June 26, 2019
On Friday 28th June, flight number VS69 from London Heathrow to Newark is going to be extra special. This dedicated Pride flight is heading out to World Pride in New York, and onboard will be a true celebration of queer culture, 38,000 feet above the Atlantic.
The flight will be hosted by Tituss Burgess – Broadway musical actor and star of the hit Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – and packed full of special guests. It’ll also be crewed entirely by LGBTQ+ crew, and a portion of ticket sales from the flight will be donated to The Attitude Foundation to advance community Pride initiatives here in the UK. Awaiting the flight, New York is geared up for one of the most extraordinary weekends in its history. But what’s the story behind ‘World Pride’? Why is this year special? And why does it matter? I headed to Greenwich Village to find out.
The reason World Pride is coming to New York this year is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in the history of human rights: the Stonewall Riots of 1969. This marked the moment the struggle began in earnest for LGBTQ+ people to be recognised and allowed to be themselves, free of persecution and prosecution. It’s an incredible tale that’s as heartbreaking as it is uplifting and inspiring. Essentially a story of good prevailing over evil, it’s still a battle, as we’re about to find out, that’s a long way from being won. Back in 1969, just about everything about being gay, bisexual or transgender in America was illegal. These were dark times for the millions of Americans who identified as LGBTQ+.
Although the gay rights movement existed long before the 28th June 1969 – the Mattachine society was formed in 1950 – events that night in Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn lit the touchpaper that began the movement known as Pride.
That hot summer night, which happened to be the day after Judy Garland’s funeral, emotions were running high in the Stonewall Inn. The popular gay bar had only been raided a few days before. In the early hours of the 28th, NYPD Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine decided to raid the inn again, but it didn’t go according to plan. Officers ordered people to line up and be counted, but patrons refused to show their ID, or undergo anatomical inspections. Then the officers decided to take everyone to the police station, causing an immense sense of unease to spread quickly among the crowd. Fighting spilt out into the street, where a large group of people had gathered and were watching events unfold. The police violently loaded one handcuffed woman into a police car, who cried out to the masses ‘why don’t you do something?’ As she was wrestled into the back of the car, the mood of the crowd reached boiling point and rioting began in earnest. The spontaneous mayhem attracted more and more people to the area, and the uprising went on for several days, with the atmosphere summed up succinctly by Stonewall Inn regular Michael Fader, who later said: “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this shit”. Also in the Inn that night was Marsha P Johnson, a prominent transgender character whose life story in many ways reflects the struggles of the movement. Her incredible story has it share of ups, downs and a few urban legends.
A year later when things still hadn’t improved for the community, the Stonewall Anniversary March – effectively the first LGBT Pride – was organised and a movement was born. Today Pride has grown into a month long festival that takes place all over the world, and New York proudly sits at its epicentre. Draped from head to toe in the rainbow flag, the Big Apple is among the most welcoming and inclusive cities in the world.
Fast forward 50 years and welcoming the world to NYC on behalf of Virgin Atlantic will be Bob Wallace, one of our Duty Managers at JFK airport. He can’t remember the first Pride march that he took part in but suffice to say he’s been around the scene in New York long enough to have experienced the good times and the bad.
Bob joined Virgin Atlantic 26 years ago, initially as a telephone sales agent in the city, before looking after our Upper Class customers, then moving to a role at the airport. Today he’s a duty manager with responsibility for the whole operation. When Bob talks about how he had to hide who he really was at his previous employer – a conservative airline operating out of Texas – you realise just how important this stuff is. It wasn’t until he switched to working at Virgin Atlantic that he felt he could come out and be his true self. We’re so glad you did, Bob.
Over the years Bob has spent many great nights at the Stonewall Inn, but to learn more about the history of the Pride movement, I joined him for the Stonewall Tour – a two hour narrated stroll through Greenwich Village to discover more about that fateful night and the characters involved.
The Beyond Stonewall: LGBT History Tour starts at the famous inn, where our guide Sara gave a moving account of that night, the events leading up to it and what happened on the following nights (more riots). Other highlights include Julius, the oldest gay bar in the city, where the Mattichine society held a gay ‘sip in’ to protest about the fact that it was illegal to serve homosexuals at the time, and The NYC AIDS Memorial Park, the memorial to all the people who died of AIDS and those who treated them. Back in New York at the peak of the epidemic, St Vincent’s Hospital was one of the only medical facilities that would admit and treat those dying of AIDS. Controversially, several of its buildings have been developed into upmarket apartments, but in its shadow, AIDS Park is an uplifting space and somewhere for quiet reflection. The tour ends at the Stonewall National Monument, just opposite the inn. This vibrant space used to be called Christopher Park and was always a meeting place for the community. It was declared a New York city landmark in 2015 and, in one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama made it a National Monument, the first designated as an LGBThistoric site. This means it is cared for by park rangers who’ve been doing a fantastic job creating a joyful space and decking it out for Pride in countless rainbow flags.
Rainbow Royalty. One of the VIP customers onboard our Pride Flight is a gentleman called Tree. Tree has been a bartender at the Stonewall Inn for over 50 years and on that fateful night was dancing with his friends when the cops burst in. It’s a real honour to have him onboard and part of our celebrations.
With all the love and the carnival atmosphere of a Pride march, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was nothing left to do. Not so. Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries and punishable by death in several of those. The rise of populist politics has also seen an increase in LGBTQ+ hate crimes in usually tolerant countries like the UK and USA. “We’re still not where we should be, where equality is concerned,” said Bob. “Unless you’re in the Village or City couples still feel unable to hold hands”. And that’s in one of the most liberal cities on earth. This is why it is so important to embrace and support the cause. At Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, an inclusive environment in which everyone can thrive is at the heart of who we are. We want people to proudly be themselves; no matter their background, their gender, their beliefs, the colour of their skin, their physical ability, or who they choose to love. This is all supported by a company-wide ‘Be Yourself’ manifesto and training programmes in destinations we fly to.
Our involvement in Pride comes not from some head office order, but from the proud and active LGBTQ+ community within Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, especially our internal support group, called G-VPRD. You can find out all about it, meet some of the members and read our corporate diversity policy here. On this milestone year for the cause, we’re not only taking part in World Pride in New York. We’ve already participated in Birmingham Pride, where we had great representations from Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays in association with Manchester Airport Group. We’re also going to be at Paris Pride, alongside our joint-venture partners Delta, Air France and KLM, marching under the strapline ‘United in Diversity’. On 6th July we’re teaming up with our friends at Delta once again, to join the Pride Parade through the streets of central London. And of course, we’ll be at our local Brighton & Hove Pride Festival in August, with a 1980s themed float and a day full of celebrations, topped off with Kylie Minogue headlining at Pride in the Park.
If you’re in New York for Pride, we’d also thoroughly recommend a visit to the ‘Love and Resistance: Stonewall 50‘ exhibition at the New York Public Library. Here you can see many of the publications, leaflets and photographs from those early days of the Pride movement in a magnificent setting. Admission is free. Before you head to New York, you can plan your trip using the excellent NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project website. This documents all the historical and cultural sites associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in the five boroughs.