I’ve been out for 11 years and only been to two Pride Festivals.
It’s not from living in some asshole of America, some small town that is so small they don’t even have a Wal-Mart or so far from a metropolis that they think, like Iran, they don’t have gay people, which of course they do – we are everywhere, no matter how much you want to deny it, Mahmoud. No, I grew up 30 minutes outside of St. Louis, lived in New York City for five years, and have been in Los Angeles for three. And have deliberately avoided them.
Why? Disappointment, ignorance, and self-hate.
Let’s start with the first one.
Someone very close to me said something years ago that has always stuck with me about homosexuality: “Gay people don’t fall in love, they just have sex.” As a teenager desperately wanting love and acceptance, this struck me as a dagger to the heart, an untruth, a cold statement made by someone who possibly felt slighted and hurt that I was coming into my own without their approval. This person also had “no problem with someone being gay, but why do they have to flaunt it?” What they meant by “flaunting it” was the Parade: the nudity, the flamboyance, the drag queens, the glorification of sex. Everything that middle America used to think – and some still do – when they hear the word “gay.” Feminine. Slutty. Vapid. Strange. In vulgar parlance, a faggot. I purposefully didn’t want to go to Pride Festivals because I was not Proud of being what I thought it meant to be gay. I knew I was smart and interested in commitment and did not belong to these people.
My first Pride Festival was in St. Louis when I was 19. I only have vague memories of this event. My best friend Jennie and I met outside her weekend haunt, this lesbian bar, Novak’s, the interior of which had a dirty saloon type feel, a place you would expect Joan Crawford or Mercedes McCambridge to round the corner in their flannel. Mike was there (back when he was still gay – I have yet to figure that one out), in his signature polo and jeans and those boots he wore with everything, along with Jennie’s dog, baring his own rainbow neckerchief, panting at the end of his leash. I remember driving myself over the river. Did I tell my parents where I was going? And why didn’t I just pile into The Fern, Jennie’s broken down car, rank of cigarettes, ripe with dreams, that transported our gay group of rebels everywhere those last few years at home (buying my first porn, runs to Coffee Cartel where I fawned and pawned and obsessed over all the boys who didn’t give me attention, picking me up from that awful date, midnight trips to that trashy Denny’s in Collinsville, and my first AIDS test, back before I really needed one)?
Pride was in a nearby park, close to a bar where, years later on one of my “I have run out of money so I need to move home for the summer” vacations, I recreated “Vogue” from the 1990 VMAs in preparation for Ms. Gay Missouri – a drag competition in which our drag queen, Miss Jade Sinclair won, thank you very much. I remember the Pride festivities being anti-climatic, boring, and better attended by women than men. Where were all the boys? The ones to come and save me from myself? Perhaps it was my smug, ugh, I am surrounded by gays self-hate that kept them away.
I knew that gay people must be more than what we were fed in the media because I felt that I was more than the images I saw. More than Jack. More than some victim. More than some footnote in a joke. More than some Christian aberration. But at the same time, I internalized all of this laughter, all of this finger-pointing, all of this hatred from others and turned it on myself. I became a Boy in the Band. I hated admitting that I liked Madonna and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Golden Girls because, of course he would, all the fags love that shit. And if I was just another one of them, then I had to take on everything they meant, which was nothing positive in our culture. It gave me my cynicism, my sarcasm, my fear of straight men, my complete removal from the gay community. I refused to learn about AIDS because Goddamn it, we are more than that and if I linger on it we will continue to be a virus, a victim, a footnote, an aberration.
The irony is not lost on me that in my quest for love and acceptance – at an arms distance from the community as a whole for the contempt of it being nothing more than sex – I tried to find it through sex. That is what we do, isn’t it? It’s who we are, aren’t we? My two years through the streets and the sheets was a mixture of power, lust, denial, and mixed up worth. I don’t think I slept around because I didn’t think I was good enough to be loved – I always felt lovable – but because I felt that that was the way to find it. That was how gay men found it. The culture made us nothing more than rabbits without morals so why fight it? I thought, Hey sex is at least fun and it sure feels good so maybe I have been looking at this in completely the wrong way. Fuck trying to adhere to a straight man’s version of monogamy and commitment. Maybe this is just who we are. Who I am. An asshole with a person attached. Somewhere.
Of course, I was wrong. I fell in love and sex got better. Or at least more relaxed. I could turn off the obnoxious loops of “Where is this going? Why am I here? What’s his name again?” and trust and enjoy – without the fear of the Monster, amen; without condoms, Hallelujah! – the sensation and the possibilities. But despite my complete happiness and contentment at home with a man I love, I still felt disgust, shame, and contempt for other gay men, especially if they showed any signs of femininity or slutdom – You are bringing down our culture! You are continuing the stereotype! And I wish you would go away.
