Near the end of June each year, parades are held in cities throughout the US and elsewhere in the world to celebrate gay pride. These marches began as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots on June 28, 1969, in which patrons of a gay bar in New York City rioted in response to a police raid and continued harassment. Originally these parades were knows as “gay freedom” or “gay liberation” marches, although over the last four decades they have come to be known more general as “Gay Pride”.
Pictures and stories in the media tend to focus on the most titillating aspects of the parade: the “Dykes on Bykes,” the naked or nearly-naked revelers, the fabulous drag queens, etc. With a mixture of confusion and derision, many in the heterosexual community (and even a few in the gay community) don’t understand what these events are about and the displays of outrageousness provoke the common refrain that gays should just “keep it to themselves” instead of “flaunting it”.
In fact, a recent post on the front page of Xanga asked the question, “Why Gay Pride?” Many of the responses echoed the themes of those who don’t understand what Pride is and its importance to members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) community.
Let me share with you my answer to the question, “What is Pride about?”
Growing up gay is, more than anything, about invisibility. You don’t see anyone like you, you have nobody to confide in, and you often don’t realize that you are not alone in your attraction to members of the same sex. This invisibility is debilitating and while there are many more examples of GLBT people in the media and in everyday life than there were a few decades ago, hundreds of thousands of young people around the world who are GLBT or questioning, continue to grow up feeling invisible.
A friend I interviewed in a university project shared this story with me: Growing up in a large immigrant family, he was convinced that his homosexual feelings were an illness, a sickness that only he had ever experienced. He kept this secret buried deep inside and it was taking a toll on his health, his studies, and his wellbeing. One weekend in June he took the subway into the city to do some shopping and as he emerged from underground, he found himself in the middle of a large parade. As he stopped to watch, he had a dawning awareness that all of the people at the parade were just like him. Suddenly he realized that he wasn’t alone, that there was a huge, colorful, and proud community of others who felt they same way he did. Needless to say, it was a life-altering and possibly even life-saving event for him.
Why the drag queens? Why the blatantly sexuality? The media loves to focus on the things that are most outrageous and that will make the best photos and headlines. But these members of the GLBT community play an important role in Pride. The Stonewall Inn, the gay bar whose raid led to the Stonewall Riots, was frequented primarily by the most marginalized members of the gay community: the drag queens, transvestites, transgendered people, and effeminate men.
They were the ones who led the riots against the police, fighting back against years of abuse and oppression. Embracing this outrageousness is a way to remember that it was the most outrageous members of the GLBT community who first stood up for all of our rights. Plus, what’s a parade without some frivolity?
In my mind, the most important and most prideful parts of Gay Pride events are the contingents of GLBT families, friends, and straight allies, a representation of every stripe of the larger community, fulfilling the promise in the Gay Pride symbol, which is the rainbow flag. Is the man above a gay father? The brother of a gay sibling? The son of a gay parent? The friend of a gay person? Or just a member of the larger community who wants his daughter to appreciate the breadth of diversity in their community and to learn to respect each member of it?
We don’t know the answer to that question but the fact that there are so many possible answers tells every person who is still in the closet, who is still struggling with his or her invisibility, that he or she is not alone. And that, for me, is what Gay Pride is really about.