On Pride and Hope

Dear Friends,

I have been trying to write you a letter since I attended DC Capital Pride last weekend, and I haven’t been able to perfectly articulate what I wanted to say.

I wanted to participate in Pride festivities, ever since I learned they existed, and on a couple of occasions, I’ve been able to do so. The first time was when I stumbled into the street festival in Toronto several years ago. I passed through the festival with a group of my friends, many of them straight guys who had never been to a gay bar let alone Pride. I was excited to have happened upon the event, but my friends had a different destination in mind, so we kept walking. My second Pride experience was in Baltimore, skating in the parade with my old derby league. It was fun to be on skates and to have people cheer as we rolled down the street. After the parade, I changed out of my derby gear and walked around the block party with my friends for a little while. DC Pride this year was only my third time attending official Pride month events, and it was both good and bad.

I expected to have mixed feelings about rainbow capitalism and how far Pride has drifted from the days of Stonewall. I wanted Pride to still be a platform for meaningful protest, but I also wanted to be part of the celebration. Who doesn’t? I love the idea of so many people, so many manifestations of our prismatic humanity, coming together to celebrate both our uniqueness and our commonalities, to stand up for our right to exist, to support one another, and to be visible in a world that so often wishes to look away from us. I knew it would be crowded, loud, and potentially stressful since I don’t typically love crowds, but I was certain it would be worthwhile.

Carrie and I took the Metro into the city, and as we got closer to our destination, the train cars were increasingly packed and uncomfortable, much like they had been on the way to the Women’s March, except instead of a somber atmosphere, everyone on these trains was ready to party. One couple was making out as the bodies around them squeezed in more tightly, pushing them closer together. When we reached our stop, all of us poured out of the train onto the platform and quickly overwhelmed the escalator, which jerked to a stop when we were about halfway up. Exiting the Metro station, we joined an ever-thickening crowd of street vendors and parade goers. The only security personnel I saw were the WAMATA employees attempting to regulate the traffic on the escalators. There might have been a cop trying to look inconspicuous, knowing that many in our community have negative feelings toward their presence.

There was very little crowd control happening. People were pressing as close as they could to the street, and since most of the parade participants were on foot, we could only see the backs of the people who got there before us and occasionally someone up on a float. A tall, loud, drunk man was yelling at a shirtless man in a kilt doing handstands on an elevated platform. The performer would slowly raise his legs overhead, tantalizing the crowd, whose cheers became more insistent as his kilt came closer to flipping and exposing his rainbow-clad and very fit lower half. The drunk man blocking our view shouted the names of various yoga poses — baby, down dog, table — anything to get a good look.

Someone behind me said we should just push through, and I told him no because that’s how people get trampled. … I was viscerally aware of how vulnerable we all were at that moment.

Because we couldn’t see much, Carrie and I decided to try walking along the route to find a better spot, but no sooner had we taken our first steps than we found ourselves immersed in a tightly packed crowd. The refrain “the first pride was a riot” was running through my mind. Soon, we were trapped in this immobile mass of people who were pressing against one another forcefully from every direction, crushing in on each other as though compelled by gravity. Someone behind me said we should just push through, and I told him no because that’s how people get trampled. But we weren’t making headway, either. I was viscerally aware of how vulnerable we all were at that moment. If someone wanted to hurt us, we were one big easy target.

For several minutes, we were simply stuck. A person in a wheelchair was near us, and they were trapped, with their back to a brick wall and concrete planters on either side giving them only enough room to sit and wait out the crowd. I imagined this was someone who planned ahead and staked out a good spot to view the parade only to be nearly crushed by the late-arriving masses. They appeared to be with friends and seemed to be ok, but it was clearly as unsafe for that person as much as it was for me. While I could at least squeeze myself forward one inch at a time, they could go nowhere. I now wish I’d had the presence of mind to yell over the crowd and tell everyone to stop. The reason we couldn’t move was because we were working against one another, each only focused on our own destination. If we had stopped long enough to cooperate, it would not have been so dangerous.

