If you want to know what a 14-year-old closeted gay kid’s worst nightmare looks like, I can tell you that being taken to San Francisco’s Gay Pride Celebration for the first time by your parents is pretty high up on the list (maybe tied with one where you show up to high school naked, in nothing but socks and sandals). But, exactly 10 years ago, this was not so much a bad dream as it was a reality: my Dad announced that we’d be going to the parade as a family because “it would be fun to watch” and “sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone.” I pointed out that we were already having a blast watching TV at home, and if we wanted to get out of our comfort zone later, we could visit a slaughterhouse or a prison. But it was too late; we were going and I decided to shut my mouth so as not to be the guy who “doth protest too much,” if you know what I mean.
At the parade, it was complete sensory overload: rainbows, glitter, balloons, feathers, go-go boots, leather underwear, pasties, tassels, sailor outfits, dog collars, assless chaps galore! I spent equal amounts of time taking it all in as I did focusing on not making eye-contact with strangers. Logically, I knew nobody was going to come up to my parents and yell, “Hey, your son is gay!” but I couldn’t shake the irrational feeling that if it could happen, it would be then and there. At the time, my game-plan regarding my sexuality was to never tell a soul and if I was ever discovered (via an uncleared internet history or something) I would stage my death and start a new life abroad, probably in Paris. I may not have been comfortable being gay at the time, but I was very comfortable with a flair for the dramatic.
Unsurprisingly, I survived and afterward we went to lunch and talked about what we’d seen. When it was my turn to say something, I expressed that I didn’t really like the parade because I thought if gay people (certainly not me!) wanted others to treat them normally, then they should act normally. “Yes, there were teachers and politicians and that one couple who had been together for sixty years,” I explained, “but who will remember any of that next to a drag queen on stilts or the fetishists wielding their ridding crops in mesh thongs?” I recall my Dad laughing and dismissing my cynicism with an “Oh Wes, don’t be such a homophobe!” I wish I could say the comment shamed me in some way, but mostly I was just happy I seemed more homophobic and less homosexual. Maybe nobody really could hear me when I sang “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in the shower?
Fast-forward a decade and a lot of growing up, and I was in my car heading to San Francisco Pride once more, still singing along to Britney Spears. This time, however, instead of dread, all I could feel was excitement and anticipation. Soon, I would be with my sister and some of her coworkers, as well as a friend from college, all of whom consistently deliver on fun nights out. It was going to be a nice break from reality and I was more than ready to spend 72 hours in party-mode, but I was still having reservations about the whole notion of celebrating “Gay Pride.”
In general, I reserve feelings of pride for my achievements and my abilities; for example, my achievement of paying my rent on time every month, or my ability to recite every line of the 1993 film Hocus Pocus. While I am certainly not ashamed of my sexual orientation, I am no more proud of being gay than I am proud that I have brown hair. My same-sex attraction is an unchangeable fact of life, and while I no longer feel the need to hide it, I also don’t feel the need to flaunt it. And I really don’t feel the need to march down the street in a thong and feather boa. I was planning to use Pride as an excuse for a three-day bender, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t justified in doing it.
Friday and Saturday went by in a blur of rainbows, vodka, and pop music. Pride was everything I remembered and more, only this time I wasn’t afraid to be there. I had conversations with countless people throughout the weekend and was reminded just how diverse the LGBT community truly is. People wished each other “Happy Pride” in the streets, as casually and merrily as one might wish someone “Happy Holidays” in the month of December and spirits were generally high throughout the weekend. I ended up putting aside my skepticism regarding the validity of the whole event and just let myself have fun — there wasn’t a whole lot of time to sit and contemplate anyway.
Saturday night, after attending ‘The Pink Party’ in the streets of Castro, we returned to a friend’s apartment to unwind; have a few more drinks, listen to music, play cards around the coffee table, and it was here that I finally had the chance to take a breath and reflect. I looked at all the faces in the room, everyone looking so comfortable, so at ease, and that’s when I realized it: I felt at ease too. And as soon as I become conscious of just how relaxed I felt, in a room full of gay men, straight men, gay girls, and straight girls and realizing just how little it actually mattered, that’s when I started to feel… well, proud.
In the last ten years the gay community has come a long way. Gay marriage has been legalized in eight states; we have seen the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and California’s Proposition 8. Gallup polls now report over 50 percent of the American population believes “that being gay is morally acceptable, that gay relations ought to be legal and that gay or lesbian couples should have the right to legally marry” and finally, we have a President who believes the same, and I’m proud of the LGBT activists who made that possible. But, on a much, much smaller scale, down to a personal level that nobody really cares about but me, I am proud of how far I’ve come, too. Sometimes we get so caught up in moving forward, we forget to look back to where we started to gain perspective. At fourteen, so close-minded and so scared of seemingly everything, I could never have imagined just how confident and happy I would be today. So no, I may not feel comfortable in assless chaps, but that’s not really what Pride is all about. It’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin, no matter who you are, and that’s what I was celebrating last weekend. That’s what I was proud of.