on july 21, 1983, diana ross staged one of the highly significant concert events of the decade. organized by the city and the parks department, with support from ross herself, the benefit concert was a free, open-air performance held at the great lawn in central park, new york city to raise money for a children’s playground in the park.
an estimated 800,000 people, many of whom were gay men, showed up on the blistering hot july day to watch one of the few divas who could command such an audience, perform some of her biggest hits including the newly minted lgbtq anthem “i’m coming out.”
just three years earlier, diana, who had already achieved iconic status as the lead singer of the legendary motown group the supremes, and garnered an academy award nomination for her portrayal of billie holiday in the 1972 film “lady sings the blues,” scored her biggest-selling solo album, “diana.” and in june 1983, had just released the album, aptly titled “ross.”
by the summer of 1983, the queer community was in the midst of its own storm. the HIV crisis and HIV stigma ravaging the community. the panic heightened homophobia to astronomical levels. it was not until that september that the CDC ruled out casual contact as a risk for HIV. in this context, a park packed with people standing should-to-shoulder took on a different resonance.
it was about a half hour into the concert when the skies darkened and strong winds began to blow. as diana began to sing her 1970 hit, “reach out and touch (somebody’s hand),” she asked everyone to hold hands. “it took me a lifetime to get here and i’m not going anywhere!” she then asked the crowd:
“are you afraid of the rain!?”
the crowd replied with a resounding “NO!”
“i won’t melt, will you!?”
the crowd shouted, “NO!”
“it’s alright. if we can make this work,
we can make anything work, baby!”
the massive remained and braved the storm as diana continued to perform even as winds and rains strengthened. diana inspiringly shouted, “the rain Is for the flowers. it’s only gonna make us grow?” at the 45-minute mark, the concert had to be postponed for the following day. diana stayed on stage in the rain and guided the crowd as it navigated through the rain to safety.
diana returned to central park the next day to give fans the concert they deserved. the universe gave her a beautiful day, and diana gave her fans a spectacular performance. the make-up concert ate into the playground’s budget, so diana funded the completion of the park.
for many of our elders in attendance, this was their last diana ross concert. the following years of the AIDS epidemic stole so much from us as the storm became a hurricane. but for that one stormy night in 1983, diana not only prepared us for the incoming storm, she loved and guided us through it.
diana ross’ july 21, 1983 concert in central park holds immense relevance in LGBTQ and AIDS history. the visibility of such a large gathering of people celebrating love and acceptance in the heart of new york city sent a profound message of hope and solidarity. and the flowers that were watered on that fateful night continue to grow in the face of every adversity.