Note: This post is still a developing draft for the upcoming book “Tales of a Masked Deviant”. A quick thank you for the interviewees, historians, and individuals who helped provide the knowledge and insight for the contents featured within this article.
A History of the Pride March
Within the facet of BDSM and S&M culture, much of the practices first developed began with the gay leather movement dating back in the post-WWII era. During this time period, several traditions – the protocol system – that first originated with the Old Guard observed military roots and origins. The formal leather dress code, Master/slave protocol, hierarchical ranks and honors; originated from the gay servicemen that founded the leather movement.
In the wake of the Stonewall Riots which prompted gay men and women towards organization across the United States, the first Pride March began not as a celebration but as a show of force and public demonstration. On the anniversary of June 28, 1970, demonstrators rallied in several major cities ranging from the West to East Coast. They did not present the familiar rainbow flags or the leather pride flag, but rather signs of their individual movements such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and others.
Within attendance were the leather men and leather dykes at the time, some appearing in their iconic leather attire, others in more casual dress with minimal presence of leather. Prior to the development of the hanky code, the initial Pride Parades were informal, for a number of reasons. In comparison to the larger but mainstream LGBT bodies present, at the time BDSM and leather were still somewhat obscure and stretched out. Likewise, due to the privacy of some leather groups, common protocol observed the need to remain inconspicuous, noting a lack of desire to be recognized by outsiders in different communities. The results were often mixed at best – most, if not all present at the time, still carried the attitude left from the wake of the violence the year before.
The mood was less festive than in present times. The attendees were wary but vigilant, aware of the tension that still remained a year past. Those present at the march kept together at all times. Some reportedly carried concealed weapons due to the need for self-defense. Overall the marches were considered a success albeit often over too quickly. In the years that followed, the attendance and the organizations present began to increase; support began to flood in cities with a more liberal and open-minded attitude towards the presence of LGBT activists.
However, in places further south, where such a degree of tolerance (along with fewer attendees) brought reports of violence and backlash. In the early days of the Pride Parade events, it was not unheard of for fundamentalists to gather in force to spread insults, if not outright attack the people present. Stones were thrown at marchers, in one instance a bucket of feces, bottles and most commonly people spitting at those present.
Amongst the leather contingents present, such behavior was not always easily ignored. Brawls were known to take place and often the attacks were quickly intervened before any severe injury could be inflicted. The “No Holds Barred” policy of the past leather generation were often thought to be some of the most extremist masculine attitudes during that era. Self-policed, often former veterans, they were immediately quick to respond to any acts of aggression both within and outside of their own. Often, perhaps after the stories began to spread, these attempts were few and (doubtlessly) short-lived.
After the presentation of the widely popularized Leather Pride Flag on May 28, 1989, the first appearance of the flag bearers began. Within different cities, the tradition of the flag bearers – sometimes referred as standard bearers, pathfinders, and color guards – often held military roots akin to the traditions of old.
These candidates were hand-picked by senior members based upon their contributions and merits to the community at large. A training period was sometimes given by the drillmaster or sergeant-at-arms, wherein each flag bearer was required to remember the flag protocol and insignias of other groups within the area. Oral historians/archivists were often selected due to their knowledge of groups abroad and within the area.
Based upon my current research, there are two main categories for parade formations, Formal and Freeform/Informal:
Formal Parade Formation
In a Formal Formation, most commonly observed by leather subculture rather than mainstream BDSM, the contingent follows a hierarchical marching formation. Bannermen (usually two, carrying the sign or banner of the local group) march ahead of everyone else. These individuals are randomly selected though some variations may apply towards contributing or senior members. Behind them are the Heads of the local group, the Presidents, Patriarchs/Matriarchs, often waving towards the parade crowd and observers.
Behind them the Flag Bearers follow, the Vanguard, usually selected Senior Members marching at arms-length apart with a 6″,7″,8″ flag pole. The Vanguard are dressed in either full leather attire or formal (black vest with pins/patches, pants, plain belt, boots; white shirt, black tie). The standards they carry are local chapters, allies, and the leather pride flag itself.
The main body follows, led by the Masters/Mistresses with their subsequent slaves/boys/bois in tow, approximately two steps behind them to their left. Other individual members, visiting guests, follow in loose order. Pony carts move either at center or by the side of the main body as to provide space for movement. Guests of Honor move ahead of the main body though it is considered polite to move beside them or amongst them (as to represent equality with their fellow practitioners).
At the end of the main body are the Junior Flag Bearers, often carrying the local LGBT colors or variants of BDSM subcultures (IE. the gay bears, the rainbow flag, etc, etc). These represent the Rear Guard, at the same time to symbolize the new generation of leather. Behind them are the main vehicles, adorned with banners, usually trucks or open cars; however, sometimes these move ahead of the parade, sounding their horns, especially if boomboxes are present.
