We’re entering pride season, a time we celebrate our community – one that I have watched grow from “gay” to “gay and lesbian” to “GLBT” to “LGBT” to “LGBTIQA,” all over the course of my lifetime.
I’m fifty-one this year, and as I look around, I am amazed at the number of pride celebrationsheld around the country. Almost every city has one, and Pride has become a commodity, a shiny rainbow-colored thing that in the process has lost some of its former meaning.
This is part of the mainstreaming of queer culture that has had enormous benefits for our community, leading to greater acceptance and (I hope) easier adolescence for queer youth, who now have role models and labels (if they want them) for who and what they were born to be.
But pride is also intensely personal for me.
When I was a kid, I knew I was different. I didn’t have a name for it, but I had these strange urges and desires as young as six or seven that made no sense to me in the hetero world I lived in.
As I grew older, I pushed them into the background, until a friend of mine, Damon Nicholson, saw in me what was in him too.
I had my first sexual encounter with him when I was fourteen. I was deep in the closet then, and after each time, I would become filled with shame.
Shame at what I had done. Shame at who I was and who I was becoming. Shame at being me.
Looking back, I can connect the evolution of that shame to my academic decline, which lasted from Junior High through my sophomore year of high school, though I didn’t see the link at the time.
My shame was an insidious weed, wrapping its tendrils around every aspect of my life.
I needed Damon, like a drug. When I heard the rumble of his motorcycle approaching, my heartbeat sped up like a hummingbird’s.
I hated myself, after. No, that’s not strong enough. I loathed myself, filled with a sense of disgust.
My Mom and Dad (who will probably read this – hey!), had no clue I was going through this. When I did come out years later, they were both supportive, and I wondered why it had taken me so long.
It’s not their fault – I was very secretive about it, and there simply wasn’t much in the way of openly gay life in the Tucson suburbs in the 1980’s to give any of us a roadmap.
I can count the queer culture references I had back then on one hand:
The gay guy on the show brothers, who was super femme. Though it didn’t bother me, it didn’t fit me either.
A movie (the name escapes me now) about a college kid who comes out gay, loses his father to a heart attack and gets put into conversion therapy by his mother.
And the two gay guys who lived down the block that no one talked to.
So I learned the lesson – if I ever came out, I would become an effeminate gay man who killed his father and disappointed his mother, and who would be shunned by society.
Even in the depths of my self-loathing, I never considered suicide. I’m just not built that way – I nearly fainted when I had to self-harm with a blood test poker in biology class. Instead, I shunted that part of me off to the side. I even moved to California in part to escape Damon and my shame, and ended up breaking the hearts of two girlfriends by my subterfuge.
Pride is the opposite of shame. It’s like sunlight that brightens the room and clears out all the ugly, horrible weeds that have taken root in your mind.
For me, it came suddenly and unexpectedly, and it changed my life.
One day in 1991, while I was sitting in my girlfriend’s bedroom (we were sharing it at her parent’s house while we saved up for a move), I got a call from Damon.
He wanted to see me, and it turned out he was now living in California too, about two hours away in Laguna Beach.
I was shaking, almost sick with need and fear and shame as I spoke to him, with my girlfriend standing right there in the room with me. I agreed to go.
And that’s when everything changed.
I still remember the exact moment when my life started to change.
He opened the door, and he was just Damon.
Not the effeminate guy from Brothers. Not the guy whose coming out killed his father and freaked out his mother. Not the shunned gay guys down the street.
Just Damon. And he was beautiful to me.
In that moment, my shame lost its hold on me, and my pride started to assert itself.
Over the course of the next several months, I ordered a book on coming out, and had it sent to my work address in a brown paper envelope. I drove to a local park on lunch break and devoured it, cover to cover. I met with a local therapist for guidance.
Then I came out to my local friends and my girlfriend, and moved out of her parents’ house. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done – telling her Iw as gay over a melting pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. But it set both of us free.
I still remember sitting across from my friend Cheryl at work the day after I came out.
I caught her was looking at me funny.
“What?” I asked.
“You don’t look any different.”
She was right. I was still just me – the same me she’d known before I came out.
But she was wrong too.
I was different. I carried myself differently. I was stepping into my own true self, my own power, and I was becoming someone new.
Someone proud of who I was.
The photo above was taken a few months after my coming out. Looking back, I can see that newfound pride shining out of me.
Getting past my shame was a long process. It doesn’t give way overnight or let go of its hold on you easily. In some ways, I will live with its shadow for the rest of my life, brought back every time someone looks at me a certain way or calls me a f@ggot.
But it no longer owns me.
On June 9th, Mark and I will march in the Sacramento Pride Parade, along with hundreds of other folks from local Methodist churches, straight and queer, who have given up their Saturday mornings to celebrate Pride. I have learned it’s okay to be gay and Christian. Or gay and atheist. Or gay and muslim or buddhist or jewish or any of a thousand other things.
But pride is more than just a march or a season or a slickly repackaged marketing meme.
Pride is what makes me stand up a little straighter. Pride is what connects me with everything about me that is real and true and me.
I am a proud gay man, and no one can take that away from me.
Pride is why I am who I am.
For my queer friends… when did you first let go of your shame and own your pride?