It’s Pride Month, a time to celebrate the freedom to love who you want to love, and to be who you are without fear or shame. It is a time for displays of people casting off the shroud of who society wishes they were, and celebrations of creating a larger community. Parades happen. We remember the ones who came before us, the ones who lifted parking meters, who got arrested, who died fighting, who acted, who spoke out, who filed the lawsuits, the ones who told us it would get better and the ones who made it so.
But to celebrate pride, to come out of the closet, we have to acknowledge how we are put into closets and the closets we still keep inside.
Now in my 30s, and living in a college town in Alabama I think a lot about the process of pride. How we come to the joys of it, and the transformations that lead us out of shame and out of the closet.
In my suburban high school in the early 2000s there were 2 out kids. We all knew their names, we knew their stories in the way that you know things without having to seek out the information. They were bold and vivacious, they wore what they wanted to wear. They spoke how they wanted to speak and stomped to the beat of their own pathway. So naturally, I spent a lot of time judging them.
When you are in the closet you are a terrible version of yourself. My time in the closet pushed me to feel isolated, I avoided relationships with family members. I lived in waiting for the day the world would surely reject me. When you are closeted you spend a lot of time ingesting and internalizing the messages the world sends you about the wrongness of who you are. I was taught to see those whose queerness was louder, bolder, and freer as someone who broke the unwritten rules. For many of us, this also meant projecting that worldview of wrongness onto those who would most likely show us a different and better way of living.
David Sedaris captured this moment perfectly in his essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day” in which he describes seeing other lisping boys at the speech therapist and knowing he was to avoid every being with them in public. In college, I came home to my roommate in the arms of another boy and of course, I told anyone who would listen about it, trying desperately to take the attention off of myself and onto someone, anyone, else. I *thought* I was passing, keeping what I thought was my secret despite very obvious clues anyone else could see.
Look there. I’m not that. Look there. At least I’m not that.
Don’t look here. Never look here.
This year also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a protest against homophobic and racist police practices whose coverage brought many individuals out of the closet and into the streets. As I learned more about the history of Pride we see that it was always an expression of resistance by the most marginalized of society. In June of 1969 queer queens like Marsha P Johnson, and other mostly queer people of color led a revolt against the injustices practiced by police in carrying out raids and enforcing codes of law meant to deny the humanity of queer people. Reading the stories of what happened over those days, and the people bold enough to stand up for what would eventually be considered rights I can’t help but think about the queer people I’ve known. The ones out on the vanguard.
I think about the first gay person I knew. His name was Greg, an MFA student at UMKC who worked with me in a professional theatre company. During the show we often did two shows in a day and Greg would hang out with me between shows because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. He took me to Minsky’s pizza and I would listen to his thoughts on theatre while he smoked cigarettes. He was queer in all the wonderful boundary-pushing ways that to my 14-year-old self I couldn’t understand. Of course, my father met him and didn’t want me hanging out with him ever again. I don’t know what happened to Greg or where he lives now, but seeing him helped me in more ways than I can articulate. There was also a distant relative who brought his boyfriend to my great grandfather’s funeral when I was 13, everyone talked about this as though they spat upon my great grandfather’s grave. I have thought about these people often.
I would love to say that once you come out, once you take up the mantle of pride that you remove all feelings of rejection, but that’s simply not true. Coming out is a process, and there is a lot of toxicity running beneath the surface. The whiteness of pride, the ways in which our commercial affluence ignores and erases the marginalized from within our community. Then there’s the fixation of body image; the first time I encountered another gay person at a camp just after high school I was told “lose 20 pounds and you’ll be a real gay”. It seems we all internalize something before we get to pride.
So this pride month I want to think about the “out kids” we know, the ones who pushed the boundaries so that those of us could have an easier path. The ones in our communities out on the vanguard, who only ask to be seen and loved, and who I’ve come to realize I needed before I could understand. The out kids in my high school were judged, whispered about, avoided. I think about this often, and find myself engaging in that productive exercise of imagining if you could go back knowing what you know now.
I wish I had understood that the wonderful queer people I met early in life were out blazing a trail I could follow. It wasn’t until I got into college speech that I was able to appreciate the wonderful gifts of other gay people. Even then, you fight with the tendency to always act in ways that will help you belong. I wish I knew then that these people were supposed to be the community of foundlings I fostered, that they would understand me better than any other. I wish I would understand the lessons of self-acceptance and living without shame would guide and direct me as I live in the south and deal with all its paradoxes. More than anything else I wish I could look at those early bastions of pride I would later celebrate and apologize.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t understand that the world I had swallowed told me that there wasn’t room for you. That in my desire to hide myself from the world I turned attention towards you.
You were bright and bold. You were fearless in a world designed to destroy you, you were loud in a world designed not to hear you.