By Jeff Walsh
To this writer, gay pride always seemed an uneven mix of sex and politics. But that all changed when I went to the 1994 Pride Parade in New York City. I had written against gay pride parades before attending that event, but my viewpoint changed when I saw the school bus come down the street.
It's all kind of surreal now, so I don't know if it was a real school bus. For some reason, I think it was a fake float made to look like a school bus. In any event, the float was sponsored by the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a gay city high school.
Out of each window, young gay teens were waving furiously and smiling as though their faces wouldn't allow them to smile any bigger and brighter.
Their joy was infectious, and the crowd applauded their float like no other, which only made the teens more frenzied. At that moment, I felt a warm glow throughout my whole body as I thought what a beautiful welcome to the gay community this would have been for most of the older people in the crowd.
As they were making their first tentative steps in accepting their sexuality, hundred of thousands of us cheered them on. In effect, saying "We're all here for you."
Out of joy, I cried there on Christopher Street, and my view of gay pride events was forever changed. Despite the dancing beefcake asking me to patronize a certain gay bar and the drag queens and leather men, I found a purpose. A reason to support such an event...
Traditionally, June is met with both anticipation and some scorn in the gay community. It is usually during this month that our community holds gay pride events, festivals and parades to mark the June 27th anniversary of the 1969 riot at the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village, New York City -- the catalyst for the modern day gay equal rights movement.
Recently, such events have been the subject of debate within the gay community concerning their effectiveness. Some say they are sex-obsessed days where straight America gets an unwilling ride via the media through the worst elements of a gay bar. To others, they are a pride boost that allow people to recharge their 'queer batteries' for another year, to help them in coming out, being politically active or just living through another year in straight America.
But to the youth, gay pride is sometimes their first peek into the lives they may have ahead of them. Even if they have taken their first steps toward acceptance prior to attending a pride festival, it is still an overwhelming experience.
For one day, their world is gay. All around them, same-sex couples kiss and hold hands, everyone appears happy and they see many of the myths they still feel about themselves slowly disappear.
"[The parade] made me feel better and more ready to come out publicly," says Dave Phelps of his first parade in San Diego last year. "It empowered me to see that I wasn't alone in this, that there were people to meet and turn to and that it wasn't such an abnormality. I also saw that in spite of all the oppression we can still live," he says.
Phelps, 18, (skelling on IRC) is a programmer for a small software firm and lives in San Francisco. Growing up, he had problems accepting his sexuality. "I wanted to fit into the realm of normality," he says, "but then I began to realize that normality is just an average and each person is unique -- going to that parade more than proved that!"
"I started coming out after I went to the parade and now I only closet myself when personal safety is at stake," he says. "Otherwise, I'm pretty much out and loud."
Phelps admits that he's a "lucky bastard" to live so close to gay-friendly areas. But here's how he describes a gay pride parade for teens who won't be able to see one for quite some time.
"It's better than sex!" he says with a grin. "You see that you are not a freak and that everyone there is there because they want to be there and they are happy. You don't have to hide and there is no shame.
"It's a celebration -- everyone is dancing around, singing, laughing and hanging out in the street -- acting silly and wild for the sake of it."
For other teens, attending a pride event is a future goal. For an 18-year-old from Florida, who uses the nick "Confused" in the IRC chat channel #gayteen, his goal is to attend a pride event by the time he's 30. Although pride events will occur about 60 miles away from him in Orlando, he won't be attending this year.
"I can't." he says. "I haven't really `come out' to anyone. There is only one person who knows about me. But when I do decide that it is time, then I will be able to freely go and come as I please.
"If I went, I would go in fear that some one would see me and "out" me. I don't think I could handle that. I would rather wait and go when I know I can enjoy myself than go in fear."
Confused is thinking of coming out to his family in the next few months. He credits #gayteen for helping him find people "like me." He predicts he will achieve his own private gay pride eventually.
"To me, it means you are happy with yourself, and that you are, in fact, gay. And no matter how much society ridicules you or tries to put you down, you will still fight for who you are and for other's who will follow in your footsteps."
