Of the many sights and sounds from the largest LGBTQ Pride event in the world held in my hometown of New York City this weekend, two things were different than in any other year. If you looked past the glitter of the drag queens and the gritty homemade signs of grassroots gays, things I've been accustomed to seeing for the past 15 years, what stood out this year was the overwhelmingly high number of people who weren't lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in attendance — and the increased number of major companies supporting us queers.
My first Pride in the '90s had roughly one corporate float — Coors Light. As I recall, at the time, it was the middle-aged lesbian and dieting gay boy's beverage of choice (and a true sign that our community drank too much, because bars were the only safe places we could gather, and because we had plenty of reasons to want to bury our shame and isolation). Coors was an early adopter of niche marketing to the LGBTQ community. This was several years before Starbucks showed up at Pride, along with other brands that were birthed with an ethos of progressive values. The vast majority of Fortune 500s were nowhere to be seen, their still-closeted employees hiding from the cameras lest they be outed and fired.
There was always a one-off straight guy standing on the sidelines of the parade holding an "I'm proud of my lesbian sister" sign, which earned him rolling cheers from the queer people marching by. And there were always tourist families from the Midwest who were just looking for somewhere to eat lunch and stumbled, wide-eyed, upon the rainbow cacophony. But for the most part, the closest our straight counterparts came to Pride was when they haphazardly trampled on the "God made me gay" stickers that littered the street as they made their way to work the next day. Of course, there were always the anti-LGBTQ groups, generally cordoned off on one particular street along the parade route. We were warned not to engage as they waved hateful signs and hurled epithets at us on the one day we were supposed to be free from the vitriol.
This year, though, the haters were nowhere to be seen, and there were allies of all shapes and sizes, not just there to gawk on the perimeter but to march alongside us. They donned rainbow and glitter and cheered in harmony with us, and they Instagrammed their big, gay day without fear of repercussion or judgment. They didn't slink quietly along and duck in pictures, worried someone might think they were gay. They stood tall with us and let the world know that being a sexual minority was not only okay, it was absolutely fabulous. There were even straight teens who seemed to be there not because they were queer or wanting to support the cause, but just because it was a cool scene they wanted to be a part of.
No grandma could say the gays were too flashy or flamboyant this year, because many of the images were as wholesome as a Betty Crocker recipe.
Local news aired images of families and allies and corporate floats rather than honing in on the most sensational visuals of naked gay boys lacquered in glitter paint, like they had nearly every year prior. No grandma could say the gays were too flashy or flamboyant this year, because many of the images were as wholesome as a Betty Crocker recipe: visuals of little kids waving rainbow flags between their two moms.
Even Hillary joined the ranks, marking the first time a presidential candidate marched in the parade. And less than 24 hours after the biggest Pride event in the world, the Pope declared that Christians worldwide should ask for forgiveness for discriminating against LGBTQ people in the name of religion.
For many of us who grew up gay in secret, or else paid the price for our public display of authenticity with fear of violence, this new world order is mind-boggling. Like a puppy that has lived his whole life in a cardboard box in a dark alley and suddenly gets whisked into a mansion with a large, plush puppy bed, the acceptance and mainstreaming is a positive but jarring experience. We found one another because the rest of society rejected us, and through the pain, we found joy. We embraced that we were different, celebrating those corners of our identities that were beautiful. We knew who we were; we weren't afraid of sex or expression. We were colourful and loud and, perhaps because our lows were so low, our highs reached new heights. Many of us convinced ourselves we were content to exist on the fringe and to inhabit a space that was, in many ways, more electric and fulfilling than white picket fences and sexual repression. For some, life free of the institutions that the majority inhabits will always be preferable.
Despite my gratitude for the equal rights we’ve achieved, I’m also concerned that we’re losing our uniqueness as a community. A Kleenex stunt, in which the company surprised a gay couple getting married with a party and a giant wall of tissues that spelled out "Love Wins," felt more contrived than heartwarming. Two decades ago, we would have never believed this level of marketing dollars would be thrown at our community, but standing knee-deep in it now, I wonder whether the pendulum might have swung too far in the other direction.
That said, I know that you can't parse out progress from mainstreaming. I can't have my equal wedding cake and kick corporate sponsorship to the curb, precisely because that's what helped us get here. If our non-LGBTQ friends and family hadn't started standing by our sides, we wouldn't have the more than 1,000 rights that came with marriage equality. Without mainstream support, tears from the Orlando tragedy would have been confined to the LGBTQ community like they have been so many times before. I can't speak for others, but I've begrudgingly come to the decision that I'm willing to retire my marginalised hat in exchange for a safer future.