city streets for the Pride parade, making it the first such event in the world. The organization he helped to co-found, Christopher Street West, was responsible for the annual parade, which in 2019 had over 200,000 attendees.
New York’s Pride event in 1970, commemorating the Stonewall uprisings a year earlier, is usually cited as the first Pride parade in the world, but it was actually a march, not a city-permitted parade. Attaining a permit from the city was especially significant at a time when police harassment of gay and trans people was routine, and when the city did not want to use its resources to support a gay event. Kight described experiences of police violence in an interview with historian Eric Marcus in 1989.
Kight advocated for gay rights at a time when harassment, discrimination, and violence against gay people was not only common, but widely accepted as a social norm.
“In those days, you were risking your well-being,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told the LA Times. “He was fearless.”
Kight famously organized a week-long demonstration outside Barney’s Beanery, a well-known Hollywood bar, which was displaying a sign that read “Fagots [sic] Stay Out.” This was the first major protest organized by the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front (which Kight co-founded), a sister organization of New York City’s Gay Liberation Front, which had formed after the Stonewall uprisings in 1969.
In addition to championing gay rights, Kight fought for other social causes. In the 1940s he organized the oil, chemical, and atomic workers’ international union. In 1967 he helped initiate a campaign against Dow Chemical and the napalm it produced during the Vietnam war.
Kight served for more than 20 years on the LA Human Rights Commission and founded numerous gay and human rights groups (including the political advocacy organization Stonewall Democratic Club and the more militant Committee for Homosexual Freedom), galvanizing the modern gay rights movement on the west coast. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center Kight co-founded in 1969 is now the largest LGBTQ support center in the world.
In 1987 Kight helped lead the 2nd national March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which included the first display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Kight returned to TCU’s campus in 2000, to speak about his experiences as a gay organizer. The event was sponsored by Student Development Services, the Women’s Resource Center; eqAlliance (the LGBT student organization), and the English Department, in addition to Steven Sprinkle from Brite Divinity School and Sherrie Reynolds from the College of Education.
That same year, Kight spoke at the Millennium March for Equality in Washington D. C., the fourth such national event of its kind. His rousing speech is archived on C-SPAN.
Kight laughed with delight as he was lifted from a wheelchair to face the appreciative crowd of thousands. His voice boomed with strength and conviction:
“This talk is for all of us, but it’s particularly directed at the younger people among us. We fought for you, and we need a rest… because there is work to be done.
“Let me painfully take you to the bad old days—thank heaven you don’t have to live through any of that. In the years 1968 and ’69, psychiatrists said we were ‘sick.’ They lobotomized us and did electroconvulsive shock therapy, feeling that they could ‘burn’ our love out of our brain. They were wrong. We protested in Washington D.C. and New York and Los Angeles… and in 1973 they took us off the sick list…Now, society is learning that we’re okay.
“When I enrolled at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas in 1937, I rushed to the books to find out who I was. I found a 900-page book called Abnormal Psychology, and half the pages described me.
“We don’t have those books anymore. Universities and colleges all over have gay and lesbian studies programs. It’s alright to study us. It’s alright to be one of us. It’s alright to be transgender, it’s alright to be bisexual… we are now in the board rooms, we’re in the professions, we’re in the political. We are everywhere, and that’s my message to you.
“We are everywhere. And I’m the happiest old man in the world today.”
After Kight’s death in 2003, a plaque was dedicated at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and McCadden Place commemorating Morris Kight Square, the spot where the first official Pride parade had begun.