New York stages huge Gay Pride march, 50 years after Stonewall
AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY Pride celebrations in New York began with the Queer Liberation March, the smaller of two events taking place in Manhattan

Throngs of people gathered in the streets of New York on Sunday for a Gay Pride march expected to draw three million rainbow flag-waving supporters, 50 years after the Stonewall riots that galvanized the modern gay rights movement.

"I believe we are going to have the greatest Pride celebration in the history of the globe," Mayor Bill de Blasio, a vocal defender of gay rights and a Democratic presidential hopeful, said ahead of the weekend events.

Stonewall Day commemorates the June 1969 riots sparked by repeated police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, that proved to be a turning point in the LGBTQ community's struggle for civil rights.

New York's Gay Pride -- a month of events marking Stonewall every year -- has long been a lure for tourists, drawing hundreds of thousands of people, plus politicians and celebrities

The city held its first Gay Pride march one year after the unrest, kicking off a tradition that would spread to other cities around the world -- made all the more pertinent as some 70 countries still criminalize homosexuality today.

This year organizers have gone all out as they plan to host what they called World Pride with visitors from around the globe.

The event comes against what critics say is Donald Trump's Republican administration opening the door once again to overt discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

- A step back -

At mid-morning, several thousand took part in the Queer Liberation March organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition in Greenwich Village -- the hub of the city's gay community and the location of the Stonewall Inn.

The event was cast as an alternative to the main march, which some activists say has become too commercial, with major corporate sponsors including L'Oreal, Danone and the Macy's department stores.

High-profile British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell said he came from London to participate in the alternate march "to celebrate the radical tradition of Stonewall 1969."

"Our goal was never just equality and LGBT+ rights. I wanted to transform society," he said.

Bennett Sherr, a 20-year-old student at Cornell University, said it was "important that the Pride movement not be so corporatized."

"You see corporations giving money to Pride and then handing millions to anti-LGBT politicians," Sherr told AFP.

Many marchers carried anti-Trump signs, denouncing his policies on everything from transgender rights to abortion to immigration.

The main march was to begin shortly thereafter from Fifth Avenue and 26th Street in Greenwich Village.

Some 150,000 people are signed up to take part in the main rally, but organizers say they expect an estimated three million people to line the streets and watch.

With so many people expected, police plan to deploy thousands of officers on city streets and rooftops, and also use drones and helicopters to keep an eye on everything.

The day is scheduled to conclude with a big bash in Times Square featuring performances by artists including Madonna, who is hugely popular in the gay community.

- Honoring history -

Visitors from abroad who are planning to march include Helen Gollin, a 63-year-old Australian, who helped found Sydney's first Mardi Gras gay march in 1978.

"It's about honoring all that went on before us and all those who died in the name of freedom," said Gollin.

"It's our history, it's the reason why we can be whoever we want to be. That's why it was important to come and celebrate," added Francesco Servalli, 38, who came from Italy with four friends to take part in the march.

Servalli and others said Gay Pride is important for another reason: to muster strength to keep fighting for LGBTQ rights at a time when people they call extremist politicians -- like Trump, or Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil -- have come to the fore.

"I feel like we are going backward," said Servalli, citing in particular violence against transgender people.

"But maybe it's history: sometimes you need to go backward to continue going further."