I’ve been to a number of Pride events. Some were huge – like the million-plus events in San Francisco that take six hours to traverse Market Street from downtown to the Capitol.
Some were more manageable, like the 45-minute long Sacramento Pride Parade and Festival.
And some are almost intimate.
But they all celebrate one thing – being proud of who you are.
I’ve gotten a little blasé about Pride, and this weekend I got a little reminder of what it really means.
I grew up in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. It was a great place to be a kid, full of nice people and lots of open spaces, set in the midst of the lush Sonora Desert with quail, bobcats, roadrunners, and all other kinds of amazing desert flora and fauna.
It’s also where I first realized I was gay.
I’m not sure when it first hit me. I had a fascination with men’s bodies as a child, but I had no word to describe what it meant. Growing up in Tucson wasn’t so much a homophobic experience as a white-out. There were very few references to anything gay there in the 1970’s and early 80’s. And the TV landscape was the same.
I can list the gay references I had access to on one hand:
- The gay couple down the street who no one talked to.
- The really campy gay character on Brothers (and the one on Soap)
- The book “The Dancers of Arun” by Elizabeth A Lynn
- Longtime Companion, where one of the lovers dies of AIDS
- And one I forget the name of that was about a young gay man coming out in college and then facing his parents’ shame.
Collectively, I learned from this that to be gay meant you would become an effeminate man (and I want to say right here that there’s nothing wrong with being effeminate, it just wasn’t who I was) who no one would want to talk to, that when you came out, your mother would put you in therapy to become “normal” and your father would die of a heart attack, and that eventually you’d die a long, painful death of AIDS.
Only the book gave me any sort of hope, and oh how the queer aching of the semi-disabled gay protagonist resonated deep in my soul.
How do you deal with that kind of messaging when you’re a gay kid?
I invented an excuse for myself. I wasn’t really gay. I could be straight if I wanted to. These “feelings” were just God’s way of helping me be more empathetic for others.
I don’t think my parents knew, although my Dad did make me play soccer one year, in what I think was an attempt to butch me up. But to their credit, they both accepted me when I did come out, with love and grace.
I had a gay sexual relationship with a close friend that started when I was about fourteen. It was never love, and part of me didn’t even consider it sex. It wasn’t “real” sex, in any case – that was reserved for intimacy between men and women. And whatever it was, I knew it was “dirty.”
So I thought of myself as a virgin for years.
I moved away from Tucson for my junior year of college, and immersed myself in my “straight” persona. In the process, I hurt two young women in ways I still regret to this day.
In the end, it was Damon, my first, who snapped me out of it. He called me one day, out of the blue, and said he was now in Laguna Beach, California, about two hours from where I was living in Rancho Cucamonga. And he asked me to come see him.
My heart racing, I said yes.
On the drive down to see him, I was nervous as hell, and I think subconsciously expecting him to be effeminate like the few gays I had seen on TV. I was still with my girlfriend – was living with her, in fact. What did all this mean? But I couldn’t not go.
He opened the door, and there he was. He was simply Damon. Handsome, sweet, beautiful Damon.
And in that moment, my life changed.
I realize now how damaging those messages society feeds us are, how they can twist our lives and those close to us when we let them dictate who we are and can be. How different things might have been if I could have been proud of myself back then, when instead I was hiding that part of myself in shame.
Within two months, I was out of the closet, living as a proud gay man, and leaving all that bullshit behind me. I felt awful for breaking up with my girlfriend like that, but to this day I thank God that we didn’t get any further down that road.
And within a year, I met the love of my life, Mark.
All of which brings me to last weekend.
We live in a world transformed from how it was when I was growing up. A place where it’s much easier to be gay at a younger age (or lesbian or bi or trans or non-binary or ace or aro or any of the other wonderful things that make up our LGBTQ+ rainbow).
At the same time, I know it’s not easier for everyone.
Saturday was the first face-to-face Placer Pride event. It was held in Roseville, a somewhat conservative suburb about 25 minutes northeast of where we live. It was one of the small, intimate varieties of Pride, a 25 booth festival with a music stage and a single food truck. I’ve been to dozens just like it.
Nevertheless, it was a revelatory experience, and I want to thank Cindy and Nancy and everyone else who made it happen.
Parents stopped by to ask about books their gay and trans and bi and lesbian kids might enjoy.
Teens who wanted to become writers lit up with joy at the sight of books about people like them.
And one woman asked me to explain the word queer to her – having grown up in a non-english-speaking country, she wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or bad thing.
“It’s been both,” I told her, and proceeded to explain its history.
She told me she had left her homophobic husband because she had an LGBTQ child, and what a joy it was to see us and our books at the festival. And her face practically glowed as she told me she planned to take her child to the Sacramento Pride Parade in a few weeks.
I’ve been down in the dumps for a while now about writing, afraid that no one wanted to read my books anymore, bothered about being mired in a project that never seems to end, and worried that I will never leave a lasting mark in this world.
But this weekend, we all made a difference in the lives we touched through our work, our very presence, and our Pride.
In addition to selling a bunch of books, I gave some to those who seemed to need them, and the looks of joy I received in return were worth more than money.
And before you ask, no, I will not be selling ALL my books for smiles. An author has to eat, after all. 😉
I remember that day when I showed up on Damon’s door, and how it changed everything for me thirty-one years ago.
This weekend at Placer Pride reminded me what Pride really means. And how feeling it, showing it, and living it can change the lives of others too, one person at a time.
Tell me your pride story!