I no longer attend San Francisco’s Pride celebration but that’s not a knock on the event at all. As I’ve gotten older I find big crowds to be less and less comfortable for me. For a number of years the AIDS/LifeCycle contingent was one of the first groups out of the gate since we were on our bikes. So we finished early, the Pride route ends not far from my front door and I missed most of the big crowds. It really is a wonderful thing to be heading down the street while being cheered on by hundreds of thousands of people. 2015 was the final year we were on our bikes. In 2016 my partner’s nephew was visiting us for his high school graduation present from the two of us. He was in the process of coming out as gender fluid with an affinity for drag, a truly courageous thing to be doing in a small town in eastern Montana. So we walked together for the first hour and a half of the parade but then we had to depart. While I no longer attend the actual march and fair that doesn’t mean I dismiss it. I generally spend the afternoon attending the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival which concludes today. That’s my personal way of celebrating Pride. And make no mistake, Pride is still important, even more so this year for reasons I think should be obvious.
An ongoing controversy within the LGBT community is that either Pride has become a freak show or that Pride has become sanitized and commercialized. I remember hearing those sorts of rants way back in the 1970s. It was old then and even older now. As for the “sanitized and commercialized” argument there is some validity to that suggestion in some places, but is notably not the case in San Francisco, thank goodness. The “freak show” argument, as far as I’m concerned, not only has no validity; it also misses the entire point of the event.
My first Pride was New York's in 1977. I came out right AFTER the 1975 event. I watched the '76 march while having brunch just off of 7th Avenue somewhere. That was the last year we were relegated to 7th Avenue; by '77 we had arrived as far as the City was concerned. I've no doubt that some of the people I saw at my first Pride made me a bit uncomfortable but that didn't cause me to judge them; it was for me simply a reminder that I had plenty of self-acceptance left to walk through (a process I don't think ever really ends). And after that I just saw the "unacceptable" members of our community not only as the ones who I needed to accept but as the pioneers they really were.
Not long before my first Pride I'd become friends with the late Roger Davis whose picture appears above; we were roommates in 1978 and part of 1979. Roger (I know, I've told this story here before) said to me that he had actually been at Stonewall. I didn't believe him. He was a character and knew how to spin a tale as well as anyone. But he was able to show me the pictures from the Village Voice article about Stonewall and there he was, quite clearly, in the midst of a group of people all across the spectrum of gender expression, all of them young, and Roger is about the whitest person in the group. Roger and I both turned 18 just before Stonewall; he was I think nine days younger than me. But at the time I was a virgin and didn't even realize I was gay. Roger had come out when he was 13. It speaks volumes to me that he was one of two white boys in the photos. The lesson about who the real pioneers in the fight for our freedom were came from that picture and from his stories. Roger passed away from AIDS in 1992. I cannot think about Pride without thinking of him.
I owe any number of things to Roger. He taught me how to use a camera and a darkroom. While developing film and making prints by hand is time-consuming and complicated, he introduced me to a hobby that has meant the world to me for 45 years now. He also how to get wasted without spending much money. That’s a skill I no longer use but at the time it seemed worthwhile and more than a bit hilarious. The last time I saw Roger, in 1986, he had been sober for a year. I got sober a couple of years later. I lost touch with Roger following that last encounter. I found out about Roger’s death only by virtue of being a volunteer at the AIDS Memorial Quilt display on the National Mall. When I reconnected with a mutual friend who was also his boyfriend I found out that every single one of our circle of friends from that time (basically 1976 to 1980) had passed away.
There have always been several different agendas in our movement going back to its beginnings and sometimes there is significant tension between those agendas. But we need them all.
There was the desire for us to be left alone. There was the desire for public acceptance and legal equality. And there was the demand to be accepted ON OUR OWN terms.
The Stonewall Riots ushered in the era of Gay Liberation. By the time I came along "liberation" had become secondary in priority to "activism." That wasn't actually a bad thing and in fact it was necessary at the time because it allowed us to experience a sense of empowerment that we needed. In the early 1970s there were many areas in the US where gay bars could be and were raided by the local police on a regular basis. And that needed to stop. Gay men, primarily, were being regularly entrapped into making offers of sex to people who turned out to by undercover cops who would then arrest them on trumped up charges. It was necessary at the time to end those activities and it was further necessary to secure some basic legal recognition of our right to exist, the latter being still a work in progress over fifty years on. But the switch in emphasis to activism also caused us to lose sight of the previous emphasis on what liberation truly means.
I don't think it's false to say that the majority of LGBTQ people are actually in most respects pretty conventional. I don't think the suggestion that we're “just like everyone else, except for the part about who we happen to sleep with” is entirely wrong. But it's only a half truth and the part that's left out is the most important part that, to me, truly defines those of us who happen to be LGBTQ. We're never going to succeed in gaining our freedom and our equality if we decide to sacrifice the demand to be authentically who we each, as individuals, are. As long as we insist that people deny who they are, or even just one important part of who they are, they are in one form of closet or another. As long as people are in a closet it becomes more difficult to advocate for their legal recognition. I’m lucky to live in a city where, perhaps more than any other place in the US at least (after all we also host the Folsom Street Fair), Pride is seen as a celebration of our right and our ability to be and to live as who we really are. That need is still there and as long is not simply a cultural fact that can be taken as a given Pride will not only continue to have meaning, it will continue to be of crucial importance. Nobody has to attend a Pride parade or any other specific event. There are many ways to celebrate Pride. I hope all of us can find the way that seems most authentic to us. I also hope that nobody feels compelled to jeopardize their physical safety within their community. But the very fact that that’s a real risk for some folks, though not so much in San Francisco, is simply one more reason why Pride celebrations are needed.
Happy Pride to us all.