This post was originally published at the now-closed Shakespeare and Punk on August 22, 2017.
This year I attended NYC Pride, my first Pride ever. I was equally nervous and excited. My idea of what to expect came from TV shows and personal essays. I’ve been in queer spaces before, in gay bars and GSA clubs, but Pride is on a different scale. I anticipated a feeling of infiltration, of saturation that I wouldn’t be able to find at any other place or time in the world. I expected not just to know I was surrounded by other members of the community, but to see it. We were going to be made visible. I definitely didn’t expect for the most striking part of NYC Pride 2017 to be sitting in a McDonald’s, surrounded by teens and 20-somethings covered in rainbow and glitter.
Pride is like being at a party and a man is talking to me, but he’s actually just talking without anyone to listen. I make eye contact with a woman a foot away, and I know she gets what I’m feeling. There’s an immediate solidarity there even between strangers — you know you both know something. I’ve never experienced that kind of immediate understanding before with other queer strangers, because I’ve never known for sure they were there. Pride lets you make that knowing eye-contact with nearly everyone in the room.
At Pride, I felt like I could ask nearly anyone for help, for directions. I received compliments from passers-by on a near-deserted city street and I felt safe instead of threatened, understood instead of objectified. The man standing next to me during the parade shared startlingly open commentary with me between blows on his dick-shaped whistle. It felt frenetic, or maybe frantic — people expressing themselves as much as possible in this space, connecting immediately and deeply with neighbors they’d never see again.
Move that from the streets into a McDonald’s and it magnifies. I wasn’t sure what to do after I left my spot pressed against the parade barrier; I wasn’t quite ready to go home, and I didn’t want to spend the money to get into a bar where I’d sip from one drink, pressed uncomfortably close to sweaty strangers, and then go home anyway with a slight headache. On the way to a restaurant, I gave up, feet tired and stomach empty, and headed into a McDonald’s. It was packed, as New York fast food joints always are, but it was full of young people with Pride flags, covered in sweat and glitter, and they all looked happy to be there.
That space wasn’t roped out for us. We carved it out as the parade wound down. We converged and we weren’t stopped. We were the people who weren’t sure what to do once the official celebration ended, the people who couldn’t afford $20 cover charges or were too young for the crowds spilling off the sidewalks in front of every bar in the vicinity. Nearly all of the official Pride events outside of the parade are 21+ and charge to enter, and even outside of Pride, there are few official queer spaces that aren’t bars and clubs. Pride is the only time these young queer people with limited resources are out and visible in big enough numbers to claim an unofficial space for their own.
I wonder if they knew, the fourteen-year-olds, the other first-timers, that they were continuing Pride by sitting there in their feather boas, rainbow Mickey Mouse head stickers on their cheeks, eating salty, soggy french fries. I wonder if they sensed that they were experiencing something they might never experience again. I didn’t make eye contact with any strangers in that McDonald’s, but if I had, would I have seen a reflection of what I was feeling?
For 30 minutes, we took up that space, only us, only rainbows in a space we’re not normally seen. Pride already had me asking what it would be like to always be able to tell who would understand me, who would help me. I was already wondering what it’d be like to always know when other queer people were on the same street corner as me. But seeing a McDonald’s full of only us made me wonder what it’d be like to experience a room full of only queer people outside of my house and club meetings, out in the real world, in the corporate world.
It made me more aware of how isolating it can be not to know when other queer people are around, not to be able to tell when you’re standing right next to one another. It made me more conscious of the dangers of visibility, what kind of risks there would be to the community if we could be spotted at all times by people outside of it. More conscious of the amount of pressure there must be on the people who are visible all the time, whether they choose to be or not. More grateful for the people who work for visibility and have a platform, the people who we can connect to even if it’s not direct or interpersonal, the people who make sure we know we’re not alone.
The world wouldn’t be a better place if we woke up tomorrow and all queer people were visibly identifiable. Far from it. But we are starved for connection. We need to know we aren’t alone. We need to know there are people like us and we need people to talk to. The rest of the world needs to know we’re here, to hear our voices, to learn about our experiences and see what a presence we hold. Constant and total visibility would be dangerous. But one parade, one weekend, one month — is this enough? How do we find the balance?
I don’t have any definitive answers. If I hadn’t gotten hungry enough to stop for fast food, I probably would’ve walked away from Pride having enjoyed the parade. I would have moved on. I didn’t know there was more to learn. I couldn’t expect to feel so moved by a greasy meal at a sticky corner table surrounded by screaming teenagers.
What I know is that I want to carve out more spaces like this one. I want to unexpectedly take over. I want to open up the doors without barriers. I want to see and be seen, and next time, I want to make eye contact that says I understand.