We're revisiting this essay in honour of the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Being proud of who you are doesn’t just happen. At least, it didn’t for me. Though I came out as gay to my friends at 16, it look me eight more years to tell my family. During that time, I was the only out kid at my small, Midwestern high school, and then one among many at a very liberal college, most of whom seemed much more comfortable in their skin than I did. Over those years, some people in my life became incredible allies; others were cruel. Eventually, I stopped wishing I were someone else and accepted who I was, but I didn’t know what it meant to be proud until I experienced my first Pride parade.
It was the summer before my senior year at Vassar, and I was living on my own in New York for the first time, taking a journalism class at NYU. I stepped out of my dormitory on 5th Avenue in time to hear the roar of motorcycles approaching. They were, as I’d later learn, affectionately known as Dykes on Bikes, the very start of the march. I asked the nearest person what was happening, and that was the first I’d heard of the parade. I staked out a spot in the front row and called my two best friends, telling them to hurry over.
I’d never seen so many queer people in one place — or ever, really. Drag queens on roller skates, dancers in sky-high headdresses, chiseled men gyrating atop massive floats, topless women handing out fliers for suicide hotlines... It was more than I’d imagined was out there for me — a community that wanted not only to embrace me, but to celebrate me for who I was. I was transfixed by the procession from beginning to end. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the crowd under the hot sun of a perfect June day, I felt a giddiness in my chest that hadn’t been there even hours before. It was the first time I felt proud of who I was, and thankful that I wasn’t anyone else.
After I’d moved to New York and spent several summers watching the parade, trying to recreate that first magical day, I began marching in it myself. A friend had taken a job with the It Gets Better Project, whose mission is to let young LGBTQ kids know that there is a big, fabulous world out there beyond the bullying and harassment they may be facing now. I wish something like that had been around when I was young, and I was thrilled to spread its message until my throat was hoarse.
The year marriage equality came to the state of New York, we marched at the front of the parade, led by the project’s founder Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, who served as Grand Marshals. After a battle that had been waging for years, Pride 2011 felt like a victory lap. We chanted "It gets better!" to ecstatic crowds gathered along the route from midtown to Christopher Street, and it had never rung more true. Glimpsing friends among the spectators, I was reminded how small this city really is. It was another hot day, but the electricity in the air gave me chills. Whole families stood together holding signs for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’d handed us same-sex marriage just days before. We’d won this round and had reason to shout about it, but there was still work to do, and the fight had been reenergised.
With the Supreme Court’s passage of marriage equality nationwide last year, it felt like the war was over. I still remember working the news desk that day, editing breaking stories through tears of joy and rushing down to Stonewall afterward, roaming the streets where the movement began decades ago, feeling dazed, almost light-headed.
When Pride rolled around just days later, though, I felt ambivalent. I knew we’d just passed a major milestone, and it was time to rejoice in the victory. But Pride didn’t feel charged with the same urgency as it had those previous years. Mostly, I think I was in shock — but I also felt myself slip into complacency. The rest of the country had finally caught up, and we had won. Now what? I didn’t march; I could just barely glimpse the parade from the rooftop where I spent the day partying with friends, feeling like I should have been, well, feeling something more.
But on June 12, we were dealt a devastating reminder that the struggle isn’t over. The tragic events in Orlando last week have served as a startling and shattering wake-up call, a rallying cry that so many of us are eager to heed in any way we can. I won’t lie and say that I’m completely unafraid of gathering in a large group with my friends and allies and queer brothers and sisters. Our safe spaces carry a renewed spectre of danger, one that many of us know from history has always been there, but never imagined could play out in the loss of so many lives.
The tragic events in Orlando last week have served as a startling and shattering wake-up call, a rallying cry that so many of us are eager to heed in any way we can.
Now more than ever, standing up and being loud and proud and colourful and sexual and unabashed isn’t a choice. It’s an imperative. It’s what each of us can do to feel better, to soothe our anger and sadness, to feel proud of who we are and unafraid of those who would diminish or destroy us. And it’s what we can do together: show up in great numbers and be exactly who we are and show the world that we’re never ones to back down from a fight.
Last weekend, as the massacre unfolded hundreds of miles away, I was on a crowded dance floor too, at the wedding of a childhood friend whom I’ve loved since before I loved myself. Sweating through my tux among people I’d mostly just met, I felt so many times that feeling I long for when I get around a dance floor — obliviousness to everything else in the world but the music and the moment, one of my purest joys in life. I keep wondering how many people at Pulse were lost in the same trance that I was, or waiting around for a better song, when the scene suddenly turned into something so terrifying.
I don’t know what I’m doing for Pride this year, but I know that standing shoulder to shoulder with my community — be it on the sidewalk or at a bar or on a street corner — feels more important than ever. I know that we can’t afford to sit around and wait for things to change, that we need to speak up, vote, and mobilise to take action. I also know we can’t afford to stop chasing that feeling that washed over me that Saturday night — that there is joy in this world, and reason to celebrate the power of love.