I never thought I would turn into some gay rights semi-activist. That of course would require me to be outspoken about homosexuality, my own especially. It has never been a secret, but I have always felt a tinge of embarrassment and fear, admitting to new people – particularly straight men – that I was gay because I never knew how they would react. Would he give me a sermon like Tom Miflin when we were working together at Taco Bell about saving my soul? Or would he ram in to me like Vince Pratt in the hallway and yell “faggot”? Obviously, neither of these things happen very often between adults – few people are that bold, unless you are a Republican running for President or a member of the Phelps Family. I lived in New York City – home to more gay people than anywhere else in the world – and over and over I met men who didn’t give a damn that I was gay, yet the fear of their hatred was so ingrained in me that I refused – or was unable – to relearn this cognitive distortion. Through age and therapy – and a confidant partner – I have learned to silence these voices, or at least muffle them almost beyond comprehension in order to get through my journeys with the outside world. But how to make them go away for future generations?
History is taught by the leaders of the pack, the ones who dominated. If you are a part of a marginalized group – whether that be race, religion, or sexuality – it’s up to you to figure out your history on your own. We learn about Columbus – but don’t learn that he was a slave trader; we learn about the Pilgrims – but not that they were a hateful group who were just as narrow minded about other faiths and peoples as the English were to them; we learn about Manifest Destiny and that the people who “cultivated” this land of purple mountain majesty were heroes doing God’s work – but gloss over the fact that they stole, slaughtered, and raped to get it from its rightful owners and then bitch and moan that these “foreigners” are invading our borders when they had the damn land in the first place; none of us want a welfare state, but don’t take the two seconds it takes to think about the institutionalized racism and corporate greed that created it; we memorize dates and Presidents, broad strokes and key figures without fully understanding how or why they fit into the fabric of our nation. How can we leave it up to biases to give us the fabric of our lives? The libertarian might say, “We are all American and no one should get special treatment or regard.” They would be right that we were all American, all a part of the larger picture, a piece of the puzzle that wants to find where it fits in, but when history is written by the powerful, where do the rest of us fit in? What makes our journey unique? What part of the wheel is our cog?
How many gay people – let alone the straight majority – knew who Harvey Milk was until Sean Penn won the Oscar? He wasn’t in my high school history book. Nor was Stonewall. Or the Mattachine Society. Or that gay people were included in the victims of the Holocaust. Or that some of the world’s greatest and most revered figures (Aristotle, Plato, Alexander the Great, Leonardo Da Vinci, Tennessee Williams, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and numerous Popes) belonged to the LGBT community. Or knew that gay sex was illegal in the US until 2003. Or that gay men and women were sent to sanitariums to be lobotomized out of their homosexual yearnings. Only 50 years ago. In America.
We overuse the phrase “life-changing.” How many things actually change our lives? Relationships – the ones that matter anyway – jobs, places we live. The big stuff. Very rarely does an artist or some distant public figure truly change anything about us or the way we interact with others. We may think they do, but usually they speak to something within us that is already there. But sometimes they uncover a side we didn’t know existed and sometimes, barely ever, they align the jumbled thoughts dancing around our heads into a cohesive message. Enter Larry Kramer.
Another figure off the mainstream radar, Larry Kramer came to me by way of Vito Russo, who came to me through Donald Bogle. In my never ending obsessive search to devour the history of cinema – an impossible, yet orgasmic task – coupled with my marital attempts to understand African-American culture and history and appease the white guilt that every socially conscious Anglo-Saxon carries deep in their bowels, I came across a book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. The idea was to peace together my own Howard Zinn quilt of American history through media, starting with black people, moving into gay people and eventually Latinos and Asians. But I never made it past The Celluloid Closet.
Vito Russo’s engaging treatise on LGBT people through (mostly) American Cinema made me realize how much I didn’t know about who we were. I knew I wanted us to be treated differently, seen differently, perceived as more than stereotype. I wanted to know where to go next. However, the only way to do that is to know where we have been. And that meant taking a long, hard look at AIDS.
When I was a teenager, my mother had a dream that I died of AIDS at 21. This haunted me for years. I felt the clock ticking. Every kiss, every encounter, and they were few and very far between at this point, felt like a potential death sentence. When I finally made it through my 21st year – still a virgin until the final two weeks – I felt a weight had been lifted, a prophecy unfulfilled. But the threat of AIDS stayed with me, thankfully, making me always take precautions in my dalliances. And if I did contract it, this would be the only cause for me to commit suicide. I refused to be an I-told- you-so statistic.
