If you want to know what a 14-year-old closeted gay kid’s worst nightmare looks like, I can tell you that being taken to San Francisco’s Gay Pride Celebration for the first time by your parents is very high on the list (maybe tied with one where you show up to high school naked, in nothing but socks and sandals). But 10 years ago, this was not so much a bad dream as it was a reality.
My dad announced we’d be going to the parade as a family because “it would be fun to watch” and “sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone.” I pointed out that we were already having a blast watching TV at home, and if we wanted to get out of our comfort zones later, we could always visit a slaughterhouse, or a prison. My sarcastic protests were ignored.
At the parade, it was total sensory overload: rainbows, glitter, balloons, go-go boots, leather underwear, tassels, sailor outfits, and assless chaps galore! I spent equal amounts of time taking it all in as I did focusing on not making eye contact with strangers. Logically, I knew nobody was going to approach my parents and yell, “Hey, your son is gay!” but I couldn’t shake the irrational feeling that if it could happen, it would be then and there. At the time, my game plan regarding my sexuality was to never tell a soul and if I was ever discovered (via an uncleared Internet history, perhaps), I would stage my death and start a new life in France. I may not have been comfortable being gay at the time, but I was very comfortable with a flair for the dramatic.
I survived the fanfare, and afterward my family went to lunch to talk about all we’d seen. When it was my turn to chime in, I could feel my parents’ eyes on me, more intent than usual. Attending the parade had simply been something fun and new for the family to go watch, but I’m sure they couldn’t help but wonder if it triggered any revelations for their somewhat effeminate son. I chose my words carefully, expressing that I didn’t really like the parade because I thought if gay people (not me!) wanted everyone to treat them normally, then they should act normally.
“Yes, there were gay teachers, politicians and activists,” I explained, “but who will remember any of that next to a whip-wielding fetishist in a mesh thong?”
I recall my dad chuckling and dismissing my cynicism with an “Oh Wes, don’t be such a homophobe!” I wish I could say the comment shamed me in some way, but mostly I was happy that I seemed more homophobic and less homosexual. Maybe nobody could hear me when I sang "Hit Me Baby One More Time" in the shower?
Fast-forward a decade and much growing up, I found myself in my room getting ready to attend S.F. Pride once again (still singing along to Britney Spears). This time however, instead of dread, all I could feel was excitement and anticipation. I was bracing myself to spend 72 hours in party-mode, drinking and dancing with my friends, but I still had some reservations about the notion of celebrating "Gay Pride."
In general, I reserve feelings of pride for my achievements and my abilities. While I am certainly not ashamed of my sexual orientation, I am no more proud of being gay than I am proud I have brown hair. My gayness is an unchangeable fact of life, and while I no longer feel the need to hide it, I also don’t feel the need to flaunt it. I’d planned to use Pride as an excuse for a three-day bender, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t justified in doing so.
Friday and Saturday went by in a blur of rainbows, vodka, and pop music. Pride was everything I remembered and more, only this time I wasn’t afraid to be there. I had conversations with countless people throughout the weekend and was reminded just how diverse the LGBT community truly is. People wished each other "Happy Pride" in the streets, as merrily as one might wish someone "Happy Holidays" in the month of December. I ended up putting aside my skepticism regarding the validity of the whole event and just let myself have fun — there wasn’t a whole lot of time to sit and contemplate, anyway.
Saturday night, after attending The Pink Party in the streets of Castro, we headed to a friend’s apartment to unwind; have a few more drinks, listen to music, play cards around the coffee table, and it was here I finally had the chance to take a breath and reflect. I looked around at all the faces in the room, everyone looking so comfortable, so at ease, and that’s when I realized it: I felt at ease too. And as soon as I become conscious of just how happy and relaxed I felt, in a room full of gay men, straight men, gay girls, and straight girls and realizing just how little it all actually mattered, that’s when I started to feel, well, proud.
In the last 10 years the gay community has come a long way. Same-sex marriage has been legalized in 13 states plus Washington, D.C., "don’t ask, don’t tell" has been repealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declared DOMA unconstitutional and invalidated California’s Prop. 8. Gallup polls now report more than half of Americans believe “that being gay is morally acceptable,” and we finally have a president who believes the same, and I’m proud of the LGBT activists who made that possible.
But, on a much, much smaller scale, down to a personal level that nobody cares about but me, I’m proud of how far I’ve come, too. Sometimes we get so caught up in moving forward, we forget to look back to where we started to gain perspective. At 14, so closed-minded and so scared of seemingly everything, I could never have imagined just how confident and happy I would be today.
So no, I may not feel comfortable in assless chaps, but that’s not really what Pride is about. It’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin, no matter who you are, and that’s what I was celebrating. That’s what I was proud of.
WES JANISEN is a writer and blogger living in San Francisco. Feel free to say hi to him on Twitter, @wesjanisen