The evening concluded with my being chased down the long hallways of the fellowship hall by three angry boys, ready to commence bashing, until I finally gave up the race and faced them, exclaiming “Please! I can’t run in these heels!”
They stopped in their tracks. Their fury had been transformed to confusion, like dogs who had finally caught a car. They muttered “faggot” under their breath, but they retreated.
I wasn’t being courageous. I was scared to death.
Fear is a curious emotion. As an LGBT community, most of us have been raised on it. The fear of being rejected or threatened or simply misunderstood, of being unloved or unlovable. To grow beyond those early wounds and become comfortable in our own skin is quite a feat of resilience, and for some of us, a lifelong process. How we transform our fears into something more productive is a tricky thing.
And that’s why Gay Pride has such social, emotional, and spiritual significance. Beyond standing as a political statement — which surely it is, now more than ever — Gay Pride serves as a sort of recovery process for the fears that brought us to where we are today.
Reading this newspaper might be the only way a lot of people acknowledge Gay Pride this year. Maybe they don’t like crowds. But it’s just as likely they fear the loss of family, friends, or their own peace of mind if they come too close. If you’ve ever been plagued by the thought of “if you knew me, you wouldn’t love me,” imagine the number of people trying their damndest to overcome that simply by showing up in Piedmont Park.
If only those fears stopped at the gates of our community. Instead, we internalize the standards we foist on each other and worry that we’re too fat for these jeans, too feminine to be proud, too old, too butch, too shy. We fear what we are, and what we are not.
Nowhere is our fear more acute than among gay men when it comes to HIV. We fear infection. We fear rejection. We fear being swept up in the stigma that permeates online cruise sites and phone apps. Granted, hook-up sites aren’t exactly hotbeds of our higher character, but the animosity displayed on them between positive and negative gay men is downright depressing.
Our individual anxieties can also easily blot out the profound nature of what is actually happening during Pride: the astounding numbers of LGBT people basking in the safety and support of one another. It allows us the chance to practice a little compassion.
This year, take pride, but not only in yourself. Take pride in the woman standing next to you, in the flamboyant dancer on the float, the lesbian biker, the HIV outreach worker, the older gentleman waving from the car. Consider your own fears and what it took to bring you to this place, and treat them all with the same empathy you may have been searching for. Who knows what kind of courage you may actually be witnessing.
And then, hold on to that sense of compassion for our community, and practice it again on Monday. And the day after. And the month after that. Our need for a touch of grace is a year long proposition.
At my first Atlanta Pride twenty years ago, I wore a shirt that read, “No One Knows I’m HIV Positive.” I’m going to wear it again this year. Sure, I’m a little nervous about it. But somewhere along the way, my pride in all that I am — and the chance to send a message of tolerance toward those of us living with the virus — has finally managed to trump whatever fears I might still have lurking about.
The platforms, however, are staying at home.