I have not always had a feeling of pride in being gay. For much of my life I was actually embarrassed and wanted the feelings I had for men to just go away. I spent years hoping it was only a phase I was going through. Turns out it was a hell of a long phase. I prayed I would find a wife, have 2.3 children and a house surrounded by a white picket fence. I knew nothing about white picket fences, and less about houses, as I grew up in a Manhattan rental apartment. But TV and books had a great influence on me so I dreamed of white picket fences. Maybe it was watching Donna Reed or Ozzie and Harriet that did it. Along with the fence, I also dreamed of Ricky Nelson, but I couldn’t admit that to anyone.
Having pride came only after many years of hiding and pretending. It wasn’t until I came to D.C. that I felt that I could chance being who I was and true to myself. I attended my first Pride festival with a friend at a small dirt field in Dupont. There was a stage and a few booths, a lot of political speakers, some not very good entertainment and some drag queens. But it was inspiring as we were making our way out of the closet and into the gay community.
Today both the Capital Pride celebration and I have morphed into something very different. I am very out and very proud. I came to grips with being gay back in the 1980s. I lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic and lost many friends. My first visit to a gay bar was to the Lost and Found. I had just taken a new job and my friend Gayle took me one Friday evening. The first person I saw there, propped up on a bar stool, was someone that was involved in the non-profit I had just started to work for. Quickly grabbing Gayle by the waist I introduced her to him as if to say, “I am not really gay, just here with a friend.” I figured I had fooled him. It took another six weeks for me to have dinner with him and come out to him. He just looked at me and said, “It’s about time!”
I began the process of coming out to family and friends. It was so much easier than I had ever believed. Some said they always knew I was gay, others said, OK, now what else should we talk about. But for me a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It was like finally being able to take deep breaths of fresh air.
As I was coming out of my closet so was Capital Pride. From a small event in Dupont Circle, then known as the “fruit loop,” to what it is today. A sometimes-too-long parade, but fun anyway, and a huge noisy festival on the nation’s main street, Pennsylvania Avenue, attended by 200,000 people. Last year’s Capital Pride budget exceeded $400,000.
I have attended Pride in other cities. My most memorable was in New York when there was the confluence of Stonewall 25, the Gay Games and Pride all lumped together. I remember walking down the middle of the street with friends, in the city in which I grew up, and thinking there is no better feeling in the world than this.
My hope is that the young men and women who will be at the parade and the festival this year for their first time will have some of those same feelings and experience the ability to say out loud to the world as the song goes, “I am what I am!”
There is a serious side to Pride. There are floats that remind us of those that died of HIV/AIDS and those that are living with it. It’s also a time to remember that not all of the LGBT community lives with the relative freedom we have in the District of Columbia. It’s also important to watch the politicians march, knowing we have important decisions to make as to who we will vote for, while remembering which ones have kept their promises to us, and which ones have disappointed.
As we celebrate Pride and enjoy the various events that are part of it, let us not forget that we in the LGBT community still have a long way to go before we can fully claim all our human and civil rights. We need to be vigilant in protecting what we have fought so hard for and united as we move forward to claim the rest of our rightful heritage.
Peter Rosenstein is a D.C.-based LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.