It’s been a tragic and rough 2 weeks for us all. Many of us are still reeling from what happened in Orlando. Others of us are trying to make sense of that and I know our friends in the UK and the EU are right now wondering WTF just happened in the wake of a historic vote and what does this brave new world mean. I have no advice for you beyond just grab on to whatever railing you can and hang on, I guess.
In the wake of all of this, I decided I actually did want to talk about Pride this year. In spite of the wrenching horror of Orlando, I think it’s important to talk about Pride.
The first Pride parade I participated in was around 1990 (shut up! #oldbag). It was in Denver, and I was really nervous because I wasn’t really that publicly out. I mean, my family knew and my friends and a few of my grad school colleagues did, too, but for the most part, I didn’t talk about being a lesbian. It was dangerous to do that, just as it still is for so many of us. (If you’re interested, this is a great piece on the history of Pride in CO. 1990 it was renamed PrideFest and the GLBT Community Center of Denver took over its management.)
I went to Pride that June, and holy crap, there were HUNDREDS of people there. HUNDREDS marching down Colfax Avenue, past the Capitol building (for those of you from Denver, you know whereof I speak). I walked IN the parade, and the street was lined with cheering LGBTQ people and no doubt allies and I was lost in this crowd, someone who didn’t stand out for coming out and it was the coolest feeling, because I could let my guard down and just BE, and know that I was in a crowd of people who had my back on that day.
Two years later, with the Amendment 2 battle in full-swing in Colorado (see this for the history of that shittiness and Oregonians were facing an even worse heinous-ness in Ballot Measure 9), I was in London (yes, THAT London), and was able to participate in the very first Europride, which was THOUSANDS of people. THOUSANDS of LGBT people from all over the world, marching in a vast sea of humanity that stretched for MILES. I’m not making that up. At one point, the people I was with stopped at a pub for a pee break (and a pint) and we were in there for a good 45 minutes and when we left, the march was STILL GOING ON. So many people, so many different people, from all kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. . .it was gorgeous.
That was the first time I really understood that there is a global community of LGBTQ people and allies, that we really ARE everywhere. I can’t tell you the comfort that gave me, and how profound it was to hook into that sense of an overarching global LGBTQ community. It changed my perspective and down the line, I would realize that it changed my life.
Good thing, too, because the fall of 1992 brought the passage of the anti-LGBTQ Amendment 2 in Colorado (which was later overturned by the Supreme Court). In the wake of that — in which 53% of my fellow Coloradans voted to ensure that I as someone who fell under the LGBTQ rubric would not have any legal recourse should I be discriminated against because of being LGBTQ — I tried to hold onto that sense of community I’d experienced at Europride and the Pride festivals before that.
And I clung to the other community centers where I could go and just BE.
The clubs and bars, friends. I’ve never been much of a drinker, but hell yes I loved to dance. Denver had quite a few LGBTQ bars in the 1990s, and I spent a lot of time at them. They weren’t just bars or clubs. They were also places to organize political and social events (the Interwebz hadn’t started filling these roles yet) and — at least when I was coming of age — places to provide education about HIV/AIDS. I remember walking into LGBTQ bars in the early 1990s and there would usually be a basket filled with condoms near the doorway, along with safe sex pamphlets.
The bars and clubs were judgment-free zones, and the community organized to deal with taking care of our own as AIDS devastated an entire generation of gay men. I was involved peripherally with Queer Nation during those days, and followed politics closely because often, one state’s shitty ballot measure regarding LGBTQ people could cause other states to follow suit.
For all of these reasons, this is why Pride is important to LGBTQ people. And this is also why LGBTQ bars and clubs are so important. Many heterosexual people do not understand the role LGBTQ bars have played in the lives and loves of those of us who have been marginalized most of our lives, whether by friends, blood family, institutions — whatever it is. Because they don’t understand that unlike a heterosexually-oriented bar, an LGBTQ bar has served as a community center and safe space for decades — they don’t truly understand the impact Orlando had on us. Every single LGBTQ person on this planet knows exactly what anti-gay marginalization, violence, and threat of violence feels like, and we don’t have to know each other personally to relate.
I don’t need to personally know the gay guy in Tacoma, Washington who is chased down the street by guys yelling “faggot” to relate to him. I know him because he shares a marginalized identity with me. I’ve been threatened, too. I don’t need to personally know the trans woman in Chicago who is shoved into a wall simply because she IS. I know her because she, too, shares a marginalized identity with me. And God help her, she’s one of the most marginalized and most victimized. Nor do I need to personally know the bi woman with a female partner in Nashville who is denied a job because the manager of the company attends a church that tells her that LGBTQ people are sinful or an abomination. I know her because she shares a marginalized identity with me. I’ve been denied jobs, too, because I’m not heterosexual.
All of these people are family and community. We are tied together in our shared marginalization, and further bound by the intricacies of race, sex, class, gender, and whatever other marginalizations we deal with.
LGBTQ bars have thus historically served as the hearts and souls of LGBTQ communities. They’re not just watering holes. They’re where we go to build families that don’t reject us, where we go to build networks of survival, and they often serve as a nexus for political and social change. Because of these things, they’ve also been the sites of horrific violence, directed specifically at those of us who are LGBTQ, for the sole purpose of terrorizing us and making us pay for daring to live publicly, even if it’s in the dark, comfortable confines of a bar.
This is why Orlando affected us so deeply. I didn’t personally know any of the 49 who died. But I did know the safety they sought in the confines of an LGBTQ club, where for a little while, they could be who they are, beyond the recrimination of everyday anti-gay microaggressions, and for many of them, the daily recriminations of microaggressions based on race.
They were all part of my LGBTQ family, and as I’ve been sifting through the grief of that horrible day, I’ve been heartened by the overwhelming response and support from LGBTQ people and allies around the world. Vigils in countries outside our borders. Memorials. Statements from political leaders around the world.
Back in 1992, I didn’t imagine that globally, we were on the cusp of truly engaging in and building a world community of queer family and allies, or that people would be trying to be supportive of us as we deal with the effects of a terrible backlash for gains we’ve made. I could feel something shifting that day in London in 1992, but I couldn’t quite visualize where things would go.
Seeing it now — I’m heartened on some levels. But there’s a lot of work yet to do, my friends. We must not forget that.
That’s why Pride is important. It helps us remember where this family and this community came from, and what it’s done over the years to get to this place. We have proven for decades — centuries — that we are survivors, and we’ve turned that grit and determination into fabulous organizing and community-building skills. Tap into those. Take comfort in them, and in the knowledge that we are everywhere, and we can continue to build and support each other and expand our umbrellas to reach out to others in other marginalized communities and create even more networks and infrastructures.
Yes, we’ve lost many along this road. So goddamn many. Let us honor our grief, honor their memories, and continue the work.
This is what I intend to do, and this is why I will be attending a Pride event this weekend.
Love to you all, and happy Pride.
And if you’re so inclined, share your first Pride experiences in the comments. Or first bar experiences. Share some stories, friends!
History of Pride, American Experience
Before Stonewall (film)
Stonewall Uprising (film)
Last Call at Maud’s (film; lesbian bar documentary)
Small Town Gay Bar (documentary about the role LGBTQ bars have played in the deep South)
Paris is Burning (documentary, ball culture in NYC and the Black, Latino, and transgender people involved in it)