Pride, pageantry, and the long road to acceptance

‘Maybe it’s a luxury to be able to pick it apart for its faults’

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I never came out of the closet, my mannerisms did that for me. By the time I was 18, gay teens who knew my orientation outed me to friends at school. Mom found a love letter I wrote to a guy I chatted with online, and she called my dad, who, in such an archetypal cliché, was away on a business trip. To say I was bullied is an understatement. No one hit me and they seldom threatened violence, but they gossiped so incessantly about my orientation that I developed nervous habits: I picked my hair, my nose, my acne. I skipped classes and took frequent depressive naps. I became bitchy as a defense mechanism, and I was generally regarded as weird or—on occasion—a charity case. I mostly hung out with theater kids and in the newspaper class, and I ate lunch with other loners in grassy areas far away from the main campus.

These memories washed over me this year as Pride month arrived. In SF Weekly, I’d written an expansive feature on the commercialized rainbow and the potential harm that came from companies casually slapping it on mouthwash, shampoo, bath bombs, oat bars, makeup removers and basically everywhere else. While reporting it, one man in particular said this popular sentiment was “whiny,” echoing others who agreed that we fought so hard for the straight world to accept us.

I understood what they meant from a time I’ve only read about when being gay got you thrown in jail. People murdered you for it; families disowned you; companies fired you, or never hired you in the first place. History often marks the turning point toward a more progressive era at the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan, but many heinous acts of homophobia live on today in American culture.

I’ve always struggled with acceptance but in different ways. Very few people had a problem that I was gay, but I was still so angry at them — I felt something had been decided for me before I understood it myself. In the decade that followed “coming out,” I wore plain clothing. I seldom had a gay clique. I didn’t join gay groups or fraternities in college, and I eschewed most LGBTQ neighborhoods and bars, labeling myself “non-scene.” I clung to this notion that I could still be gay in a straight world and fit in by heterosexual norms, although I didn’t describe it to myself in that way. Mostly I said that I didn’t want being gay to be the defining trait people knew about me. This is still something I struggle with today.

In 2014, a man I met in Sacramento took me to my first Pride in The City, and in Civic Center I ran into someone else from high school, a woman who identified then as bisexual. She came up without hesitation and hugged me, “You are loved and beautiful, and I’m so happy to see you,” she said, or that’s at least how I remember it. This is when I started understanding acceptance. I realized then that even though I acknowledged my orientation, there remained a community I resisted because my home and school life flagged it as weird, or not OK, or something to be mocked in the way I often had felt growing up.

The parade and events around it began holding special significance: These are the moments that love is not only felt but given, and in that way, the entire month became the time we reach out to others and celebrate who we are, we reflect where we came from, we try to help others, and we dance.

Those feelings haven’t changed since that time, but others have now clouded my thoughts. In most subsequent years, I marched in the parade and danced onstage while many friends did not. They said straight tourists, teens and corporate parade floats with objectively little connection to the LGBTQ community ruined the event for them. After hearing it so long I began to agree. There’s only so many moments that suburban straight women tokenize you— yes, that happens often enough—before we generalize other issues with our allies and with the nature of allyship itself.

But I struggle with the LGBTQ community, too. There is so much pageantry and peacocking at Pride, and that used to be my favorite activity. Now it’s a seemingly never-ending expectation that every party is attended, and all outfit reveals are bigger and better than the last. In the face of the world finally reopening, there is an added communal forgiveness that it’s OK to over socialize and “get back to normal,” except that it was always normal: In San Francisco, house parties, protests and demonstrations still took place during Pride last year in the early stages of the pandemic. In subsequent months, many of us continued to brunch, drink, go to drag shows and mingle at LGBTQ spaces, be it in parklets, on rooftops, wearing masks inside of bars and restaurants or without them.

Am I mad about any of it—truly—about the straight tourists, the dubious allyship, the corporate floats, and the over-abundance of partying and socializing in the LGBTQ community, or the relief that people just want to see each other again? I can’t be, and ultimately that’s because I remember the decades I lived before I felt acceptance, and I know how unique a life we lead in San Francisco.

I consider myself a rare adult who walks around in sequin booties and a crop top in Nashville and Atlanta, or while browsing for board games in the suburbs of Sacramento. People still shout homophobic slurs at me from cars. Conservative men shake their heads. Ubers see what I’m wearing and drive away without stopping. Moms usher their kids down shopping aisles to avert their eyes from the scary gay man, and my mother—accepting as she is today—on more than one occasion has asked I tone down my outfits at family gatherings. I exaggerate exactly none of these incidents happened in the last six years.

I can only imagine what that’s like in a red state, or even in a California city or town that’s only moderately less progressive than ours. I am so easily wounded, and I have carried these scars from my so-called “coming out” and from embracing my gay identity for pretty much all of my adult life. There are so many others who must have it so much worse and who have lived through so much more hatred and bigotry, whose pride in who they are was much harder won, and those who haven’t felt that pride yet at all.

Maybe I’ve lived in San Francisco too long and my exposure to Pride is now too intimate. Maybe it’s a luxury to pick it apart for its faults. Maybe that’s why we say “I left my heart in San Francisco,” because the heart lives separately from the mind, and San Francisco is that heart. In that way, the spirit of this event has significance for many others outside of it, who never attended and who may never get to do so. Maybe Pride is something different for all of us, and maybe that’s OK.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco writer, event producer and apparel designer; visit him at saulsugarman.com. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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