This article is part of our latest Pride special report, featuring L.G.B.T.Q. voices on the challenges and possibilities of these troubled times.
With protests in the streets and a pandemic ravaging the country, three prominent L.G.B.T.Q. authors consider Pride in 2020. Jericho Brown is the author of “The Tradition,” winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Carmen Maria Machado is the author of “In the Dream House” and “Her Body and Other Parties.” She was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017. Thomas Page McBee is the author of “Amateur: A Reckoning with Gender, Identity, and Masculinity” and “Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man.”
Jericho Brown at Cator Woolford Gardens in Atlanta. “Protest of every kind works.”Credit…Audra Melton
A Roundabout Route
People seem surprised when I tell them how I came to my own sense of pride. After all, we think of Pride — capital P — in terms of community: men, women and nonbinary people loudly claiming their existence, their contribution to society and culture, and their ability to love. But no one will ever know exactly how each of us learned self-acceptance or how to create community from that acceptance. The truth is some of us were driven into our pride because of how we naturally walk, talk or look, and some of us have it because we were outed and left with no choice but to live in truth. I, for instance, have pride because of a parade.
I love a parade. I first made love to a man after a parade. I lived in New Orleans at the time and remember the crowds we navigated more than I remember the Mardi Gras floats that year.
Then I was back home with the man who went to see that parade with me. He was an artist and was known for it throughout the city. We took off our clothes as we entered the door because we both believed it was the sanitary thing to do after a parade. I was naïve enough to think his physical beauty made him a candidate for a first time I could look back on without shaking my head. And yes, I loved him. Remembering that is actually what makes me shake my head. My love for him is not why I had sex with him, though. I had two better reasons. But before I get to them, I should confess a few things.
He was recently separated but still married when our friendship began — married to someone even more famous as a performer in New Orleans. She and I had gone to the same small college and performed at some of the same events. She’d dance. I’d recite a poem. We said each other’s names when we said hello. If I recall correctly, they were married before we graduated. They had a daughter soon after.
I started hanging out with him a few years after graduation. I was getting an M.F.A. and working in the mayor’s press office. We saw each other at a party where no straight man would have shown his face. We ended up talking in his car outside the party, and were still talking when the sun rose.
One night at his place while I was reading him some poems, his wife knocked on the door. He asked me to stand on the back porch while she got whatever she needed. I didn’t know I was hiding until she found me. She asked what I was doing at her house. I stayed silent. That’s probably why she hit me. I froze in shock. He pulled her off me, and the fight that ensued between them … I had never seen so much hair fly!
For months after that, she repeated my name to everyone she knew could know me: family members, co-workers, frat brothers, friends from school. The story, each time it circled back to me, always included less clothing and more graphic descriptions of sex I never had.
Why, after all of this, did I make love to the man? One reason I finally touched him on the night of that parade was an unexpected feeling of pride: If I was going to be known as a home-wrecking sissy, I was going to reap the few benefits that role offered. I was young enough to feel owed a physical ecstasy equal to the rage he and his wife felt. And that’s the other reason we made love. I was only a few weeks away from turning 25. I was desperate to get the deed all the way done before my birthday. I needed the act as proof that I wasn’t only experimenting — an initiation into an identity that I had struggled to avoid.
Turning 25 and still lying to women, turning 25 and still playing everything-but-intercourse with men, felt silly and immature. I was grown. I wasn’t in a phase. I wasn’t confused. I knew I would face unyielding and illogical hatred. But I also knew my choice: capitulating to or standing up to that hatred. I needed to prove to myself that I was what I secretly thought of any other queer person — a natural-born survivor. If I ever hated us, it was out of envy.
At the end of that first time together, we lay there panting with triumphant smiles on our faces. It was 2001. No condom had been involved. As I write that, I’m reminded how, today, we all live in a new era of risk related to touch. It is dangerous to be close.
When I think of Pride and its marches, I think of my younger self overwhelmed by those crowds at that parade almost 20 years ago. Indeed, the earliest Pride celebrations I attended looked more like Mardi Gras parades than the civil rights marches I was raised to revere. More color. More noise, but no organized chants. No somber songs. Very little clothing. What excites me most about those marches is how they give us a chance to so wildly show who we are in the crowd while we get to be together in the crowd. We get to see each other and say, “That’s a part of who I am.”
How, then, will I see myself whole when social distancing and self-isolation won’t allow me to see those who thrive as I do? Without a march or a parade, will I be reminded of that 24-year-old vulnerable enough to fall in love and brave enough to name himself?
The end of my love story is as clichéd as anyone might imagine. But the solitude that came with that heartbreak allowed me time to learn that sex isn’t an absolute sign of who I am. I love a parade. And I love how introspection can lead to the memory of a parade, to gratitude for the ones I’ve seen and excitement for the ones on the way. I can’t feel gratitude and shame at the same time. And given the inequities that leave me and my people vulnerable to police brutality and to disease, I can’t help but revel in the fact that the first real Gay Pride event — Stonewall — was characterized at the time as a riot. Protest of every kind works.
