Pride and Prejudice

Gay Pride

The rainbow flag, longtime symbol of the LGBT rights movement. (Photo credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images)

What does it mean to be proud of your sexuality?

My first exposure to Pride came in my senior year of high school. I had come out as gay the year before, and my experience since had been largely positive. There had been teasing, name-calling, and other expected harassments, but by and large my friends and classmates had accepted my sexuality without a second thought.

And why wouldn’t they, being middle-class students of a model high school in the liberal bastion of Massachusetts? Just a few years earlier, ours had become the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Things were different in New England.

I had spent the last year circling the gay community, still clinging to the mentality of a straight boy intruding on something strange and alien. Friends finally convinced me to at least attend a few meetings of the local LGBT youth group, and I found that I enjoyed the company and conversation. I had never realized how heavy a weight I had carried through all those closeted years, yearning for someone who might understand my hopes and fears. The youth group promised friendship, acceptance, and the chance to ask another boy on a date. My head spun with the novelty of it all.

It was an exciting time to arrive on the scene, with Pride just around the corner. I had been in Boston during Pride Week before, but had always steered clear of the festivities for fear that rainbows might burst from my chest. Now that I was out and proud, I decided to attend at least some of the events — I had no plans to join the leathermen as they marched through Beacon Hill, but something more social could be fun. There was a youth dance at City Hall that seemed to fit the bill, and I agreed to meet some friends there that evening.

That night changed everything. I walked into City Hall proud of myself for coming out, secure in my sexuality, and ready to participate more fully in the gay community. I left disgusted by everything I had seen and suddenly uncertain if this was a “community” I wanted any part of. I had expected celebratory dancing and had seen plenty of it, but I had been shocked to find people getting high in the bathrooms and giving blowjobs on the dance floor. Perhaps it was naive to expect something more refined from sexually-repressed teenagers, but I had hoped for more than a basement full of cheap drugs and cheaper sex.

I made myself attend the Pride parade, but that night at City Hall had irreversibly altered my perspective. For every float intended to celebrate the social and political victories of the LGBT civil rights movement, there seemed to be a hundred half-naked men ignoring the festivities to grind on one another in the streets. I would never call myself socially conservative — no one should feel ashamed of their kinks, their gender, or their sexuality— but it all just struck me as incredibly demeaning. Was our pride as LGBT people really limited to what we did in the bedroom?

Brave men and women had fought and even died for my right to marry someone of the same sex. They had suffered through bloody Stonewall and decades of stigma that they and their promiscuity had spawned the “homosexual cancer” of HIV/AIDS. They had at long last convinced the American public that “LGBT” was not synonymous with “slut,” yet here was all the evidence in the world that they were wrong. I was embarrassed to even associate myself with the farce of gay Pride and felt a surge of relief when I boarded the train for home.

The South Shore seemed strangely comforting in its conservatism. It offered no public displays of debauchery, but what it did offer worried me all the same. Outside my high school and its tolerant youth, the region consisted of Irish Catholics who had fled Boston after racial integration. My grandmother spat darkly about “those people” marching down the streets of Boston. My mother was unable to cope with a gay son and threatened to reveal my sexuality to the rest of our family long before I was ready. I felt caught between two equally repulsing extremes.

Then I was back in Boston to study politics and public policy at Northeastern University. I eventually agreed to attend a meeting of the LGBT student association and found the same friendly and welcoming atmosphere I had the year before. I met some people who had partied in the streets and others who, like me, still struggled to square their expectations of gay Pride with reality. I went on dates, read gay literature, and attended LGBT film festivals. University taught me that a community built around sex and sexuality could exist, but I never went back to Boston Pride. I spent those weekends camping or hiking or visiting friends out of town — anything to avoid that unbearable sense of shame.

A few things have changed come 2014, of course. A solid and growing majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, which has been legalized in twenty states (and the District of Columbia) covering nearly half of the U.S. population. The Supreme Court has ruled favorably on LGBT rights, and we may soon see the first openly gay U.S. governor elected in Maine. Things have changed in my life, too. My mother has grown more accepting of my sexuality, and my family has by and large accepted it without issue. My first long-term gay relationship was a great success.

However my life changed, though, I never stopped thinking back on that first brush with Pride. I often asked myself if I was too hard on young men like myself who just wanted to experience something they had long been denied. The boys that had so disgusted me at City Hall had been the distinct minority, and was it really so wrong to take your shirt off and party in the summer sun? Plenty of straight men and women do it every day, and no one has ever faulted the “heterosexual community” for debauchery.

I still frown on getting high in bathrooms and giving blowjobs on the dance floor, and I still wonder if we could focus less on the sex and more on the pride. But maybe we could all use a weeklong break from the strictest codes of conduct. There are worse crimes than taking your shirt off to dance on Boston Common, and when else can you watch men march by the State House in rubber surfsuits and leather muzzles? Brave men and women died for our right to marry, but there are other rights worth fighting for. We have the right to be ourselves, whatever that entails. Maybe this year I’ll give the parade another chance. And if everyone on the South Shore disapproves, what can I say?

We are who we are. It’s called Pride for a reason.

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