This weekend, my neighborhood played host to San Diego LGBT Pride, the City of San Diego’s biggest annual public event. In years past the weekend-long shindig has attracted hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists, gay, straight and otherwise, to its festival in Balboa Park and its parade that winds a 1.5-mile route through Uptown, terminating at the site of the Pride Festival. This year was no exception, with an estimated 150,000 onlookers lining the parade route.
I always look forward to Pride. You don’t have to be gay to have pride and you don’t have to be gay to enjoy Pride. It’s not only a spectacle worth beholding for its colored extravagance; it also comes around in early July every year giving the gathered multitudes all the excuse they need to take to the open air in America’s finest climate, exuberant, neighborly, and grateful for the company of such good people.
I’m so fond of Pride I take it to the point of giving my wife moments of concern. A week back she noted that I’d been tanning, working out and attending to my waistline. When I then went out and got a fresh haircut she asked, “What’s up with you?” I explained that there were soon to be gazillions of fit, oily, drop-dead gorgeous guys out in the streets and I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel inadequate in my own neighborhood and she replied flatly, “God that is so gay.”
I committed a minor faux pas on the afternoon before the parade. On our way home from a quick stop at the Park Manor, the missus and I ran into her hairdresser. She asked about his plans for Pride and he said that being newly single, he expected to be “flying by the seat of his pants.” I asked, “Do you mean literally?”
The mind does wander . . .
For the parade, my wife and I and our 13-year-old strolled a few blocks north from the house and drew up adjoining perches on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue at around 11:00.
There we stayed until well after 1:00 taking in the sites, sounds and sun. As the thrum of marchers lingered in the shortening distance, I reflected on a time not so very long ago when I was 13 and the idea of a parade on such a scale for such a purpose attended by such as we would have been, for almost all Americans, unimaginable. I didn’t think long, for soon enough the distance collapsed and the advancing edge of the parade fell full upon us.
It all began, as is customary, with Dykes on Bikes, a cortege of mostly terrifying, though lovely womyn on big, scary hogs with bored out V-twin engines. We’re talking a goodly hundred or more gals here, any one of which could handle me in a fair fight, all geared up like Amazons of the Apocalypse. It’s actually kind of hot, in a cripplingly emasculating way.
Right after the Dykes, there was a much smaller retinue of what one assumes were gay men, also on two-wheelers – nowhere near as scary and honestly, not so hot. Sorry fellas.
There was a gap after the bikers, maybe five minutes of paradelessness during which I could ruminate on an idea and you know, I think young people, including most young people in the parade, can’t really comprehend what the world was like for generations before them. I bet, for instance, they can’t really know what the world was like for those men and women in New York 42 years ago at a time when their very being was still outlawed in 49 states. They can’t have experienced everything that drove those New Yorkers into the streets in anger, engaged in several nights of confrontations with the NYPD. Some young people in 2011’s Pride Parade might know the story, but most won’t ever fully grasp the enormous courage required of those first pioneers who kept the energy of that night alive and transferred it a full year later into a declaration of their selfhood through a subsequent protest march in the heart of America’s biggest city, the march that started it all. Those were different times.
I was thinking all of that after Dykes on Bikes and their pale, male shadows passed and I’d no sooner begun to think of other things than a banner drew near announcing the approach of men and women serving actively and openly in every branch of this country’s armed forces and instinctively I, like all those around me, stopped thinking entirely and took to my feet in what I hope was a well received show of real, deserved humility. In case you were wondering, that has never happened before, active duty military personnel parading openly to acknowledge pride in their orientation, not in any city or any parade. These were men and women of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, many of them veterans of foreign wars, all of them returning to their posts sometime in the near future, all walking proudly, some arm-in-arm, in a public event declaring their pride as service members, as gays and lesbians and as human beings.
It was quite a moment.
This country, I think, is a better place than it was in my youth. Yes, it’s all fucked up and yes, we have a long way to go as a nation and as a species. No matter what we might believe to the contrary things still matter in America, like race and gender and orientation, definitely. So do many other things that still torment us. But we’ve come a long way, baby. If we tire at times of the journey, it might serve us to stop thinking for a moment about how far we have to go and look back upon just how far we’ve come, not in the 150 years since slavery, not in nearly a century since women’s suffrage. No – in a lifetime, my lifetime.
I have watched this one city, in my lifetime, struggle to define itself. I have seen its once thriving defense industry closed up and shipped off. I have seen its neighborhoods decline, gentrify and be reborn. I have seen its boundaries shift, its colors blend, its suburbs explode and its government fail, recover and know occasional moments of greatness. I have lived barely half of what the actuaries tell me I should plan for and in my time I have also seen hurdles fall, with new generations of San Diegans grown to adulthood having never known those hurdles in the first place. All that has happened to San Diego is a microcosm of what has happened to America writ large. My city and my country are not the same as when I was young and on the whole, that’s a good thing.
In years to come, when my children take their children to Pride, there might be no service men and women leading the way because by then there might be no reason for them to do so. By then perhaps what is now still so groundbreaking will be passé. We can’t really imagine what new barriers will fall in their lifetimes but we can guess that those barriers, whatever they may be, will fall one way or another because ours is, when it's all said and done, a good country.
America is the good country where the will to goodness can still triumph over custom, where hope can defeat outmoded belief and where the way things are is not the way things will be. Change comes in America and under its spreading skies we move on, changed ourselves by the times and better for having lived in this good country.
I don’t know exactly what ‘pride’ means to everyone at LGBT Pride. I know it means different things to different people. To the dozen or so churches represented in the parade I think it means “We’re proud to include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders in our congregation as beloved children of God.” To the parade’s few dozen politicians and community leaders I think it means, “I’m proud to represent a diverse constituency and proud to show my support.” To the various civic groups, campus organizations and other affiliations, I bet it means something like, “We are proud to declare our acceptance of and affinity with the interests of the LGBT community and to include its members as our own.” To the bars and banks and clothiers and what-not, I think it means, “We’re damn proud to take LGBT money!” Ask 150,000 people what pride means to them and you’ll get 150,000 answers.
I can’t know all those answers, but I can tell you what pride means to me, something that occurred to me as I thought about a 13-year-old and how her youth is so different from mine – to me, pride means being accountable for what we’ve done, responsible for what we do next and prepared to change in the direction of what’s right. I hope that in the end what we leave our child, her sisters and all others is closer to right than it was when we found it.
And with that, I’m going to go primp and fuss and enjoy my new haircut.
(All photos courtesy of Karen Greene Phillips, of whom I'm prouder than I can express.)