So I’m handling the heartbreak of this pandemic the same way I handled that one back when I was turning 25. This year, I’m coming out to myself. I’m going to check up on who I am when no one else is watching because that’s who I want to show off when we see each other in these streets again.
Carmen Maria Machado
Call to Action
When I was in my early 20s, I was always nursing the vague sensation that I’d missed some lovely queer boat. I’d come out after high school; I’d never quite fit in with the L.G.B.T. organization at my college; I’d never used a fake ID to sneak into my hometown’s gay bar; and I had never had a girlfriend. That, I figured, was what being queer meant. I’d gotten there so late.
At 21, I moved to the Bay Area and went to my first Pride parade. It seemed right. I even had a friend with an apartment that overlooked the parade route. For a long time, that’s what Pride meant to me — idly wandering around, marveling at queer bodies and minds and lives in such huge numbers, and then having the blessing and good fortune to use a real bathroom and fall asleep on my friend’s couch in the sun, the sound of the parade drifting up from the street below. The sound of joy happening — even if it was without me — felt as peaceful as falling asleep as a kid during a parents’ dinner party.
Later that same year, when I visited New York, I took an afternoon walk with no agenda and found myself standing in front of the Stonewall Inn. I remember looking up at the edifice, jaw agape. It was the early afternoon but the door was open, and when I looked inside, I don’t know what I’d expected but I hadn’t expected that. It just looked like any old dingy bar, though I was a certified goody-two-shoes and hadn’t been in many bars, dingy or otherwise. I realized I had to use the bathroom and asked the tired woman behind the bar if I could, and she said sure, and I sat down on the toilet thinking, I’m peeing in the Stonewall! Much in the same way I’d once thought, I’m peeing in Canada!, because for me the moment I urinate in a new place is the moment it becomes real.
Here, I thought, looking around me, is where it all changed, because I was still too young to understand that history is not simply made up of moments of triumph strung together like pearls. I didn’t know that large changes were made up of many small ones, and of moments of suffering and backsliding and incremental, selective progress; unnecessary sacrifices and the opportunistic, privileged and lucky walking forward over the vulnerable and the dead.
Years later, when I moved to Iowa City, I loved the way its Pride parade felt different from San Francisco’s, and yet just as lovely — the way every person could stand with arm’s length between them if they chose to, how it only lasted for 15 minutes or so, the fact that after it was over I could easily walk home through quiet, tree-lined streets. But in those years, I also learned that queerness does not protect you — not from domestic violence, not from racism or sexism or transphobia. I cowered before my abusive girlfriend; I smiled thinly at the people who did not believe me; I was groped by a gay man in a gay bar for no reason except he could; I watched as cisgender queers threw transgender folks under the bus for a chance at state-sanctioned marriage; I saw the machinations of racism in the queer community. I began to understand: Not only does queerness not protect you, it does not absolve you. You are not made better by your body, but what you choose to do with that body, and your life.
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of corporate endorsements during large Pride parades, the way that capitalism has sprawled itself over the day and co-opted Pride from its radical queer roots. There is a reason that the Philly Dyke March — held the Saturday before Pride — is my and my partner’s event of choice. Dyke marches, unlike Pride parades, are unsanctioned protests: no permits, just queer folks filling the streets and disrupting business as usual. Pride was a protest. Many people have said it, and they are right. It began as a police riot, violence against queer bodies, the bravery of activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and it has since lost its way. José Esteban Muñoz, a queer Latinx academic, called queerness “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” If only the queer community’s most privileged citizens — white queers, cis queers — saw their queerness as the call to action it has always been.
I write this piece as my city, Philadelphia, and my country burns around me. People are protesting a society that does not value black lives, a government that lets one group of citizens murder another group of citizens with near-impunity, a nation that would rather cede its power to a white-supremacist police force than hold itself accountable. It feels important, somehow, that a pandemic abolished the old Pride — the one boasting corporate floats and swag and friendly police officers, the one with a schedule and a permit — and gave us a call to action: room to reimagine what it means to be queer, and to act accordingly.
Pride should not be a smug acknowledgment of a job well done, or a job that’s done at all. If you understand the work to be over, you are mistaken. If you are beloved by your police force, by your government, by straight people and cis people and white people, you have nothing to be proud of. History has opened a door for you. To go through it, you need two things: to know the world is not enough, and to do something about it.
Thomas Page McBee
In 2001, 10 years before I changed my name and began injecting testosterone, becoming a man for all the world, I worked as a barback at Meow Mix, the famed lesbian bar in New York’s East Village. The bathroom had a single posted flyer adorned with three words: “CORPORATE PRIDE,” preceded by a four-letter expletive.
I was 20 years old and five years into a queer life defined by protest politics, postmodern gender theory and queer punk bands. That sweltering summer before Sept. 11, I would shout “Stonewall was a riot!” from windows and stoops and across subway platforms at other kids with purple hair and pink triangle neck tattoos. Even though I skipped the main event for protest marches, Pride was a parade: of red plastic to-go cups topped off at strangers’ parties, of ashtray-mouth kisses, and the promise of summer on our own terms.
