BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — As the end of Pride month comes to a close, some may wonder what LGBTQ life was like in the Magic City during the beginnings of public acceptance.

What was LGBTQ life like for those living in Birmingham before gay marriage was legalized across the U.S. in 2015? Or prior to TV host Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out episode airing on national television, except in the city of Birmingham?

If someone searched “First Pride march in Birmingham, AL” online, they would likely find most information leading to the Invisible History Project’s website. The Invisible Histories Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit group based in Birmingham focused on “actively locating, collecting, preserving and researching LGBTQ history” in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle.

Joshua Burford is IHP’s lead archivist and director of outreach. Maigen Sullivan is IHP’s director of research and development. They are both also co-founders of the organization and discussed events of early Birmingham Pride with CBS 42.

Events prior to the first Pride march

The atmosphere of LGBTQ life in Birmingham prior to the first Pride march was “not dissimilar to what it is now,” according to Burford. However, political action was more of a forefront issue.

“I would argue that the community was more political in the eighties than we are in the 21st century,” Burford said. “Because we were organizing around multiple issues. Not just HIV, but also community, advocacy and support.”

Prior to the 1989 march in Birmingham, Burford said local activists planned marches in the city which were “super small” and “certainly not anything like Pride is now.”

Burford also noted that these events and the 1989 Pride itself were organized by Lambda, Inc. The organization began as a collaboration among Bootsie Abelson, Kay Crutcher, Ron Joullian and Rick Adams, four friends in Birmingham who wanted the LGBTQ community in the city to be organized “outside of bars,” according to Sullivan.

Photo of the Lambda, Inc. headquarters dated 1982, located on 27th Street South in Birmingham (Photo courtesy of the Invisible History Project).

Lambda opened on June 17, 1977 and is referred to as Alabama’s first LGBTQ center. When asked what gave these activists the courage to be open about their identities, Burford said their Southern upbringing motivated them to create the space for themselves.

“Every single one of these people were southerners from Alabama that were organizing [Lambda, Inc.] and so they felt that they deserved to be heard,” Burford said. “They organized so well together and that they found such joy and such power in [that].”

The organization also began writing a newsletter that later transformed into a monthly publication titled the Alabama Forum, which became the state’s longest run LGBTQ publication.

“Honestly, [it’s] where we see some of the biggest collection of queer trans history in Alabama preserved because it ran for two decades,” Sullivan said. “[Lambda, Inc.] really had an effect not just in Birmingham but statewide.”

The first Pride march (1989)

The first Pride march took place on June 25, 1989. Organizers and supporters began their march at the Lambda headquarters located on 27th Street South and ended at Rushton Park.

Documentary filmmaker Bob Huff recorded portions of the events, including guest speakers addressing the estimated 250 people who attended. The footage can now be found on YouTube.

LGBTQ activists from across the Alabama attended the march. The University of Alabama’s LGBTQ student organization, then known as Gay/Lesbian Support Services, and the Tuscaloosa Lesbian Coalition were also present.

Advanced mass media coverage of the event was limited and some members of the march covered their faces with masks while walking. This is likely due to fear of public backlash.

Ellen’s coming out episode unaired in Alabama

Arguably, one of the most historic moments in LGBTQ history in the U.S. was during an episode of “The Ellen Show,” titled “The Puppy Episode,” that ran on April 30, 1997 and featured Ellen DeGeneres’ character coming out as gay.

As DeGeneres anticipated, backlashed ensured over the episode’s plot. Most notably, ABC 33/40 removed the episode from its airtime, as then General Manager Jerry Heilman stated the episode “is not suitable for prime-time family viewing.” ABC 33/40 was the only ABC affiliate in the country to block the episode, despite protests being received at other stations.

In response, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Birmingham Pride Alabama (BPA) rented out the Boutwell Auditorium for the evening of April 30 to host a public viewing of the episode.

Article by the Associated Press detailed the events of the “Welcome Out Ellen Party”

Reportedly over 2,000 people attended the event, called the “Welcome Out Ellen Party.”

Burford was a college student at the University of Alabama during this time. He said him and some friends drove from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to attend the event and watch Ellen’s coming out on the big screen.

“It was an amazing event to attend because it was so fun and resistant and celebratory, even though that episode is pretty bland in retrospect,” Burford said. “It was such a good time to be together and to be [protesting] something as [mundane] as not being able to watch a television show.”

How do these events shape Pride now?

Saturday will mark 33 years since the first Birmingham Pride march. While progress has been made in ensuring LGBTQ people have more rights in the U.S., Burford and Sullivan believe it’s important to remember those who have gotten the community this far.

Sullivan said it’s important to keep in mind that early Pride activists faced arrests due to sodomy laws present during their lives.

“Instead of forgetting and forsaking them, we really should be highlighting and honoring all the things that they did for us,” Sullivan said.

Burford also added that LGBTQ history is important to pass down and preserve for future generations. Those interested in donating materials to the organization can find out more on their website.

“Everyone has a piece of the puzzle,” Burford said. “We want people to know that this is a project that will continue to grow as we get more information from individuals and community members.”