I was a tender young thing the first time I saw footage of a gay Pride parade.
This would have been sometime in the ’80s when my own sexuality was raw and doughy and I had yet to fully realize what my erotic daydreams in the middle of math class were really about.
My family had been assembled in front of the television after dinner watching a news station out of Toronto. Amid the latest headlines and international crises, a man dressed in a summer frock made a sudden, inexplicable appearance on the television set. The Pride festival had been in full swing in downtown Toronto and the roving reporters and camera people were out in force to document the entire decadent spectacle.
I sat quietly as leather clad men and women trumpeted same-sex rights, as drag queens sashayed proudly down Church St, as conservatively dressed people held hands and chanted, as sailors pranced and prattled on exquisite floats and amused spectators looked on.
Feeling as though some tell-all spotlight was shining on me, I did my best to remain cool and calm, as if the slightest thing would out me to my family.
I was successful at covering up my embarrassment and my wonder until the reporter asked a reveller to speak his mind. I can still hear him clearly: “If everyone who is gay, lesbian or bisexual were to wake up one day and discover their skin had turned blue… then you would see just how many of us there are.”
Although I have the tendency to let my imagination get the better of me, I knew there was no way this could actually happen. Still, sitting in such close quarters with my family, I could sense my face turn a certain shade of red.
Eventually I would make that long, arduous climb out of the closet and live my life as a gay man. When I did, I saw very little merit in gay Pride parades.
Without any sense of history or awareness of the political climate in other parts of the world, I assumed these parades were an excuse to party. I did not see much of myself reflected in the stiletto-heeled queens and muscle exhibitionists that populated the festival. At 20, I would cringe at what I felt were crippling stereotypes and hedonistic conduct.
Perhaps what was most horrifying was discovering that I was more conservative than I thought I had any right to be. I would find myself saying, “Is this really necessary? Haven’t we got more rights now? Sure, I love sleeping with men but is that something to wave a banner and traipse through the city centre about?”
Nowadays, I can’t believe I was ever such a pinhead, but that is 20 for you.
Several months ago, I resolved to find out if a “gay community” truly exists. As another summer of Pride celebrations neared, I decided to take a step back and investigate how this all started. I had to know more about what Pride was truly about. The Stonewall riots of 1969 have been credited as ground zero for the modern gay rights movement. A year after gay men, lesbians and drag queens fought back against the New York police department, a march was organized to bring light to the event and the demand for equal rights. Pride evolved from political aspirations of the ’60s and ’70s and became an accessible forum for members of the community to lend their faces and voices to the cause.
In 1978, the artist Gilbert Baker popularized what had been deemed the Freedom Flag. The multicoloured flag, as a symbol of diversity and unity, became something of a badge of honour after the assassination of Harvey Milk. As many parts of the Western world became more accepting of queer issues, the political justification for the festival gave way for shameless celebration.
These days, I like to think of myself as a somewhat jaded human being; hardened by experience. However, something happens when I attend a Pride parade. Normally the thought of a submerging myself in a sea of strangers is quite anxiety inducing. Yet, standing underneath the summer sun, flanked on either side by marchers and onlookers, I am overcome with a curious sense of awe and (dare I say?) pride.
It is one of those rare times I feel truly connected to something other than myself. This makes it difficult to feel like the lonely, alienated prat you fashion yourself to be. When the last float makes its way through the parade route and the glitter begins to settle on the emptying streets, I am reminded of just how lucky I am to be welcome in the city of Vancouver.