The further I got into my relationship and the threat of AIDS a very distant impossibility, the less I thought about it, except in terms of eye rolls for an irresponsible group of people who continue to carry the banner of The New Black Plague who ruin our chances of being seen as more than fucking machines. The ’70s were over. It was time to grow the hell up.
Larry Kramer’s Reports from the Holocaust was the first literature I ever read about the history of HIV. I knew it came somewhere from Africa, something to do with a monkey, and that it cropped up in America through a handful of gay men in New York City. But I had no idea of the social weight of it. This book changed everything – and my life along with it.
There’s a reason that Larry Kramer is not known in the mainstream; he is controversial. He is marginalizing, even within our own community. He is angry. And he will do whatever he thinks is right, regardless of how crazy it may seem. And because he veers from the accepted Mid-Western ideal of gay male sluts. Kramer preached sexual responsibility during the early days of AIDS, brilliantly foreshadowed in his 1978 book, Faggots, a satirical novel about a man (presumably Kramer himself) looking for love amidst a group of gay men in New York who fuck in the most extravagant, Caligulairian ways imaginable. Some gay men of the ’80s, while their Brothers were dying in droves, fought for the baths to stay open and called Kramer a traitor because he was trying to save their lives. Kramer formed the GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to raise money for HIV research and awareness, and ACT UP, a grass roots guerilla style lobby that pressured Washington for access to experimental drugs. Reports from the Holocaust is a collection of his writings to various publications, the Mayor of New York, and federal groups like the NHA, lambasting them and the Reagan Administration for not doing enough to shine a light on the AIDS epidemic, frankly stating it was because the victims were mostly gay. (Reagan didn’t even utter the word AIDS until 1987, six years into the crisis). Shit-kicker that he is, Kramer was ex-communicated from both groups he started because he was thought to be a liability to their image and their work. But for me, I had found another John Waters, another Jack Kevorkian, another hero to add to my list of how-can-I-be-like-yous. A man who stands up for what he believes in, calls the President of the United States a coward, and gets things done. ACT UP was essential in releasing HIV drugs to its patients and GMHC has become one of the world’s largest organizations dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS and bringing humanity to its victims.
This new found humanity made me look at the virus in a new light. I wanted to understand where it came from, how was it different in the grand scheme of other diseases through history, and why the gay community was “chosen” to be its American scapegoat. Reading The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS and The River removed me from the sensationalism, the moralism, and made me look at the biology. Gay men – bottoms in particular – get AIDS more than straight men and women, not because it is some curse from God, but simple mechanics. The anus, not physiologically designed for penetration, can tear or bleed upon entry; whereas, the vaginal walls are more durable and less susceptible to fissures. (Africa is another story with her rampant history of prostitution, poor hygiene, and open genital sores, giving the virus a bounty of opportunities to cross-pollinate). And the more unprotected partners you have, the more chances you have to get infected.
But promiscuity isn’t created in a vacuum. There is a very real hormonal aspect to gay men having many partners. They are men, statistically shown to have higher sex drives and less sexual inhibition than women. And you have two of them. You do the math. There are also the cultural ramifications of being treated as an outcast, as feminine, as not good enough. To prove our “masculinity” through sexual prowess. To be what we are told we are. Gay men have been called sick and dirty, evil and abnormal, and less than a man. Promiscuity is a giant middle finger to a system that doesn’t want us, a system that claims our unions shouldn’t be equal, that we don’t have the right to raise children, and that our blood is so tainted that any donation to save another fellow human being’s life is not wanted.
Circling AIDS back to The Celluloid Closet, I started watching films I had been avoiding and reevaluating the importance of ones I had seen that dramatized our struggles: Longtime Companion, Parting Glances, Philadelphia, The Broken Hearts Club. They showed us as real people, dealing with a very real problem; stories where we were the heroes. But my Gay Cinematic journey also branched outside of HIV. I sought out foreign films like Yossi and Jagger, Eyes Wide Open, and Weekend. I discovered there was a “queer cinema” before Todd Haynes and Gus van Sant. A Very Natural Thing, Saturday Night at the Baths, and Word is Out gave us worth and value, and respected our relationships. We existed long before Ellen fell in love with Laura Dern.
After I had finished Reports from the Holocaust, I sat on our couch with tears in my eyes, telling Julian that I had found my calling. “What if my talent is supposed to be used to change the world? What if I am supposed to pick up where Larry left off?” As a writer, the possibilities became endless – and endlessly maddening. How can I make a difference? How can I make gay OK? How can I make teenagers never need The Trevor Project or to hear the words “It Gets Better”? Do I write the gay version of Bringing Up Baby? Or a social allegory like Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Or…is it as simple as showing up at Pride?