With the spread of BDSM into the mainstream, along with the adaptation of different S&M practices, it is not uncommon for local contingents to follow a low protocol system. During these events, there is no given role for Flag Bearers, who may or may not find themselves ahead, amidst, or behind the main body of marchers altogether. However, most often the Bannermen march ahead flanked by the Heads of the group, flanked by the Flag Bearers altogether.
As the name itself implies, the general attitude of a Freeform formation is comparatively more relaxed than a Formal Formation. These are more commonplace, given the lack of knowledge or training prior – in some cases, also due to the celebratory nature of modern Pride Marches. Within these formations, much cheering, dancing, and waving is present; along with whatsoever raunchy (but family-friendly) behavior as well.
All manner of individuals are permitted to join the people in the march, often adding to the excitement of the event as it is. In many cases, people break formation to pull nearby friends into the fray from the crowd, often doubling or even tripling the size of the initial body.
Both Formations generally have members with medical training in case of any emergencies that may or may not arrive. It is considered good courtesy to provide assistance to marchers with medical disabilities or conditions (in some cases even lifting them off their wheelchairs, upon their shoulders). Driven vehicles tend to have an extra supply of water, snacks, and first aid kits to compliment the contingent; in other cases, pony carts are used for this purpose as well.
Due in part to their role in the protection of the drag queens during the Stonewall Riots, historically members of the leather community marched directly behind the Empresses (elected drag queens from the ballroom communities) as a symbolic gesture, serving as their protectors. Sometimes they were referred to as the “Vanguard”, “Praetorians” or “Rainbow Guard”.
In the years that followed after the initial parades, these guard formations brought along the presence of their classic Harley Davidson choppers, often tearing up a loud storm. The most common of these today are the Dykes on Bikes. In modern parades, often the role of the Empresses were followed or led by the Guest of Honor (an annually selected individual who has contributed significantly at large); servicemen and servicewomen act as the Color Guard in lieu of the leather communities though often followed closely behind by them.
To date, the protocols of the early flag bearers remain in speculation, both in part due to the privacy of classical traditions and the absence of the still-living individuals from those time periods. However, the current protocols (at least largely observed) remain as such:
General Parade Protocols
- Each Flag Bearer must be in uniform in accordance to their local dress code (ie. leather boots, vest, plain black belt). In some instances, knee guards and elbow guards may be worn to provide support and relief for muscle stress during the march. In older traditions, any piece of the uniform must be earned prior; store-bought leather being forbidden.
- Each Flag Bearer follows behind the rank of the banner men (individuals selected to hold the local group sign) and behind the founding heads of each contingent.
- Each Flag Bearer is permitted and expected to have a leather flag holder to assist them in carrying the flag pole. These are worn over the shoulder and around the hip. A white flag holder identifies them as a Junior Flag Bearer while a black holder designates them as a Senior Flag Bearer.
- Senior Flag Bearers (Vanguard) march ahead, followed by the main body of the contingent, followed by Junior Flag Bearers (Rear Guard)
- The drillmaster/sergeant-at-arms moves by the right side of the contingent, directing the group as necessary.
- Flag Bearers with a history of military roots or returning veterans take priority in candidacy, followed by other candidates with local and large scale community contributions.
- Visiting participants move side by side with the main body of the contingent. Guests of Honor move ahead of the main body, behind the vanguard.
- Do NOT allow the flag to touch the ground under any circumstance.
- Do NOT pass the flag to a bystander or outside participant not part of the contingent.
- Do NOT fold the flag during the parade at any time.
- In case of an emergency, the Drillmaster orders an immediate halt to stop the contingent to address the situation.
- Unless given otherwise, it is considered crass to break formation to wave at the surrounding crowd without leave.
The Drillmaster/Sergeant-at-arms may have variations to their drill commands. Being aware in advance is a requirement to marching in a formal parade. Below are some of the more common commands used within the United States:
“At Ease” – Relaxed posture, flag pole kept loose by right side; generally permitted to wander, mingle; in formal processions, the participant may move only as far as allowed with right foot on the ground
“Attention” – Snap right foot towards ground, separated 15 inches apart; both feet at 45 degree angles; this signals the procession being about to start
“Face Right/Left” – a signal to turn with 90 degrees left or right
“Halt” – a signal to stop the contingent
“At Ready” – a command used to signal the start of the movement; sometimes Flag Bearers may shout, “Ready Up” or “At Ready” to signal the contingent into position
“Eyes Right” – a command used to turn head to face right; military origins, used to salute high-ranking officers; used to salute parade organizers, Guests of Honor
“Face Front” – a command used to face forward
- The flag pole is generally leaned forward at about 45 degrees with both hands at center of chest to provide balance.
- While standing dormant, the flag is repositioned to the center of the chest, left hand at the bottom with the right hand, facing inward, gripping the center.
- Prior to the assembly of the contingent, Flag Bearers are meant to remain present with the nearby body. Conversation, mingling, are all allowed and expected. At no point are they permitted to depart without leave unless in case of an emergency.