Even as we escaped the crowd, others were pressing in to get closer to the parade route. There was no way we could get to where our friends were. Later we would learn that our friends were near where a shooting scare happened, had been among the first to run away from the scene, and felt their lives were in very serious danger. Even though the reports of a shooter turned out to be false (thank goodness), the fear and trauma everyone around it experienced was real.

The next day, I was signed up for a volunteer shift at my derby league’s table in the street fair, and it was a struggle to talk myself into going. After some debate, I decided to go but gave myself permission to bail if my anxiety threatened to transform into a full blown panic attack. I made sure to coordinate with my friends and to take screenshots of the map and directions in case I lost signal and couldn’t navigate via GPS. Perhaps because of the frightening day before or because of the rainy weather, the street fair was less intense than the parade. I met up with my team and spent the afternoon handing out flyers. I felt safe among my friends and enjoyed the diversity all around us. All body types, all abilities, all races, orientations and gender expressions were present. Sure, a lot of people were drunk, but what’s a weekend street fair without a little public drunkenness?

Feeling a little apprehensive on the way back to DC on Sunday. If someone as privileged as myself feels nervous about Pride, how much might it be affecting others, and what can I do for those people? These are the kinds of things I ask myself frequently.

I do have critiques of the festival itself, aside from the crowd control issue. For example, the beer cages were dreary, and the food options were lacking. Being unable to walk around the festival while drinking my beer made me a little less likely to actually explore the whole scene, but it may have been helpful in curbing over-indulgence. Since I spent most of my time handing out flyers, I didn’t interact much with the other organizations that participated. It was crowded and loud, and maybe just not the place for an introvert like myself.

Worn thin from last week, I opted out of Baltimore Pride this weekend. Yes, we live in an area where I could go to a different Pride celebration every weekend in June if I wanted to, but I can only handle so many days full of crowds and chaos. In two weeks, Annapolis will have its first ever Pride celebration, and I’m hoping to attend. I love Annapolis, and I’m hoping this Pride will be diverse, robust, and not-too-straight-laced even though Annapolis prizes its image as a wholesome historical town and is hosting family friendly official festivities. It’s easy to roll my eyes at this quaint little village of privilege that is Main St. Annapolis, with it’s “family friendly” approach to literally everything, but then maybe that’s perfect. After all, Annapolis Pride was initiated by a thirteen year old trans kid, so, while some Pride celebrations will undoubtedly always be dominated by good old fashioned drunk dudes, Annapolis Pride will be making room for trans teens who deserve to be there as much as the rest of us.

Anyway, Annapolis also calls itself “a drinking town with a sailing problem,” so I’m sure there will be no shortage of revelers. Pride is supposed to be a party, too, isn’t it? Most of the people I know are actively engaged in trying to make the world a better place for everyone. We are keeping an eye on the government, advocating for each other at work and at school, trying to encourage the best in one another, carrying out difficult conversations, self reflecting, and always looking for the next way we can help. This is not something to brag about — it’s just what we’re required to do. It’s unglamorous and exhausting. And maybe when people go to Pride, they want to live in a world of rainbows and purse dogs named Toto for a little while because they need a break. Or maybe they just need a place where they can say out loud who they are because a lot of people still don’t have that. And maybe being there and standing up to be counted, to be seen and heard among the rainbow horde is  meaningful in its own way. Because maybe someone out there sees us and feels hopeful.

I know this letter has run quite long, and by now even I am asking myself what my point is. I return to my usual refrain: We must keep showing up. Pride month is just over half way through, and in these couple of weeks, five transgender women have been killed. So while those of us who can afford to party in the streets do so, many still live in fear. We must not forget them. We must protect them. We must stand up for them.

When you show up for your local Pride events, but also, after this month, when “normal” life resumes, don’t forget what it was all about. Don’t forget that Stonewall was a riot and that Pride, while it has become a party, is also a protest. Hold trans and non-binary people close to your heart, and strive to create communities that embrace and support all of us. Protect LGBTQA+ people of color. Embrace one another with your kindness. And don’t forget that sometimes the “straight” person you’re talking to, the one who “really doesn’t get it,” could be one of us who still hasn’t found their way out.