It was time. Nine years was long enough. I wanted – needed – to go, to prove to myself and everyone else that Gay Pride didn’t mean drag queens and go-go boys and half naked men in glitter, but something more. Something of substance. I didn’t want to pay the $20, so I volunteered for the beverage station, passing out beer to the festival goers. I shared a margarita, out of the same glass, with a total stranger as a toast – in my own mind at least – to togetherness, to brotherhood. And then the music began and the boas emerged.
At first, I was disappointed. Of course, there were drag queens, and go-go boys, and half naked – ok, 85% naked – men parading around with their dicks in those underwear that cling to their shaft, showing everything. But there were also information booths for the Gay and Lesbian Center of Los Angeles, the largest in America, that gives free HIV care to patients, takes in exiled LGBT youth, cares for senior citizens, and is a political advocate for the community. There was the HRC, getting people to support gay marriage. There were businesses like Old Navy showing their support for the LGBT consumers. There was 100 Gay Men, whose mission is to call on gay men to unite and better themselves through community service; one branch of their organization is a program called Ask the Elders, symposiums that link the old with the young to understand our history and who we are. There was OutFest, a gay and lesbian film festival celebrating its 30th Anniversary. There was a preservation branch of UCLA Film Archives dedicated to saving gay media. There was a booth signing people up to vote. There was a tent to bring awareness and acceptance to bisexuality – the red headed step child of the LGBT universe. There was a sea of Americans wearing stickers that said NO H8.
I left Pride with a new feeling of what it means to be gay. And that like our de facto symbol, the rainbow, we are multi-colored. Some are slutty and some are not. Some are political and some are not. Some are smart and some are not. Some are sexy and some are not. We are as varied as any other group of people, priding different things, needing different things, prioritizing different things, but we are all living our own version of what it means to be gay. Or lesbian. Or bi. Or transgender. Or even queer – a word I hate for it’s definition of “strange.” But who am I to take away someone’s truth? If they feel they are queer, they are queer. If they feel they want to wear a dress, that doesn’t mean I have to wear a dress and if people think I wear a dress because they saw someone else wear a dress shouldn’t become a problem for me if I am comfortable with who I am. If someone feels they need to sleep with a different person each night, that does not alter my gayness nor my choice for monogamy and my gayness is not better than their gayness, just as same-sex marriage does not alter heterosexual marriage, nor is one better or more valid than the other. The only thing that matters is a balance in media to reflect the full prism which will bring us equality by removing the veil from ignorance.
For the misinformed onlookers, one of which I once considered myself, it is easy to forget or to not even know what Pride is all about: it is a commemoration of Stonewall, the last straw, the time where we said I’m Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore. No, sir, we will not go to jail and no, there is nothing wrong with our love, and we are here and queer and you better fucking get used to it. Pride is a time where we gather together, in all of our different shades, to stand as a community dedicated to respect and exposure. And I am proud to stand with them. I am proud to be the Brother of Harry Hay and Larry Kramer. John Waters and George Cukor. Christine Jorgenson and Jemima Wilkinson. RuPaul and Lee Daniels. Ellen Degeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. Herndod Graddick and Chad Griffin. JcPenny’s and Change.org. Evan Wolfson and Barney Frank. Even Bruce Mailman and Patient Zero. I am proud of those who refuse to fit into boxes. Who challenge and make others question their assumptions. I am proud of those with the courage to live their authentic lives, whatever they may mean or however they may be perceived, even if that is viewed negatively within the gay community. I am proud of the kids who stick it out day after day, never throwing in the towel, to a bully. I sympathize with the ones who weren’t strong enough and the people they left behind. I am proud to live in a country where the President of the United States, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State approve of my desire and right to marry a man. To live in a changing tide where the NAACP stands with us for equality. To see a seismic shift in the younger generation who are seeing past race and sexuality and seeing people. To see DADT, DOMA, and Prop 8 die. To know that TV shows like The New Normal and Modern Family made their way to network television. To have the freedom and privilege to marry the man I love. To live in a digital world where my voice can be loud and my words can be read from here to Antarctica. To know that I am far from queer and that I can be more than a faggot. To have a family who accepts me and a partner who loves me. To be free and know who I am. And that he is awesome. This is my Gay Pride.
“I must put back something into this world for my own life, which is worth a tremendous amount. By not putting back, you are saying that your lives are worth shit, and that we deserve to die, and that the deaths of all our friends and lovers have amounted to nothing.” – Larry Kramer