In this week’s creative nonfiction essay, Baltimore writer Danielle Ariano says she wasn’t always loud and proud about her lesbian status — even now, 13 years after coming out, she admits to a few mixed feelings.
Pride is a word that has always evoked certain images in my mind: a father looking on after he’s let go the back of his child’s bike seat for the very first time or a teary-eyed mother watching her son or daughter walk across a stage to receive a diploma. It’s an emotion that always connects to some sort of accomplishment, something that calls for celebration, something you can’t wait to announce to the world, to scream from the rooftops. Which is why, when I began the process of coming out 13 years ago, the idea of gay pride seemed like nothing more than an oxymoron. It was a phrase similar to those such as random order, small crowd, alone together, definite possibility, a phrase that got thrown around often, but in reality was impossible. Proud seemed like the last word I would ever use to describe my feelings surrounding the discovery of my sexuality.
On the contrary, the moment I realized I was gay I swore to myself that I would never tell another human being and I promptly went out to a bar and made out with a boy from the Naval Academy. I might be gay, I thought, but I’m never going to be gay. It was an important distinction that seemed perfectly logical, until many months later when the manager at the restaurant where I was waitressing put her hand on my knee and leaned in to kiss me. In that moment I knew that I was going to be gay because nothing had ever made me feel the way that her kiss did. With great reticence, I began to tell people about my sexuality. None of the conversations began with my saying, “I have some really great news to share…” The notion that I would ever feel proud of being a homosexual was laughable.
In fact, when I think about it, coming to terms with being gay felt more like getting diagnosed with some kind of non-fatal disease. Sure, there was a small but inevitable sense of relief because I finally understood what had been causing the symptoms I’d been experiencing for most of my life (the super-close friendships with girls that mimicked relationships right down to the dramatic breakup, that fact that in college I loved taking naps with my girlfriends much more than I ever liked sharing my bed with any guy, and the way that I sometimes felt shy and nervous around certain girls). So while it was nice that things made sense in this whole new way, more than anything I understood that living with this diagnosis was going to take a lot of adjusting. There were going to be things I’d always envisioned for myself that were no longer possible, at least not in the traditional or legal sense — big things, like getting married and having a nice, neat nuclear family. I tried to tell myself that I’d get used to being perpetually introduced as my girlfriend’s “friend” or “roommate” in a whole host of awkward situations…
The good news is that this diagnosis wasn’t fatal.
But that was 13 years ago and thankfully I have evolved, if only incrementally. Perhaps the most telling marker of my personal growth is the fact that I’ve attended Baltimore’s annual Gay Pride celebration during at least six years since coming out. Gay Pride weekend has always posed something of a challenge for me as it causes throngs of contradictory feelings to well up deep inside. For instance, at one point, if during the week leading up to Pride a coworker asked my plans for the weekend, I’d find myself spouting a vague laundry list of things I’d be doing, never once mentioning the thing I would actually be doing. I did this regardless of whether my work environment was friendly or hostile, full of open or close-minded people and even regardless of whether I was in or out of the closet at work. Which made me wonder, if I couldn’t even say that I was going to Gay Pride, did I belong there? And to further complicate the issue, my conflicted feelings only ratcheted up a notch when I arrived at the event for the first time. As I quickly learned, this celebration is not for the faint of heart.
Gay Pride is a place where scores of people set up camp in a parking lot, pitch shade tents and place beach chairs in small circles near the bumpers of theirs cars, and tailgate all day. My first time there I spied groups of butch lesbians tossing a football, women dressed in cargo shorts and sports bras with their bellies spilling over the waist of their shorts, girls you thought were boys, boys you thought were girls; there were super feminine lesbians waltzing around in string bikinis and cowgirl hats; there were legions of shirtless gay men. The clothed people wore rainbow accessories: ties, wristbands, socks, and greeted one another by saying “Happy Pride” while kissing each other on the cheek. Club music pumped from car after car, and as the day wore on, people started staggering, dancing, grinding, and making out.
Annually, all of this spectacle is topped off by the parade, which begins immediately following the high heel race down Charles Street, during which gay men and lesbians in heels, anomalies each in their own right, run down the road toward the heart of the Pride activity. The parade is chock full of drag queens and kings, leather-clad individuals, lesbians on motorcycles and a bunch of scantily clad men with hairless chests dancing down the street in shimmering underwear, glitter and, occasionally, body paint. Of course such extremities are interspersed with more tame sets of marchers from the occasional church group, gay choir, or the small but touching contingent of parents and teens who walk with a banner for an organization called PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) that features mothers and fathers who wave rainbow flags and wear shirts that say things like “I love my gay son.”
That first year I’d stood mesmerized by the stream of parade participants, wondering what the hell to make of it all. I couldn’t stop imagining what my mother’s face would look like if she had been standing next to me. It probably would have mirrored mine — mild shock mixed with slight confusion that was broken up occasionally by a crooked, amused smile. As I stared at a flamingly gay man walking around in a pair of underwear with the ass cut out and a red boa strewn about his neck, I realized that I didn’t feel proud, I felt slightly embarrassed. The same could be said as I watched the hefty woman with a mullet who was donning white tube socks underneath her Teva sandals. These were supposed to be my people, my “family” as I’d learned that my fellow gays called one another, but these two were the epitome of gay stereotypes and I didn’t want to be linked to them.
Indeed, I’d found that when I came out to someone, I much preferred when the newly informed party raised their eyebrows in mild surprise and said “Really?” to the more rare occasions when they smiled knowingly and said, “It’s about time you figured it out.” Those latter instances caused me to wonder how they had known. What had tipped them off? Was it my shoes? My hair? The way I walked? I’d come to the point where I could live with being identified as gay and even with being gay, but I had to draw the line at looking like I was gay, at least from a distance. It wasn’t the first thing I wanted people to know about me.
All these years later, I like to think that I’ve become more accepting toward all the members of my community, but even at 34, there are still times when being gay is a struggle for me. I don’t go around announcing it like I would if my kid had just cruised his or her first solo bike ride. Being gay is more something that I force myself to say out loud rather than something I shout out to anyone who will listen; it’s something I have to fight not to feel ashamed about it, but I’m glad to say that at the very least I’ve changed my mind about the phrase gay pride. It’s shifted in my mind from an oxymoron into a paradox: a seeming contradiction instead of an actual one. I’ve come to believe that it exists — it’s something I aspire to have one day. I’m not there yet, but maybe in another 13 years I’ll get there. It’s a possibility. A definite possibility.
Baltimore’s Gay Pride party happens June 16th.