It’s difficult to summarize what my first Pride Parade meant to me without any context, so here are some snapshots of what came before. As I near the age of 50, I can’t say I love every little thing about the annual LGBTQ+ celebration, but I think it’s very important for folks — particularly young folks — running low on hope. There’s really no arguing with the safety and strength experienced in numbers. All it takes is one affirming experience to turn it all around. That’s why we celebrate.
“Brian wants to take me to California.”
I stood behind my mom in the kitchen of my childhood home. Her back was turned to me as she did the dishes. I could tell she’d been out to a fancy lunch since she was looking elegant in a tweed jacket and skirt ensemble with dark stockings, although she’d taken her shoes off to stand at the sink. The yellow Playtex gloves glowed unusually bright against the dark, intricate fabric along her arms.
A few seconds later, she suddenly shut the water off. This was followed by a long sigh as she shifted her weight to one side and began pulling at the tip of each finger to remove the gloves.
She paused to make sure she had my undivided attention.
“Over my dead body.”
It would seem that she’d effectively ended the conversation. But she’d only succeeded in doing so for the moment, because while it was now apparent I would not be going to California with Brian during Christmas vacation, it didn’t change the fact of the matter: I was gay. And on some level, we both knew this.
Actually, at the time I’d been trying to float the seemingly less-fully-committed idea that I was bisexual. But it was also 1987 and anything other than good ol’ heterosexuality was off the table. Despite increased visibility in cities across the world, being gay was now firmly equated with certain death thanks to a pervasive, progressive syndrome known as AIDS. Brian, who’d been introduced to me by a girl I’d dated previously, was an uneasy topic in our home. My mother’s intuition had always been razor sharp. It was impossible to get much of anything past her. And Brian was fully out of the closet. He made no attempt to hide himself, and that included the day he’d met my mom. So much for the down-low.
Really, she was just trying to be a good parent. My mother is lovely and warm and has become a big supporter. She just needed some time. But things were scary back then. Some thirty years prior, my parents had met at the same local high school I was attending. The one gay man they’d known back then, someone they still occasionally ran into and who’d come out with a big bang in the ’70s, had crawled back in the closet. “People are dying,” he’d said to them, attempting to make his new, less brazen tune sound like a necessary act of survival. Looking back now, it makes me cringe. I completely understand what he did and why he did it, but to my impressionable parents, it reinforced the idea that sexuality was a choice… something that could be edited or erased. It wasn’t an idea they needed to be entertaining.
Throughout grade school, I endured a shit-ton of bullying. I’m amazed at how I managed to keep going. It began the very first day in a new school system (March, 1977) when I got called ‘queer’ by one of the older kids, perched atop the seatbacks at the very rear of the bus. I was just seven years old, and I’ll never know what it was about the way I boarded the bus that was the big ‘tell.’ But it stuck.
For the next decade, I was relentlessly ostracized. My freshman year of high school I got deposited in a hallway trash bin (with lots of lunch garbage in it) and then turned upside down. There were multiple episodes of violence. By the time of Brian, I was busy getting high and drinking whenever I could get away with it. It never occurred to me that I might be numbing pain. Instead, I perceived my behavior as a means of exploring an easier-to-manage set of feelings. More fluid, more grey areas. Less angst.
Empowered by my drug-and-alcohol-mitigated feelings, I attempted to have “the talk” with my folks maybe three times, after which I gave up. It didn’t seem like acceptance and resolution were on the horizon since each conversation just proved that the prior one hadn’t made much of an impression. I wasn’t being heard. I felt as if my responsibility ended with making the information known – how they did or didn’t process it afterwards was their own problem. I had enough to handle without attempting to manage their feelings. Emotionally, I walked away. And I see now that I had privilege in being able to do so: I wasn’t disowned, cut-off or even made to explain. It was just tense. There was now a big pink elephant hanging around. I guess there are worse fates.
College wasn’t much help. Somehow, I ended up attending the most repressed liberal arts school in New England, but I made it work as best I could. There was zero support for gay students, not even a monthly meeting. I managed to have a good time, I did well… and I met a few other gay people, although the threat of violence related to my confused sexuality still managed to rear its head a couple times. I drank myself blind. My body withstood the beating, but I left school even more unsure of my future than when I’d arrived. I couldn’t escape the idea that I was going to end up dead as the result of giving in to sexual desire — that my life would be over before it had a chance to really get going.
After graduation, I moved to Boston.
It was that summer in 1992 that I attended Pride for the first time. As my friend and I got behind a float to march in Boston’s parade that summer, I was in awe. I had no real concept of pride as it related to sexuality. There was in-the-closet and out, but pride was another animal entirely. It was shocking in all the best ways. There were tons of us. I couldn’t believe how many people were there, and witnessing the turnout immediately began undoing all of the damage I’d incurred. Local politicians came as a sign of endorsement. There was no shame: bare asses in chaps, leather harnesses, drag… and dancing. So much dancing. I kicked off my shoes and danced barefoot in the street behind a live DJ that could do no wrong. People roared and applauded as we went by, following the DJ on the float. At the end, I felt like I’d been on a carnival ride, and I wanted to go back to the beginning and do it again.
Only, I realized soon afterwards that I could carry that feeling with me. Forever. More or less. Life has proven challenging in many ways, but I’m no longer hung up about this one thing that I’d spent so much energy being hung up on.
A photo of my friend and I dancing in the street appeared in the paper the following day – an important milestone, frozen in time. In the more than twenty-five years since, many things have conspired to sour me on Pride as an annual celebration – curmudgeonly boyfriends, bossy editors, alcoholism and greedy commercialization top the list.
But as a frame of mind, pride is indelible, much like the sexuality it now informs. That first parade was proof that I had a future. Because for years, I had been walking around with this unshakable sense of doom. And for anyone under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, it still can provide that validation. Despite my desire to get right back on that carnival ride, I really only needed to experience it once to know that all of the negative, marginalizing, shame-based thoughts I’d had about my sexual orientation were nonsense. That knowledge has sustained me ever since. And while plenty other things along the way would reawaken that sense of doom, the plain fact of my sexuality would never again be one of them. I was free.
For a complete schedule of the official WNY Pride Center sanctioned Pride Week events, visit here: buffaloprideweek.com
Lead image: Photo by Joshua Stitt