My first time at a Pride parade was inadvertent. I was 25 and had been out to only my closest friends for less than a year. My friend Abbie and I had just returned from a wedding roadtrip to Michigan, and were driving around Chicago’s Boystown in exasperation, trying to figure out how to get around or across the parade to my apartment on Melrose St. Down a sidestreet, I caught a glimpse of a parade float, a neon-colored moving liquor advertisement where waxed, bespeedoed go-go boys gyrated in front of giant martini glasses. I rolled my eyes. It was 2004, and we were embroiled in a rapidly devolving election in which the GOP leveraged straight people’s fears about gay marriage to garner votes on gay people’s backs. “Great job, everyone” I snarked in my head, “this will really endear us to the red states.” When November came and Kerry lost and a slew of states’ gay marriage initiatives passed resoundingly in favor of hatred and homophobia, those go-go boys and their giant martini glasses flashed through my brain. Though I never said so out loud, I blamed them.
I decided then that Pride was not for me. Pride was for people who were obsessed with sex, and status, the gym, and tight clothes. It was for the beautiful, the effeminate, the confused, the weird. It was for women who mistook riding motorcycles topless for empowerment, for men more interested in boners and biceps than legitimizing themselves in the eyes of the straight people who were the gatekeepers of our rights. Pride seemed a bizarre name for something that reveled so exuberantly in the embarrassing and tacky and shameful.
Suffice to say, I didn’t get it.
Pride Sunday 2008 in New York, where I’d moved the summer before, was blazing hot and suffocatingly humid. Nevertheless, on a whim, after seeing a group of rainbow-clad teenagers boarding a bus to Manhattan, I’d found myself crawling my way through the heart of Greenwich Village, toward the thumping beats of the dance music that erupted down every street. The sheer volume of people astounded me. Once again there was an election happening, one that seemed poised to be a historic coda to eight years of sadness, violence, bigotry and embarrassment, and people were mobilized, celebratory, full of hope to the point of bursting. The rusty fire escapes dangling over the sidewalks were festooned with rainbow flags and streamers and chock-full of sweaty, reveling people, covering the walls and snaking down the steps like vines of human ivy. Below one, a muscled Hispanic guy jokingly called up to the white partiers above him for a beer. A hip lesbian sitting on the steps high above teased him that if he could get up to her, she’d give him one. With a buddy’s help, he hoisted himself up onto the bottom level and scaled up over the wrought iron like Spider-Man as the other revelers cheered and slapped him high-fives. The lesbian whistled and handed him a beer, tossing a six-pack after him to his boys down on the sidewalk, who cheered like their friend had just dunked on Jordan. I’d never seen strangers so united.
In the street, groups of every stripe imaginable marched proudly: Brazilian transwomen in full Carnivale regalia, Black churches from Brooklyn and Queens, shelters for LGBTQ runaways in Washington Heights, associations of gay lawyers and lesbian accountants and queer rabbis, and, of course, throngs of go-go boys, some with slogans for Obama and against Prop 8 painted on their hairless bodies. It was all at once debaucherous, political, diverse and communal in a way I’d never experienced, and as I watched what can only be described as a resplendent tapestry of misfits I wished so badly I wasn’t alone. I wanted and needed to share it.
The Brazilian transwomen’s beats drifted out of earshot and gave way to a rumble of thunder, and as if the universe had tipped over a planet-sized bucket onto us, sheets and torrents of rain slapped to the ground. A roaring cheer went up from the crowd as if Madonna or Britney had just come around the corner. Some laughed at the misfortune while others turned their faces to the sky, reveling in the deliciously cool water cutting through the oppressive air. As I fumbled with my umbrella to no avail, a hand nudged me. “We got room under here, man!” laughed an artsy, mohawked lesbian huddled with her friends beneath a giant golf umbrella. I joined them as a float full of drag queens rounded the corner, bellowing into their microphones that the rain wasn’t going to stop them from serving fierceness. (It was 2008, we still talked like that then.) “I’m Allison,” the woman yelled. “John!” I bellowed over the din.
“You by yourself?”
“Not anymore.” She smiled at me, then turned to whistle at the drag queens. (Why are lesbians always so good at whistling?)
The rain fell so hard and fast that it ricocheted off the pavement and even those of us under umbrellas ended up soaked. Nobody cared. No one left, no one ran inside. They just cheered louder in unbridled, unrepentant joy. I thought about where I was standing, on Christopher Street, just steps from Stonewall, from St. Vincent’s Hospital where so many were lost to AIDS, in a crowd that was everyone — rich white Manhattanites, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans from farther uptown, Blacks and Asians and transmen and transwomen and a handful of instantly recognizable porn stars and more straight couples with children than you’d ever expect — and for the first time in my gay life, I realized I was part of something.
What I didn’t understand in 2004, what began to dawn on me in 2008, is that, like being a woman, or a person of color, being LGBTQ — merely existing in an openly queer body — is itself an inherently political act. Just by dint of living outside of the proscribed norm, we challenge the status quo, whether we intend to or not. It is an easier row to hoe for some of us than others. But none of us gets through it unscathed.
This year, Pride arrives on the heels of a devastating act of violence against LGBTQ people, in a year where no fewer than 200 laws have been proposed to limit our rights, our equality, our very humanity. As the details of the Orlando shooter’s private life as an apparent closeted gay man become matters of public record, as his former lovers and friends and family come forward to acknowledge that he had threatened revenge on the gay community in which he felt like an outsider, a sad and sickening twist of irony seems to present itself: the perpetrator of this heinous tragedy was himself a victim of the very thing that motivated him to hurt those he killed. And yet, many are still falling over themselves to remove the queer identity of this crime, its victims, its perpetrator and many of its mourners. For all our progress, this, at least in part, is the state of queerness in 2016. It is not a thing we should stand for.
In the two weeks since Orlando, many have lamented that they feel powerless. That they feel small, ineffectual, without resources or recourse, left only to watch in horror as the world burns down around them. I’ve felt it too. Certainly, the task ahead of LGBTQ people and allies is an enormous one. But just like Stonewall, like AIDS, like marriage equality, the movement of the needle starts with being out — with being not just truthful about our identities, but with defiantly affirming our very existence, insisting that we be acknowledged, that we be seen, that we be heard. That all starts with just showing up.
During the Great Recession, I worked as a bartender in a restaurant that happened to be right off New York’s Pride parade route. It had been a slow Sunday, and the staff was cut down to just me and one waitress, a 60-something lesbian named Susan who was a comically grouchy pain in the ass. Once the parade had passed us by, we were unexpectedly inundated with customers, and by the time our shift ended, we were exhausted, rattled and enraged by each other in the way only restaurant work can inspire. After we’d handed the restaurant off to the night crew, Susan came up to me as if to give me a piece of her mind. “I’ve had about all of you I can take, but it’s Pride and we’re going to get a drink together and that’s it.” I tried to demur, but she wouldn’t have it, drawing herself up to her full five feet and pointing a finger at me. “Bullshit. We need to show up for each other.”
So, in the face of tragedy, in the midst of another frustrating and contentious election, in the face of a world that seems to be imploding before our eyes, here’s to showing up for each other, even if all we do is watch from the sidelines.
Let’s make the choice to be visible.
To be visible for those who must remain invisible, because they’re unsafe.
To be visible for those still figuring out how to love themselves and their queerness.
To be visible for those who can’t be, because they’re no longer here.
To be visible for ourselves and each other, because we still are.
Let’s show up for each other, because we have work to do.