And how does he plan to achieve that?
"I will just have to let go of everything that I do not accept or doesn't accept me or make me happy," he says. "Happiness is all that I seek in life, and I know that one day I will have it. I am positive about the future, but the present isn't such a nice place for me right now."
Ben Gertzfield (wilwonka on IRC) seems to be in the right place now. At 16, Gertzfield has been out at school where he is a dorm student for the past year, and in April told his family he's gay. Rather than scorn, he found acceptance - to the degree that his mother (using the nick WilsMom) even drops in on the #gayteen room on occasion.
Gertzfield is planning to attend his first gay pride event in Chicago with a friend from IRC, and most likely, his mom. What are his impressions prior to going?
"It seems to me that it plays a really important role in gay life. It's a meeting place for people who don't have the net, it's a way of self-expression for a lot of people.
"I think it'll be cool, reassuring, to see that many gay people in real life," he says, although he added that #gayteen served as more of a turning point in his life.
He thinks pride events can do for others what the IRC channel did for him.
"I think it should show gay youth that there are more people like them out there, that they're not alone," he says. "That's one of the most important things #gayteen showed me."
And at 16, Gertzfield is already making his mark in the community.
"People've told me that I've been the reason they came out," he says, punctuating our chat with his usual onslaught of smiley-faces. "I try to make everyone's life a little sunnier, a little happier."
Gertzfield said that without #gayteen, he might be some closeted "moody rebel" now. But he doesn't plan to become some militant activist about his sexuality.
"I'm not like a radical, I don't want anything special," he says. "but I can't stand hurting."
Samantha, 17, of Irvine, California, (dragonfly on IRC) remembers what it was like when she first started accepting her feelings at age 14.
"I never want to re-live it!" she says. "It was really frustrating. At first, I didn't know what I was feeling, and I had no one to talk about it with."
A year later, she finally checked out some library books on lesbianism, studied them, and then came out to her best friend, who was straight. The girl wrote Samantha a letter afterward and told her that it had strengthened their friendship. She is now out to her parents, who had no problem accepting her, which Samantha attributes to living in a non-religious household.
Samantha attended her first pride event at Long Beach, Calif., last month. Her former girlfriend told her what to expect, so nothing really surprised her, but it did make her feel happy.
"The part that really was the greatest was seeing all of the gay couples together," she says.
As for helping her to accept her sexuality, Samantha says that "I found just being around other gay people helps, and reading books, definitely." (She recommends Annie on my Mind for any girls who may have questions about their sexuality)
Samantha said that she knows she will never be like the scared 14-year-old girl she once was, and gay pride helps to reinforce that.
"Just being able to see all those other gay people together, holding hands, makes me more self-confident somehow. But, a lot has changed since I was 14, too. I used to think that I'd never meet another gay person until college."
Darrel Farris, 18, of Carriere, Mississippi, went to his first gay pride event last year. For Farris, the event left him feeling kind of empty.
"It was in New Orleans," he says. "I thought it had a good purpose, but it seemed a bit pretentious. It looked like everyone was out to get picked up. The girls were cool, but the guys just seemed really immature about the whole thing."
Farris (known as "Duckie" on IRC) says dealing with his bisexuality was never a major conflict for him growing up.
"I never really had a moment of discovery, so I didn't have the chance to deny it," Farris says. "It's always been there, so it wasn't a big deal for me.
Despite not quite enjoying his first gay pride event, Farris says he does his part on a daily basis to make people more aware of his sexuality.
"People may be more inclined to support gay rights if they are in contact with a gay, bi, or lesbian personally," Farris says. "So, I wear freedom rings. I look at those as an expression of pride. I'm open about it if someone asks me.
"I feel that people aren't going to accept gays unless they realize that we come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, etc.," he says.
Farris is also going to attend another pride event this year.
"I figure that other people's attitudes towards things shouldn't reflect on me," he says. "So, I'm going to go back, and try to make the best of things -- ignore the negative stuff, and just try to make it good for me, so I can get something out of it."