Meet the badass photographer who captured Chicago’s 1976 Gay Pride Parade
A photo album and interview with Diane Alexander White
The year was 1976 and Chicago was hosting it’s 7th Annual Gay Pride Parade. Diane Alexander White, a photographer born, raised, trained and educated in the Windy City, remembers it vividly. She was still an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, Chicago and she was out on the prowl for good shots — which was exactly what had brought her to the parade in the first place.
“In college I was always out there with a camera looking for opportunities to document what was on the street,” she says. And that day there was a lot to document.
“Kickoff”, A handmade sign proclaims the 7th Annual Gay Pride Parade with a small Bicentennial flag in the lower right corner. The year of 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which was a turning point in the modern Gay civil rights movement in the United States and globally, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, C-01, Diane Alexander White.
“Tutu”,The crowd watches the parade from the vantage point of a Dominick’s Grocery while a marcher rings a bell and a trombone wears a tutu, Chicago IL.Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, C-02, Diane Alexander White.
“When you're in a situation where there's a lot of folks, a lot of people it's very easy to get good photos for me,” explains White. “It's like shooting a gun into a barrel of fish. You're gonna get good photos because there's a lot of photos out there — a lot of people out there. You just have to zero in on what you think constitutes that photo that you're trying to capture.”
Throughout the day White photographed a colorful bunch. Even in the black and white photos she took, you can feel the vibrancy of the characters and the depth of their stories. Some of her subjects from that day were out-loud-and-proud, wearing full face paint, costumes and regalia. There are a lot of Freddy Mercury moustaches floating around and happy-go-lucky looking fellows in gay pride t-shirts and tanks.
“Nails”, A Drag Queen waits for her nails to dry near the parade route at Belmont and Broadway Streets, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-0A, Diane Alexander White.
“White Bells”, Wearing bell bottoms and holding a cluster of balloons with a same sex logo near the parade route, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-02, Diane Alexander White.
“I didn't take out a lot of film,” White says. All she brought with was half a roll of color and some black and white film. “And my tendency is to shoot really quickly — I'm not waiting for the action to come to me, I'm pursuing the action.
“I'm kind of like a tiger looking for its prey,” says White. “I feel like I'm sort of clawing my way through the crowd looking for that next- I don't know if I'd call them a ‘victim.’” She laughs. “Whoever's going to be in front of the camera. You know what I mean? I am like pursuing them.”
“Laughs”, A happy moment is captured on the steps of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-010, Diane Alexander White.
“Awkward”, A family watches the parade as the camera records a variety of facial expressions, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-017, Diane Alexander White.
White didn’t just photograph the stars of that pride parade, though — she also captured a lot of the spectators, boys and girls and men and women, couples and families, some of whom look very happy to be there. Others, who seem out of place. Like in one of White’s favorite images from that day, she titled “Awkward.”
“It is a photo of a family observing the parade while I capture their varied expressions. Dad looks like a fan of country music while Mom on the right wears a wig. The daughter is caught in the middle and appears off guard as the camera clicks the shutter.”
But even that gem isn’t White’s favorite photo of the day. When I asked her which photo was her favorite she responded without hesitation, “The photo of Ray Ray.”
“Out”, Three friends enjoying a day of Pride. The man on the right is Ray Ray Thomas who was 21 years old when this photo was taken, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-012, Diane Alexander White.
“I found out so much about him,” she says. Years after the parade, her photos were on exhibit, and someone approached her about this particular picture. “A man came up to me named Joey McDonald and he was flipping out. He was saying, ‘Oh my God I can't believe you photographed my twin. My best friend Ray Ray, this is Ray Ray my best friend.’”
“Ramon Ray Ray Thomas”, Ray Ray was a Chicagoan who moved to Palm Springs after this photo was taken and passed away in 2005. Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-013, Diane Alexander White.
Suddenly, the photo took on an entirely new dimension. Suddenly White knew who this handsome-looking black man, was, who she had photographed so many years ago.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh I've wondered for other for 44 years who this guy is and now I know it's really Ray Ray Thomas!’ Ramon ‘Ray Ray’ Thomas. He was 21 the same age as myself, which is kind of interesting. We were the same age at that parade that day and he also grew up on the south side.”
Years later, when Ray Ray passed away, White’s photograph would become one of his friends’ dearest memories of him.
“Regalia”, A man wears Zuni, Hopi and Navajo jewelry that includes an eagle talon necklace and a bear claw bracelet, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-019, Diane Alexander White.
Another one of White’s favorite pictures from that day is a photograph of a Native American man, wearing full tribal regalia, Native American bead necklaces, an eagle claw around his neck and a bear claw bracelet. It’s so 70’s, so culturally picturesque, so poignant and awesome. It’s a beautiful photograph.
“Coming Out”, Friends meet on the sidewalk while the Seahorse ll floats down Broadway Street, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-05, Diane Alexander White.“Red White and Blue”, Posing for the camera while wearing platform shoes and a jean jumpsuit. Traffic traveled in the opposite direction barely separating the parade from buses and cars, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, C-03, Diane Alexander White.
This collection of photos is a contemplative one. Not just because the images are reminiscent of a strange and beautiful time in the not-so-long ago; but also because they act as a mile-marker, as a landmark to gauge how far we’ve come as a society and as a culture in the years and decades since.
“Love”, Psychedelic face paint, a fur boa and a commemorative tank top announces the 7th Annual Gay Pride Parade, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, C-04, Diane Alexander White.
White’s photographs of the 1976 7th Annual Chicago Gay Pride Parade are an important portal, a valuable window into our past, and perhaps even into our future. They immortalize a moment in history that would have otherwise been lost like smoke in the wind.
“Sparkles and Strings”, The same sex logo on the tee shirt can also be seen on balloons at the parade, Chicago IL. Gay Pride Parade, 06-27-76, BW-08, Diane Alexander White.
If you are into White’s photography, check out her website. The ’76 Pride Parade wasn’t her only achievement as a photographer. She also covered the infamous 1979 Disco Demolition Rally, and a whole host of other parades, festivals and celebrations throughout urban Chicago, through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, right up into the present day.
Diane Alexander White working on a museum photo shoot in Chicago.
White worked for the Chicago Field Museum for 25 years. In addition to photographing several of their natural history collections, White has compiled a number photography exhibits focusing on Native American artifacts. Those exhibits, titled, “With Patience and Good Will: The Art of the Arapaho,” “Cheyenne Visions” and “Travels of the Crow: Journey of an Indian Nation” have been featured in a number of other museums and on tribal lands of the Plains Indians.
Today, she still lives in Chicago and does a lot of freelance corporate shoots when she isn't pursuing her passion of urban photography.