I’ll never forget my first Gay Pride parade. We danced barefoot in the street. I’d never known such satisfying shenanigans.
My friends and I positioned ourselves behind a float with a particularly skilled DJ and just threw down. I kicked my sandals off and stuffed them in my pockets. This was Boston, 1992. Having just emerged from a four-year liberal arts closet in New Hampshire, I was eager for a big-city celebration. Compared to the Animal House image of college life, my experience was more closely likened to a horny, inebriated monk’s diary. I was jazzed for Pride.
A photograph of us captured in all our street-stomping glory appeared in the following day’s Boston Globe. Although I don’t have a clipping of the photo, it’s comforting to know that moment is preserved in time somewhere, as I’ve never truly enjoyed Pride since.
Other gay men I know seem perplexed by my lack of enthusiasm. I could blame it on commercialization and corporate sponsorship, but that’s hardly what irks me. Really, it’s about a series of unfortunate interactions that cumulatively ruined it for me, all rooted in the plain fact that I don’t like the way we gays treat each other. And although this has kept me from feeling a communal sense of pride, it hasn’t prevented me from developing my own personal pride regarding who I am, what I am, and the face I show the world each day.
My second year in Boston, my boyfriend and I fought about going to the parade. We fought about it repeatedly and viciously. He didn’t like crowds and was loath to deal with anything “big and gay.” Maybe he understood something I hadn’t yet wrapped my head around, but at the time it was an ugly, near-deal-breaking bone of contention between us. I felt strongly that it was something we should be able to do as a couple. By the actual day of the parade, I was so drained from arguing the topic I almost didn’t bother going. But I’d recently gotten a new camera and I wanted to try capturing some of the spirit I’d felt the previous year in photographs. A decade later, I hung some of the resulting images in coffee shops throughout the Boston-metro area.
The 1990s progressed and that relationship ended, but Pride never regained its luster. More and more it just seemed like an excuse for sloppy queens to descend en masse and make a mess. Afterwards, the city looked like a twink’s brain had repeatedly exploded through the streets, striking a sharp contrast to Boston’s otherwise uber-tidy facade. Colorful flyers, drink cozies, promotional tchotchkes, makeup cases, mounds of beads, noisemakers, boa feathers, and rainbow-colored leis littered my neighborhood, mixed with a telling variety of individually wrapped condoms: Yup, the gays had come through.
My then-blossoming dual love affair with booze and cocaine did nothing to make Pride seem more fun. I was usually resentful that I hadn’t been invited to any of the A-list, pre-parade cocktail events, which I couldn’t have enjoyed anyway since I could never afford to take the weekend off from whatever restaurant was employing me. Instead, I’d witness the messy aftermath as I walked to work later in the afternoon, having overslept the parade with a nasty hangover.
After work, the bars were usually overrun with irritable out-of-towners, creating a half-hour wait for drinks while whining about how our Pride paled when compared to Toronto’s, LA’s, Chicago’s or New York City’s.
Irony of ironies, Pride seemed to bring out the worst in us.
I’d hear stories about couples that came to Boston together for Pride only to end up running into trouble: One of them cheated, locking the other out of the hotel room; someone took a lot of Special K and went MIA; this one got arrested after passing out drunk in a ditch while that one wrapped a car around a pole on Storrow Drive; someone else got into a fist fight with so-and-so’s boyfriend over accidentally spilling his drink and needed to go to the ER. It was like a full-moon-Friday-night on steroids and it made me wonder: Who the hell were these people and why had they come? What, exactly, do we have to celebrate together? And do we really have to hear the nine-minute Thunderpuss remix of Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” yet again?
A couple years later, I got sober. It was a necessity, I wasn’t functioning very well. Even through my perpetually mind-altered haze in the 1990s, however, I had always associated the concept of pride with an inner sense of esteem—still do. And, in order to build esteem, one must perform “esteemable acts,” right? Otherwise, what we’re really talking about is false pride.
But in my newly minted sobriety, I also hoped that maybe I’d be able to see the annual celebration of the same name with fresh eyes.
No such luck.
One year in, I marched with the Sober & Proud group in Boston, but all was not well. The guy I was seeing—also sober—was annoyingly tantalized by the influx of “fresh meat” that Pride had brought into the city and wanted to spend the evening on the prowl. Worse yet, he seemed not to understand why this was upsetting to me. Not only was I bummed out by this turn of events, it also reinforced the negative associations I was trying to move beyond. In this case, Pride became threatening—it was here to take something away from me. At the end of the parade, on the green at the Boston Commons, I ended up making a scene while all these hissing, bead-laden bitches looked on in judgment. “What’s got her all bent out of shape??”
The next year, I skipped the parade and opted instead for a big drag show at a local bar with a bunch of other sober guys. I’d candidly photographed the headlining performer applying lipstick back in that 1993 parade, and I blew up a fresh 8x10 to present to her before the show. I’d gotten many compliments on how the shot captured a mix of beauty and attitude, and I genuinely thought she’d be happy to receive it as a gift.
“You been hanging that up in public places?” she barked at me. I could swear I heard something snap in her neck and saw dark steam erupting from those pointy ears. “Honey, you ain’t got the right!” She tore up the photo and threw the pieces into the air, and that nasty, trashy witch told me, “Get the fuck out my space.”
When I think about it now I just get angry, but back then I was deeply hurt. I felt winded, like someone had punched me in the stomach. I left without saying goodbye to my friends.
In the 11 years since then, the closest I’ve come to attending a Pride event is seeing Erasure. Most years I write about something going on at Pride and help promote it on some level, but I don’t show up. See, I didn’t get sober to stand around with a group of people harshly judging one another and pretend that we’re all happy together and unified in our big gay boat—because we’re not. We’re evil toward one another all too often, and I refuse to pretend about that. Pretending was part of my drinking. It has no place in my sobriety. Where is our compassion for each other, our collective empathy, and a sense of humility about the strides we’ve made? We’re so busy wanting more—righteously demanding more—that we never stop to appreciate the freedoms we’ve achieved.
Perhaps not directly related to Pride but still relevant, I was repeatedly shocked by the nasty behavior between gay men during my two years down in Austin. The most startling example had to do with a guy who’d expressed an interest in dating me that I didn’t reciprocate. He became jealous of a friendship I’d struck up with another man who happened to be HIV-positive and began telling people that I was a “bug chaser.” (For those who don’t know, bug chasers are people looking to purposefully become infected with HIV, and yes, they really do exist.) He told anyone who’d listen that I’d repeatedly had unsafe sex with my HIV-positive friend in an effort to get myself “pozzed up.” This was a groundless fabrication—pure lies. But I was fairly new in town, the community was small, and the damage was done. Now, lots of people have HIV and are open about disclosing their status. I see no shame in that at all. But actively pursuing infection depicts rather serious self-destruction and mental illness, and that’s what really bothered me.
When I say I don’t like the ways we treat one another, I’m not talking about surface cattiness and all-in-fun joking around. I’m talking about deeper humiliations that reveal serious flaws in character. Vicious personal assassinations and vindictive, vile betrayals. If we could stop waving our fingers and defiantly shifting our neck muscles from side to side for a few minutes, maybe we’d remember that a little kindness goes a long way.
I’m thankful that I don’t need to look to Pride for validation of my sexual freedom or to celebrate my personal identity. What I really need are other homosexuals in my life that I can depend on and trust. No parades, no fireworks, no costumes or performances from aging house-music-has-beens— don’t need any of that. I just need good people who know how to treat other good people. Without that, the rest is meaningless.