- It is considered extremely polite to be inebriated or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If you are deemed as unable to participate, you may be quickly expelled or even made to ride in one of the vehicles. Nothing is more embarrassing to a contingent than one of their members creating a public debacle at the annual parade.
- In most cities in North America, particularly the United States, due to the family friendly nature of the events, nudity may be strictly prohibited. Likewise, sex-toys such as dildos and similar imagery may be restricted. It is recommended to check before attendance.
- Confetti is generally allowed though in excess, it is often considered bothersome to both participants and cleanup crews.
- A Flag Bearer should be aware of local contingents in passing and salute them accordingly as to note the presence of their fellow allies and supporters. Likewise, the flag itself doubles as a rallying point for other participants and should be kept in a visible spot prior to the march itself.
- Light conversation is permitted before and during the procession though often kept to a minimum. This is often rarely observed, given the overall excitement and desire to strike conversation with friends and family in attendance.
- In old traditions, after reaching the end of the march, it was customary for leather folk to don civilian attire and patrol the crowd of spectators to intervene any belligerents. This was due to the self-policed attitude of that era though in today’s terms, less observed to the widespread support and presence of metropolitan police.
Safety and Maintenance
- Prior to the Pride March, it is recommended to sign up or notify local groups of your attendance. Formal Formations tend to require an advance notice, followed by at least one valid voucher for an attending Flag Bearer. In some circles, those without one may be required to provide ‘service’ (often sexual) in exchange for their participation. Naturally this is a consensual act involving deliberate negotiation from both parties.
- It is generally standard practice to iron out the folds and ripples on a flag, clean its surface, and provide your own flag pole and equipment.
- Do NOT lock either your knees or elbows during the march itself. Both can result in fatigue and the risk of passing out entirely.
- Remember to stay hydrated and well-fed before parade attendance. In most cities, the Pride Parades are held in late June near the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, sometimes in mid-late summer weather and heat. For leather enthusiasts and followers, oils, sunblock and other body-coolant gels may be used to reduce overheating and the risk of heatstroke.
Outside of a parade/march context, there remain various other protocols as well for those placed in such a position. The Flag Bearers were expected to be trained and familiarized with the history of the local groups and organizations, keeping track of the new standards that continue to arise, and serve as ambassadors to visiting individuals within the BDSM lifestyle.
Flag Protocols and Etiquette
- Under no circumstances should the flag itself touch the ground. If this happens, make sure to clean its surface right away, but do NOT leave it lying there.
- The most common way of folding the flag is that of triage (the triangular shape) due to the military roots of the leather subculture and for practitioners with military service and history.
- It is customary to present the flags when visiting other groups either to be hanged up at an event or as a show of support.
- Pins/Patches of flags worn on attire represent having earned the right to bear the flag in some groups; other times it may be worn as a show of spirit, faith, presented by friends and family.
- It is considered in some cities to be rude and impolite to dirty another person’s flag. Likewise, it is also rude to touch them without prior permission.
- The flag, needless to say, is not used as a safety blanket or towel.
- In older traditions, throwing the flag down may be interpreted as an act of aggression and often seen as a challenge; while not as common as in previous eras, this may be read as a sign for provoking a fight.
Each Flag Bearer or group of Flag Bearers traditionally has a personal creed or vow. These may be observed through ritual (ie. formal oath swearing, ceremonies) by the local drillmasters or sergeant-at-arms. While varied, most are not limited towards any given timeline, but under a group system may be retracted if necessary. The most common of these is the traditional tenet: “Honor, Integrity and Respect”. Others may vary such as “Stand Fast, Stand Tall, Stand Ready” and even phrases in different languages. My own creed is Stat Vexillum meaning “The Flag Still Stands”.
Historically the Flag Bearer’s role in a field of conflict was to uphold the morale and standard of a conquering or defending army. Their duties were to maintain order and discipline for the soldiers and participants of their home unit. Often they memorized marching songs and creeds to better raise morale when necessary. Likewise, their banners were used to signal larger armies and direct them as need be. Most of all they were expected to die in defense of their standard, often in a violent last stand or until they were relieved from their station.
While the latter part of the Flag Bearer’s role is not required, that and admittedly I have little wish to die horrifically, it is observed that they are to demonstrate courage before adversity and criticism. Many of the Senior Flag Bearers, including the few I interviewed, recall stories of hardship. Endurance, discipline, and the willingness to stand by your fellows remains as the primary qualities a Flag Bearer must exhibit.
During the recent years as the equality movement progressed, the hardships faced by our predecessors have since become virtually non-existent. However, the timeless traditions remain and through rain and shine, the duties remain ever present.
May your journey be safe and rewarding.
May you never thirst.
See you at the next march.
Dedicated in Memory
“Father of the Flag”April 3, 1942 – July 21, 2000
“Mother of Pride”
December 24, 1946 – June 28, 2005
“Creator of the Rainbow Flag”