I stumbled through stoop parties in my cutoff T-shirt and a chest bound by Ace bandages in my Before body, perfecting a performance of masculinity that I allowed my girlfriends to call “butch,” because I didn’t yet have language for who I was, just a sense of alienation that only eased in queer spaces.
I was new to New York , witnessing an adult future made thrillingly, queerly visible for the first time in my young life. I saw my fears made manifest too: When I met Ray, the first transgender guy I’d ever known, I took careful note of how he hung around the periphery of our gaggle, not ostracized, exactly, but not welcome either. I saw in his hangdog expression a familiarity I did not want to acknowledge, and so I kept my distance, a regret that still sits hard in my gut, nearly two decades later.
My guide that summer was Lisa, a big-hearted butch in a motorcycle jacket. As we smoked a cigarette one day, she told me she was 40, and I stared at her in disbelief. “I’m a queer elder,” she said with a laugh, though it wasn’t a joke at all.
I didn’t realize then that the pain pills she’d been prescribed after a debilitating car accident had bloomed into an addiction that would kill her a couple of years later. Add her to my growing list of dead trans, queer and gender-nonconforming friends, lost to what sociologists call “deaths of despair.”
Grief and capital-P Pride are paired for me, as are the Before and After of my cleaved life, so much so that I named myself Thomas, which means “twin.” I’ve lived so many lives.
This year, for Pride, I intend to celebrate them all.
For many of us, Pride is an annual pilgrimage to occupy the streets of the cities and towns where we live, to be visible en masse, to find connection and joy reflected back in the bodies of others. On this 50th anniversary of the first Pride protest, with planned events canceled or moved online, and in the long shadow of police violence highlighted by recent protests in response to the death of George Floyd, it’s crucial to remember that the events at Stonewall in 1969 and its subsequent anniversary marches were a riotous insistence on our queer humanity. Stonewall, after all, was just one of a string of violent uprisings nationwide in response to police harassment and oppression, largely led by trans women of color. As the word itself implies, Pride is also and always has been, fundamentally, a collective refusal to be shamed.
So how do we find pride without Pride? Perhaps by reimagining what “pride” even means.
In his 2005 book, “In a Queer Time and Place,” J. Jack Halberstam writes that queer cultures produce “alternative temporalities,” or “queer time,” by allowing us to imagine futures for ourselves outside birth, marriage, reproduction and death, those “paradigmatic markers of life experience.”
When I began my transition in 2011, my internal sense of time grew increasingly nonlinear, even associative, as I tried to bridge a coherent sense of self across bodies and lifetimes. As my shoulders broadened and my voice deepened, my visible queerness disappeared, camouflaging me so that I was no longer the recipient of head nods or small smiles of recognition. As I feared back when I first met Ray, I spent those first years increasingly isolated from the community I’d once known. Meanwhile, passing as a cisgender man for all the world, the troubling expectations of masculinity others put on me became more confining, and more linear.
Though I eventually returned to the fold, I avoided Pride for those confusing first few years between worlds, my history no longer telegraphed in my haircut or my swagger. I even took a journalism job that brought me back to New York, where I took cold comfort in the sense that the yawning gap between my “butchness” and who I really was had finally closed like a wound. On my darker days, the trade barely seemed worth it. Why did I fight so hard to be myself, if it meant losing the only world I’d ever known?
To the Before me, Pride had been a celebration, a party, a reclamation, a safe space. Now, nine years into an entirely new queer identity, it’s come to mean a whole lot more to me than that. My queerness is more political and thematic than it’s ever been, and this Pride, for me, is about connecting the struggles of my queer ancestors to the liberation of all people — and especially honoring the debt white queer people like me owe to the black trans activists, like Marsha P. Johnson, who started our movement by standing with protesters fighting for racial justice today. The most powerful kind of pride, to me, is the pride of ancestry. For queer people, our lineage extends alongside heteronormative history — and just as far back.
Despite the historical realities of our existence, ongoing attempts to “erase” trans identities continue to have real, material consequences. Just last week, the Trump administration announced that it was finalizing a rule that eliminates nondiscrimination health care protections for trans people. And trans people continue to make history. Last weekend, 15,000 protestors gathered in Brooklyn in support of black trans people. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold employment protections or all L.G.B.T.Q. people; the legal team included a trans lawyer, Chase Strangio.
I’m spending my quarantine life bearing witness to that history, far from my queer origins, in the mountains outside Los Angeles, where I currently live with my wife. It is from this place that I celebrate Pride today, a few months before my 40th birthday — a veritable trans elder.
From here, I am dedicated to honoring my lineage by insisting on our existence and fighting for the recognition and protection of all bodies, equal in our right to live freely and without fear in these United States of America.
Pride is, after all, the opposite of shame. We’re here, we’re queer and, even if you can’t see us, we can’t be erased. We don’t need a parade to make ourselves known.