June is once again upon us, and Pride is busting out all over. This weekend, Denver celebrates its annual Pride Fest, and this year, now that I suddenly find myself shacked up with something of a local celebrity in Denver’s queer community, we have splashier plans than usual. It is well known to regular readers of Mister S that I love being Proud, and it is my mission as an artist to encourage You to be Proud, too, wherever your particular, unique brand of Awesomeness may dwell. At this stage in my life, being Proud is easy and fun, and, in my fervor to see everyone around me fling loose whatever shackles are standing between them and their own brand of Pride, I often gloss over the early steps in my own journey, some of which were steeper than I would necessarily prefer to highlight. I will tell anyone who asks (and people ask all the time) that I have “always” known that I was gay. And it’s true: as far back as I can remember, deep into little kid-dom, I always knew I was “different,” even before I fully understood what that meant. But “knowing” that I was different and digging deep enough to find the courage to allow my difference to manifest itself were two very distinct processes. Knowing it was easy; going to my first Coalition to End Homophobia meeting in college and saying with a straight face (ha ha) that I was there as an “ally” rather than as an actual Queer was excruciating.
It was only a few nights later that the ridiculous way claiming not to be gay made me feel prompted to come out to my New Best Friend, who took most of the wind out my sails (and cemented a lifelong friendship) by saying, “Me, too.” “But, you can’t be a lesbian,” she still teases me for saying. “Aren’t they all mean?” Ever a trooper, she embarked on a long (and, I’m sure, unrewarding) career of prying open my eyes, mind, and heart on myriad issues of tolerance by trying to help me open my heart to tolerating my damn self. Having enjoyed a certain Queer Rebirth at Long Beach Pride at the end of our freshman year, she returned to campus with a brilliant evangelical plan: she would take me to Pride and let the healing begin. Stranded in the Inland Empire, with something of a Pride Emergency on her hands, it was determined that waiting until the large summer festivals was too much time wasted, and so we set out for Pomona Pride. The Tiniest Pride Ever, at least in 1991, it didn’t stretch to the outer limits of its small municipal host park. Its main feature was a lanky S&M enthusiast cavorting clumsily across the one stage in leopard-print Dove shorts, snapping his riding crop and preaching to his wide-eyed audience (of two) that Love is the True Handcuff, and none of the attendees were of the Water Polo-Playing Frat Boy variety over whom I spent so much of my free time pining, so I didn’t quite see the point. Was I supposed to be “proud” to be like that guy with the riding crop? I wasn’t lanky, I could dance, thank you very much, and I wasn’t about to be caught dead out in a pair of Dove shorts; my friend says she could actually see me pulling my closet door shut again as we drove away.
And then I turned 23 at Gay Pride in San Francisco, where I was drenched in the empowerment that she had known I would (one day) acquire surrounded by people — not fifty people, as in Pomona, but hundreds of thousands of people — “like me,” many of whom were actually nothing like me. Every age group, every gender identity, every size, shape, ethnicity and cultural make-up was represented, and the realization that I only fit in a tiny corner of a huge community was ridiculously freeing and immediately and permanently changed my life. There are a limited number of gay stereotypes, after all, and I had had a hard time choosing which tiny square hole into which I should be trying to hammer this round peg. I wasn’t a muscle jock, I wasn’t a bear, I was too young to be a daddy (once upon a time) and I was certainly nobody’s twink — what did that leave? I learned at San Francisco Pride — dancing myself literally sick in the pouring down rain in an exultant sea of strangers — that I didn’t need a label. I didn’t need to fit in one of those tiny holes; none of us does. It’s great if you are a muscle jock, and good on ya if you are a daddy, and I was not then and am not now blind to the appeal of a cute young twink, but there’s a place for you to come and celebrate yourself and your family and your friends at Pride no matter who you are. Middle-aged biracial gay couples walk with their kids among rowdy gangs of hard-core racataca lesbians and transgendered teens and sporty dykes with bikes and, yes, even water polo-playing frat boys. I was so freakin’ Proud after my first San Francisco Pride that I quit my job, packed up a truck, and moved there.
And, like all good post-Stonewall queers, I eventually outgrew Pride. I was out at home, I was out at work; I’d just flown in from Osaka and boy were my arms tired — you go ahead on and be Proud, I need a nap. Then, in 2010, world-renowned blues diva Candye Kane played Colorado Springs Pride, and I vowed to seize the chance to see my Music and Body Image and Sex-Positive Awesomeness Hero live and in person, even if it meant driving 60 miles into the den of the lion that constantly roars Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?! Staged in the literal shadow of some of the gay community’s staunchest and most visible ill-wishers, it’s a Pride Fest that takes a certain amount of guts to put on, which makes it a particularly empowering rainbow-themed event to attend. A small festival confined to a small plaza in a famously conservative city, we reveled in an air of sassy rebellion and Take That! that’s long been missing from the larger corporate, vodka-sponsored Pride Marketing Opportunities out there. Colorado Springs Pride Fest and others like it take Pride back to its roots — “back” to the days, in which I forget many of our brothers and sisters are still living, when Pride provided a necessary, once-a-year outlet to have a place to hold hands or cruise the way-out-of-your-league guys you never knew were gay or show off the rainbow Venus-symbol tattoo that you dutifully sheath the other 364 days a year; an annual opportunity to rejoice in the awareness that You Are Not Alone. The vendors are local, the music acts are local, and the crowd is out to have a good time come hell or high water. Which did come, but the minute the rain stopped falling, the revelers reconvened.
So yeah, being Proud’s a process, and like all journeys, some parts are smoother than others. I try to keep in touch with this awareness, and respond to people with a little bit more finesse than just yelling “Be Proud, already!” at them, tempting as this Tough Love approach can sometimes be. But, to beat the “journey” analogy to death, you’ll never arrive at Being Proud if you don’t take those first hesitant steps. Small as they may seem, you never know what lesson they may invite you to one day uncomfortably reflect upon. Me, I hope never to feel that awkward or that dishonest with myself (or with you) again, and so I keep putting one foot in front of the other, “Proud” on some days simply because there’s no other way to be.