If I hadn’t moved to San Francisco, I’d have missed one of the most important events in my life — being there with my lover Tandy in June 1978 when the first gay band stepped off onto Market Street greeted by a tearfully screaming crowd of celebrants whose souls and creativity were inspired as a new definition of Gay Culture marched into history.
For the nearly 260 of us marching, it may have resembled parades we’d each marched in as school kids, but now we weren’t scared or trying to hide “our terrible secret.” We could recognize each other, affirm each other, celebrate. We were and are from every band and orchestra, from flag corps, drill teams and dance studios, and from every 4th of July and Memorial Day Parade from cities and villages in every part of this country. We had survived the worst possible environments, and hadn’t lost our souls… or our music!
In only six weeks since Tandy was the first to see Jon’s flyer announcing he wanted musicians, the response was huge! By Parade Day, 23 French Horns had responded and nearly as many tubas, scores of trombones, trumpets, baritones, flutes, clarinets, percussions and bells, saxophones, even a dozen each of oboes and bassoons, all sucking and blowing in tune and in time (well, mostly–you know how independent some double-reed players can be ). Some professionals, but most of us hadn’t touched our instruments in years. Hasty sectional practices. People helping each other. Phone trees announced locations of the Tuesday evening rehearsals since attendance doubled each week. Saturday marching rehearsals in the Golden Gate Park polo field. It was like planning a huge surprise party. It was amazing. People with a passion can organize as quick as ants.
It was a chilly, foggy San Francisco morning. We assembled haphazardly, in the peculiar way all parades materialize out of chaos, lining up in the side streets at the bottom of Market Street. We cheered on the first contingent, Dykes on Bikes, then took our places to a faint drum cadence sharply tapped out on the rims of 2 snare drums.
We stretched over two city blocks with the baton twirlers, the precision flag carps and drill team, and twenty tap dancers preceding us, drums of every kind pounding in the heart of us, and more flag bearers behind us, followed by our entourage of lovers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends carrying water, instrument cases, and changes of clothes for later.
Each unit wore it’s own style of uniform, most of us in blue jeans, red visors, and white t-shirts with the logo Tandy’s company designed for the band — five red stripes, a musical staff, underlining our long proud name: The San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps. The exceptions were the baton twirlers, all boys in tight white tights — every bit as titillating as the cheerleaders in tutus; and the tap troupe in black tuxedos, canes, and top hats, a few in white-face.
Jon Sims, in his white parade dress uniform, gold buttons, braids and all, blew his whistle, raised and circled his baton forward, pointed it skyward four times, his synchronized whistle blasts establishing the beat, and just as he struck up the band — a brilliant sun broke through the San Francisco fog to shine brightly on our brass, bangles, beads, and boas… and the gay movement was transformed forever.