I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t have a lot of familiarity with Key West, Fla., before I was given the honor of serving as grand marshal for its 2014 Pride festivities. I wasn’t aware of the island’s history of being a gay enclave with dozens of gay guesthouses back when LGBT people didn’t have many options to vacation in places that were accepting to us. I didn’t know that the great playwright Tennessee Williams created so many of his works there. I didn’t know that it was the home of so many wonderful LGBT people and allies who work very hard to make their place in the world an incredible one for the community. Luckily for me, I had a whole week to figure it out.
For one amazing week in mid-June, I was able to spend time in this wonderful place and meet its amazing citizens while sharing portions of my memoir, Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Army as an invited guest of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, judging the Mr. 2014 Pride competition at local gay haunt, the Bourbon Street Pub, and spending time with a chief organizer of the event who, during the course of the week, became a good friend.
I’d never served as grand marshal for a Pride parade before, and to be able to do so was a great honor and privilege. It exposed me to more of the very best thing about being a writer and LGBT activist: interacting with the LGBT community beyond the confines of the large cities of the coasts. In Key West, a gay-friendly enclave in a state that still has a long way to go toward supporting the rights of LGBT people, I was able to get to know many wonderful people who seemed so unconcerned with some of our big-city gay problems.
In larger cities, we can sometimes take our status as LGBT people for granted. We’re used to major Pride events sponsored by every corporation under the sun. We’re used to candidates stumping for our votes, and having the political power and influence to rally and march when our own come under attack. We’re used to being able to show affection in “safe” neighborhoods and having dozens of gay spaces to choose from when we’re ready to go out and have a good time. It is so easy to abandon the constraints of a smaller area and move to a big city to “be gay” when the time comes, which is why it’s so important to recognize the work of our LGBT brothers and sisters in small to medium-size communities.
What I experienced in Key West was a close-knit group of community organizers, entertainers, LGBT business owners, allies, and welcoming members of the local Metropolitan Community Church who were working together to ensure that their home was as safe a space as possible for their LGBT citizens. New York and San Francisco Prides get a great deal of attention, and rightly so as these are the birthplaces of the modern LGBT rights movement, but let’s not forget to highlight the contributions and successes of those in smaller towns. They are more likely to reside in a state that doesn’t have marriage equality. They are more likely to reside in a state where you can still be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. They need us, and when we march in our amazing pride events on the coasts, remember that we are marching for them as well.
I thank the citizens of Key West for tapping me for such an amazing honor and helping me to learn such an important lesson. I don’t know whether or not it will be my only Grand Marshal experience, but it will always be the one closest to my heart.
ROB SMITH is an openly gay Iraq war veteran, journalist, LGBT activist, and author of Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Army. He is a featured speaker at the NYC Pride Rally, which will be held at Pier 26 at Hudson River Park Friday, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. He can be found at RobSmithOnline.com.