By the mid-19th century, New York City had the third largest German-speaking population of any city in the world, which was roughly one quarter of New York’s total population. The German community had a highly significant cultural and economic impact on many aspects of the life of the city. During World War I, however, German-Americans came under severe attack, and their loyalty as Americans was questioned. What vestiges of German-American culture in the city that lingered were virtually eliminated by the realities of World War II.
By the late 1950s, the German-American community in the metropolitan area wanted a holiday to celebrate its heritage, after decades of not being able to openly do so. The first German-American Parade was held in 1957 on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. The decision was made to move the parade the following year to Yorkville, a historically German immigrant neighborhood, in Manhattan. Desiring to name the September event for a prominent German-American, the organizers selected the birthday of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben (1730-1794), a hero of the American Revolution. The German-American Steuben Parade thus inadvertently honors a gay man of the 18th century.
In 1777, as a brigade major in the Prussian military, von Steuben was threatened with prosecution for his homosexual “familiarities” with young men. In Paris, he met Benjamin Franklin, who, though aware of these charges, contacted George Washington, who was desperate for an officer to assist in instilling discipline and training in the rag-tag Continental Army. Von Steuben served crucial roles in the war as inspector general, major general, and Washington’s chief of staff. After the war, von Steuben became an American citizen and first moved to Manhattan, and was later awarded a pension and properties in New York State and New Jersey.
The first German-American Steuben Parade in 1958, starting at East 61st Street, marched up Fifth Avenue and turned onto East 86th Street. New York’s parade, the largest in the United States celebrating German heritage, follows a similar route today. The first LGBT contingent marched in September 2016 under the banners of LGBT Germany and German Pulse.