Guest Blogger

From Whence We Came: The Importance of Pride in Establishing Gay Heritage

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 13, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, The Movement

Editor's Note: Kasey M. Dunton is an attorney and lobbyist in DC, focusing primarily on civil rights, employment, and First Amendment issues.

Most of us remember our first Pride - where it was, who they went with, how they felt. Some, like my partner, were very young. He started going with his best friend when they were 12. Others, like a friend of mine in law school, didn't partake in the festivities until they were older - either because they came out late or because they never understood what all the fuss was about.

My first pride was the year I turned 21. I was a quintessential gay geek who had always been interested in "that pride thing," but never managed to figure out when it was, let alone convince anyone to go with me. However, as my 21st birthday approached, all of my friends started trying to figure out what we should do to celebrate this particular milestone.

Their celebrations had all involved copious amounts of booze and throwing up on the floors of their dorm rooms, but I had a different idea. Blessed to have a birthday that falls midway between the anniversary of Judy's death and the first night of the riots, I declared that my 21st birthday would be spent at New York's Gay Pride Parade, and that I would consume exactly one drink: a Cosmo at Stonewall.

No one understood it, but they were up for a party. So, with my lesbian and our "token straight friend" in tow, we drove four hours up I-95, parked in Newark, New Jersey, and rode into the Village, while I spouted facts about the festivities.

Did they know why it always took place the last weekend in June? Had they seen the maps of where can-can lines formed? Did they realize that 40 years ago, we would have all been arrested on the spot for "crossdressing" in some way or another?

To me, it wasn't just a party; this was a pilgrimage.

Most minorities have some sort of subculture, a heritage passed down from generation to generation. Whether it's Bubbes showing the kindeleh how to make the perfect matsoh balls over Passover, or African American parents teaching their children about the Civil Rights Movement, or Greek families sending their kids to Greek School every Saturday to learn the language of their ancestors, we take pride in retaining certain portions of our culture and passing them on to the next generation.

Queers, on the other hand, are in a unique position trying to search for culture. Unlike religious or ethnic minorities, where traditions are handed down from mother to daughter or father to son, we come from families that are most likely not related to our cultural identity in any way. We have very few aunts and uncles to look to. Just as my gentile parents couldn't give me Passover recipes and never taught me Channukkah blessings, they couldn't instill in me that sense of belonging to the gay community.

There was no bond over watching the Tonys, no shopping for my first feather boa, and no lessons about famous drag queens in history. I was on my own.

So I set off to learn as much as I could. I started off reading overview texts, moved on to Randy Shilts, and watched what few documentaries I could. I googled pictures of the Marches on Washington and compared maps of the Village to figure out where precisely the riots had started and moved to. I tried to gather as much information as I felt I would have had I been taught this culture from birth, right down to the bad 1980s pop-culture references and the most fabulous-among-fabulous drag queens. I purchased everything I could find with a rainbow emblem, thinking maybe that talisman was the key to my belonging.

I talked to a classmate who had literally been through it all - to hear him talk, he was the Forrest Gump of the gay 80s and 90s. He told incredible stories about ACT UP and Queer Nation, turning himself in for violating DC's sodomy laws in the 1990s along with several dozen other men, and staging protests at straight weddings.

It was all fascinating, but distant. I had no ties to that. It was a different time, and a different approach than I would ever take. The gay culture of my generation was sex-obsessed, diva-crazy, and label-hungry. I thought, and I knew I wouldn't ever fit in with them. Was I destined to always feel apart from a culture I wanted so much to be a part of?

So I went to New York the day I turned 21, desperate to connect to this heritage I had been reading about for months.

My first pride parade lasted far longer than I expected - something like 6 or 7 hours - and by the end, I was bordering on hallucinating from the lack of food and sleep. Everything was a mass of sequins, glitter, and house music, thumping and grinding its way down Christopher Street. I looked to my left, watching the last of the semi-drunken revelers continue towards the end of the parade route, and in the early evening light I could almost picture a more angry occasion, with tear gas and bottles being thrown instead of Mardi Gras beads; demands for the police to leave the bar's patrons alone instead of cheery calls about where the best party would be; and a band of a few dozen angry queens instead of several million queers in every shape and size.

This was my history. These were my people, and I was proud to claim them as my own.

Pride in my home is the highest of High Holidays, a time to revel in our shared cultural experience as gay Americans - and wear fabulous outfits, of course - and good things seem to happen to me at Pride.

The first time I got to really spend time with my now-partner was at San Francisco Pride - and, appropriately, it was during San Francisco Pride last year that we wed, just down the hall from the statue of Harvey Milk.

It's times like those I feel like we're helping create our own heritage, something to pass down to the next generation of LGBTQ kids as they make the pilgrimage to their first Pride.

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