At 21, I moved to the Bay Area and went to my first Pride parade. It seemed right. I even had a friend with an apartment that overlooked the parade route. For a long time, that’s what Pride meant to me — idly wandering around, marveling at queer bodies and minds and lives in such huge numbers, and then having the blessing and good fortune to use a real bathroom and fall asleep on my friend’s couch in the sun, the sound of the parade drifting up from the street below. The sound of joy happening — even if it was without me — felt as peaceful as falling asleep as a kid during a parents’ dinner party.
Later that same year, when I visited New York, I took an afternoon walk with no agenda and found myself standing in front of the Stonewall Inn. I remember looking up at the edifice, jaw agape. It was the early afternoon but the door was open, and when I looked inside, I don’t know what I’d expected but I hadn’t expected that. It just looked like any old dingy bar, though I was a certified goody-two-shoes and hadn’t been in many bars, dingy or otherwise. I realized I had to use the bathroom and asked the tired woman behind the bar if I could, and she said sure, and I sat down on the toilet thinking, I’m peeing in the Stonewall! Much in the same way I’d once thought, I’m peeing in Canada!, because for me the moment I urinate in a new place is the moment it becomes real.
Here, I thought, looking around me, is where it all changed, because I was still too young to understand that history is not simply made up of moments of triumph strung together like pearls. I didn’t know that large changes were made up of many small ones, and of moments of suffering and backsliding and incremental, selective progress; unnecessary sacrifices and the opportunistic, privileged and lucky walking forward over the vulnerable and the dead.
Years later, when I moved to Iowa City, I loved the way its Pride parade felt different from San Francisco’s, and yet just as lovely — the way every person could stand with arm’s length between them if they chose to, how it only lasted for 15 minutes or so, the fact that after it was over I could easily walk home through quiet, tree-lined streets. But in those years, I also learned that queerness does not protect you — not from domestic violence, not from racism or sexism or transphobia. I cowered before my abusive girlfriend; I smiled thinly at the people who did not believe me; I was groped by a gay man in a gay bar for no reason except he could; I watched as cisgender queers threw transgender folks under the bus for a chance at state-sanctioned marriage; I saw the machinations of racism in the queer community. I began to understand: Not only does queerness not protect you, it does not absolve you. You are not made better by your body, but what you choose to do with that body, and your life.
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of corporate endorsements during large Pride parades, the way that capitalism has sprawled itself over the day and co-opted Pride from its radical queer roots. There is a reason that the Philly Dyke March — held the Saturday before Pride — is my and my partner’s event of choice. Dyke marches, unlike Pride parades, are unsanctioned protests: no permits, just queer folks filling the streets and disrupting business as usual. Pride was a protest. Many people have said it, and they are right. It began as a police riot, violence against queer bodies, the bravery of activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and it has since lost its way. José Esteban Muñoz, a queer Latinx academic, called queerness “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” If only the queer community’s most privileged citizens — white queers, cis queers — saw their queerness as the call to action it has always been.
I write this piece as my city, Philadelphia, and my country burns around me. People are protesting a society that does not value black lives, a government that lets one group of citizens murder another group of citizens with near-impunity, a nation that would rather cede its power to a white-supremacist police force than hold itself accountable. It feels important, somehow, that a pandemic abolished the old Pride — the one boasting corporate floats and swag and friendly police officers, the one with a schedule and a permit — and gave us a call to action: room to reimagine what it means to be queer, and to act accordingly.