The summer of high school graduation was my first Pride. Local, by the waterfront in Harrisburg. There was a storm so that afterward a rainbow arched over the Susquehanna River; even Mother Nature was on the right side of history that day. I was in the closet but I wasn’t—a strange time in a queer’s life, and if you lived in my town, the one thing they pleasure in more than gossip is presumption. I knew what my classmates perceived of me, what my family did, what the general consensus was before I realized I liked men, this being solidified in the eighth grade when I won the yearbook superlative as “Most Dramatic”—my peers’ polite way of calling me a fag.
But back to Pride. There, I encountered many staples of the culture I never had before: from drag performances, to flags of all colors and designs, to show tunes and protest chants and selfishly queer art. Even my share of opposition picketers, hoisting their homophobic signs and slurring at us as we entered. Quickly I realized it wasn’t my scene, it never had been; I have an admiration for the culture itself, and an appreciation for the history it represents, but it’s just not in my character. Yet that doesn’t mean whenever Pride comes around I neglect to recognize its indispensability in the present day.
This Pride marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, where queer people finally had enough and fought back. Not as if we hadn’t been fighting back for centuries prior, but this week in 1969 is a historical landmark. Until that point, New York police would storm into gay bars and arrest its guests. Oftentimes they’d use physical force; other times they would blackmail the wealthier customers, handcuff the poorer ones, strike innocents in the heads with batons. Standard procedure dictated they check patrons’ identification, lead them to a restroom, and “check” their genitalia to ensure it corresponded to their dress. If not, they’d arrest whomever.
If this sounds brutal, that’s because it was.
The Stonewall Riots were not some civilized call to action for same-sex marriage, or equal rights in the workplace; it was a reaction to institutionalized violence. Violence that has plagued the community for centuries, between our peoples being hanged, beaten, sexually assaulted, driven to suicide, and left to die. Stonewall doesn’t only equate Pride; it means fight back, smash oppression, eliminate homophobia in all its institutional and cultural manifestations.
We have now a presidential administration that puts itself in direct opposition to the LGBTQ+ community. We have reports that roll in, detailing the casualties of transgender citizens annually. We have hate groups that thrive, we have churches that unify against gay rights, we have the everyday microaggressions. We have a president who laughs at jokes about his chosen vice president wanting to hang gay people. We have only a limited number of states that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ people—in adoption, in jobs, in housing—and even fewer states that ban conversion therapy. We have an entire generation of gay men wiped out by the AIDS epidemic. We have our own internalization of hatred in our community, with rampant racism, classism, and misogyny. Around the world homosexuality is outlawed, met with imprisonment, forced labor, quasi-concentration camps, and execution.
Maybe if you’re heterosexual you view Pride as unnecessary in modern society, in a culture that’s supposedly, but not actually, post-feminist. Personally, I just can’t buy that view. Pride is supposed to be the one safe space where you can forget about the existence of the closet, where we’re shoved into for the first half of our life to suffocate, to fester, to die inside. The closet is a restricting force: You don’t know who you are, you barely live, you’re like a non-sentient being and, because of that, it seems a quarter of your life never happened. Our lives only begin once we’re out, so how are we to make up all that wasted time? All those wasted years, being too terrified of human connection, of love, of our own selves? Pride is the closest we have to mending that hole.
I, like almost every LGBTQ+ person, am still so traumatized by the closet, in a way I don’t believe I can ever overcome. Author Paul Monette, who won the National Book Award for his memoir Becoming a Man, put it best: “Sometimes my head filled with a scream that went on for hours but was silenced by the walls of the closet.” Imagine that. Every day as claustrophobia.
Because of that, I don’t think Pride will ever be unwarranted until the closet is no more. Until there is no such thing as coming out. Until we quit worrying about biological sex and gender expression. Until we understand that gayness isn’t just about whom you love, or whom you marry, but a lived experience as a marginalized identity. That, in the end, is why I believe Pride will always be necessary.