While I met my first boyfriend in 1977, I did not attend a Pride event until I went to meet him in San Francisco in June of 1979 for one of the largest Pride events in our country. I grew up in a small, military-based, Southern city, so there were no "out" people, much less any Pride events. This was the time before the Internet, Out magazine or any "out" celebrities.
As we walked to Castro Street, I saw thousands upon thousands of LGBT people from around the world who had all come to San Francisco for its wonderful Pride event. This was the first time I had ever seen this many LGBT people at one event. Gay men were holding hands, kissing and enjoying the celebration of being who they were -- not living in hiding like they did where I lived in Florida. I was like a kid at Disney World for the first time. The sight of so many men and women being who they were was a liberating and invigorating experience. It was the first time I really felt like I "belonged." Over the course of the next three days of Pride events, I was finally able to feel comfortable in my sexual orientation. Seeing that I was raised in a military, Southern, Catholic family, it was the first time I really felt OK about being gay.
Unfortunately, the next couple of years would bring many trials and tribulations. After I moved to San Francisco to live with my partner in 1980, I also had my best friend and then my first partner lose their battle with AIDS in 1981 before being diagnosed myself in February of 1982. The reason I bring up this time period is because it had a huge effect on Gay Pride events in many major cities besides San Francisco.
Because politicians and religious leaders did their best to tie being gay and having HIV/AIDS to an immoral lifestyle and a "wrath from God," Pride events were not the festive occasions they had been before that.
We had a Pride in 1983 where I remember my HIV/AIDS-infected brothers being shunned. Some were even so callous as to call them the "walking dead" because of wasting and opportunistic infections. It was the first time I remember crying at a Pride event. Crying because so many wonderful, talented men were dying. Many had lost their jobs, housing and friends all because of living with a virus. Many forget the '80s, when, before Ryan White funding, we took care of our dying with the money left by the dead -- the time before AIDS service organizations when we only had each other to count on to be there.
Luckily, we now have lifesaving HIV medications, AIDS service organizations, activists, HIV publications and other services. But every now and then, I think back to the time when Pride meant being there for each other when a person was losing their battle with AIDS and we knew we only had each other to depend on as it was happening. To me, that will always be the real meaning of friendship ... someone who is there no matter what.
Wishing all of you a bear-y great Pride this year. While celebrating what we have to be proud about today, remember to take a moment to remember all those who gave their all, whether on issues of living with HIV/AIDS or LGBT sexual orientation issues.
Big bear hug,
Daddy Dab and Dab the AIDS Bear
Daddy Dab Garner is a longtime activist and the founder and CEO of Dab the AIDS Bear Project.