June 17, 2010
When people ask me whether I'm "proud" to be gay, the question always makes me a little uncomfortable. Part of my discomfort probably comes from having been raised Roman Catholic, so when someone says the word "pride," the first thing that pops into my mind is an image of one of the stony-faced nuns from my Catholic grammar school, delivering stern warnings about giving in to "the sin of pride." Thus, at an early age, I was taught that pride was a bad thing.
And religious indoctrination aside, I'm really not sure I can be proud of being gay. After all, my being gay isn't some kind of personal accomplishment. I was born this way, so being proud of my sexual orientation would be a bit like being proud of the fact that I have brown hair. Can I really be proud of a personal characteristic, something that I had absolutely no role in bringing about?
Maybe I'm just being too much of a lawyer here. Perhaps I'm defining the word too literally. It could be that the best way for gay people to look at pride is as a process. In other words, becoming proud is the end result of the emotional and psychological development we call "coming out." As we shed the shame and fear instilled in us by society's homophobia, we exit the dark and guilt-ridden world of the closet. Gradually, we reach a state of self-acceptance and mental peace. I think that end state may be what we're talking about when we say "pride." This process is a long and arduous one for many of us, and while I don't believe there's any one thing that changes our mindset from that of the closet to one of pride, I do believe that there are certain defining moments along the way.
So I'd like to tell you about one of those moments in my personal journey to pride. It's going to take you back more than twenty years to the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (If you were too young to be there or weren't able to make it, you can find video of the event here, here, and here.) It was October 1987, and frankly, if you were gay at the time, things were pretty bleak. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and people were dying right and left for lack of effective treatment. Ronald Reagan was president, and his administration's utter indifference to the plight of people with AIDS meant we could hope for no assistance from our own government. On top of that, not a single state legally recognized same-sex relationships, and very few states and localities provided protection from discrimination. To complete the picture, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the previous summer in Bowers v. Hardwick that the Constitution permitted states to criminalize sex between persons of the same gender.
When the march took place, I'd been "out" for several years. But something fundamental changed for me on that October 11th almost 23 years ago. I marched among hundreds of thousands of members of my community, who crowded the streets, sidewalks, and gathering places of Washington, D.C. Although I'd always known in my mind that there had to be plenty of other LGBT folks in the country, suddenly to be almost crushed among their numbers was something akin to an epiphany (if I may borrow another word from my Catholic school days). In an instant, I realized deep down that I was not alone. I was, in fact, part of something much greater than myself. No longer did I feel isolated, atomized, and separated from my LGBT brothers and sisters. For that day, we were one. Official Washington was compelled to look out on a great and powerful mass of Americans, all exercising our right to demand redress of grievances from our government.
The realization seemed to crystallize for me in one particular instant. I was returning from the march on the subway, and like so many of my fellow marchers, I got off the train at Dupont Circle station. The packed train disgorged what seemed like thousands of LGBT passengers onto the platform, and I waited in an endless line for the escalator. While still at the bottom, I looked up to the top of the moving stairway and saw a middle-aged gay man turn around and look out over the jammed platform. He raised his fist and shouted simply, "Yeah!" As if speaking with a single voice, all of us joined in the cry, and the entire station erupted in a righteous roar.
One man raised his voice and called forth from us the same response. From many, one. E pluribus unum. In unity, strength. On that day, I think I glimpsed the true meaning of pride, as my hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters marched with me toward it.
Read more of Outlier: My Unusual Journey With HIV, fogcityjohn's blog, at TheBody.com.