The Stonewall riots that took place in New York in June 1969 are widely credited with catalyzing the modern LGBT+ movement. In “Kicking and Screaming: Stonewall at 50,” the Exiles on 12th Street podcast celebrated the anniversary with our guest Brian Griffin (aka Harmonie Moore Must Die). Griffin co-founded the New York City Drag March after feeling excluded from the official Stonewall anniversary ceremonies.
In the following podcast excerpt, Griffin tells our host, historian and Public Seminar executive editor Claire Potter, the story of how a rainbow flag, a new crush, and a life in activism combined to create the first Drag March.
Brian Griffin: In 1994, Gilbert Baker, the creator of the LGBT community’s rainbow flag, came to New York to sew a mile-long version of the symbol to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event generally accepted as the beginning of the contemporary gay rights movement. He came to ACT UP meetings and ended up at a meeting of the affinity group, Action Tours, where I met him.
The inventor of the rainbow flag was my idea of a star. (In that sense, you can call me a star-fucker.) I worked to ensure that I was a part of his life intimately. Wasn’t difficult, he was a sweetheart. Sewing a mile-long rainbow flag takes time, but not the eight weeks allotted. So, in Gilbert’s workspace, there was always salon time, time to sit back and vibe and converse about the events of the day. It was during one of these talk times that a press release from the organizing committee of Stonewall 25 that discouraged attendees to its events not to show up in leather or drag so as to present an image of gayness palatable to the Midwest. Then Gilbert, Gilbert Baker, uttered the words, “We should throw a Drag March.”
My brain flashed as all the skills I had almost inadvertently learned during my activist tenure clearly showed me the path to make it happen. [I] turned to Gilbert and replied, “Oh, yeah. We’re having a Drag March.”
2000 small pamphlets — akin to a Christian [flyer] — proclaiming the salvationary message that Jesus Loves Drag were Xeroxed for a penny a copy. Gay magazines and city guides were contacted. Posters with artwork of a stiletto piercing a flattened cop car were wheat-pasted everywhere in the village. Only the finest lesbians were asked if they were available to marshal.
Two months later, on the Friday evening before Pride, seven- to eight-thousand brightly clad individuals from all around the country, and the world, as angry as we initially were being asked to render ourselves invisible, safely marched from Tompkins Square Park to Sheridan Square and the Stonewall Inn Bar, in what the New York Times later wrote up as the one authentic event of the weekend.
Today, I don’t have that guy’s ambition. I built a career and a life, pretty much non-bohemian, and integrated into New York City. Occasionally, I miss my stray hungry self, but I don’t understand his casual attitude towards survival. I’m old. Where once I could dress up as Olivia Newton-John, at best these days, I can pull off Bea Arthur. Praise Bea. Even though I know that the Drag March holds a wonderful sort of canary-in-the-coal-mine cultural position to social acceptance in this country, I march these days for the same reason that I joined ACT UP: friendship. I adore this community of colorfulness every single year. Jesus does indeed love drag, and Goddess does bless the New York City Drag March.
Brian Griffin (aka Harmonie Moore Must Die) is the co-founder of the New York City Drag March.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The episode can be listened to in full at iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.