Originally published in Fenuxe Magazine, on newstands in the metro Atlanta area now.
It was the first Sunday in June, and hundreds of vibrantly-dressed adults, teens, and children sat in the grass in the central park of Salt Lake City’s downtown gathered around to see a stage full of bearded drag queens evangelize emphatically about civil rights progress in the LGBTQ+ community in decades past. With glitter in their beard and their skin, a distinctly darker hue than their audience, the queen on stage described Stonewall as the first Pride.
It was a riot with no big media coverage, they began but was a queer shot heard round the world that enacted true change in how we saw gay liberation, and the first brick was famously thrown by a trans black woman, Marsha P. Johnson. Today, it sounds like an urban legend, and maybe parts of it are, we’ll never really know, but the sentiment is ringing true today, especially now that our liberation is under siege.
Pride month feels stronger than ever in 2018, even just a few days in. Last year on the heels of the election, my partner and I flew out to DC Pride, where we marched to the capitol and celebrated as an act of frustration. Dissatisfied with the current political state (and no, it hasn’t gotten better), Pride at that time meant brashness, where our very existence on the LGBTQ+ spectrum was an act of protest and must not only be tolerated but impossible to ignore.
Though, that might be reaching a breaking point, no? Are you feeling it? The careless, brash outspokenness that was validated by the villains in our lives isn’t working for us normal folk. Screaming obscenities online and spilling tea all over the place isn’t exactly helping enact social change, but harsh rebuttals and ‘cancellations’ are even more abundant than ever, and worse, it feels like a prerequisite for being proudly gay in the first place.
So this year, my boyfriend Mark and I embarked on a different kind of mission this Pride month: to find an obscure but popular Pride to participate in and experience a different reality than our own. That led us to Utah Pride, a state-wide LGBTQ celebration in Salt Lake City that in our urban city-slicker eyes, felt more Vanilla than Vanjee, and bubbling with red-hot conservativism.
We didn’t feel particularly welcome outside of the densly-packed pride activities. Although there’s not much that’s abrasively queer or even kind-of flamboyant about how Mark and I present ourselves, aside from our pride-themed Apple Watch bands to spark conversation, the side-eye and hate we felt by pedestrians in Salt Lake City was...apparent, to say the least. In a city that heavily blurs the line between church and state, we couldn’t know who was at fault here.
It reminded me of Love, Simon, the fluffy, well-meaning romantic comedy from earlier this year that was boundary-pushing in its very existence, but faltered when pressed for more substance on its position on femme-shaming, race, and the gay people who, unlike me or Simon or the vast majority of Salt Lake City’s residents, don’t have the luxury to ‘just exist’ in these times. Where’s the bar though, in 2018? If queer existence is a form of protest, shouldn’t any representation be celebrated? Shouldn’t the fact that there’s even a Pride parade, march, and festival this large between the snowflake-white Rocky Mountains in Salt Lake City at all be meaningful? Maybe, but it’s empty without knowing what came before it.
I’m reminded again of the bearded, glammed-up person of color on the stage, sharing the history of Stonewall and Marsha, and everything that got us to this point. No, our experiences aren’t the same, but they’re all worth sharing. Our experiences allow us to empathize with each other and with allies, all the same, we find connecting points in the emotions we share. Thus, let’s lift each other’s voices up and give attention to those who don’t or can’t have the platforms they deserve. Salt Lake City is full of white people who don’t really know or understand Stonewall, because they’re just trying to exist, and that’s okay. Your existence is a form of protest when it challenges the status quo, and some can take on more than others. Let your voice be heard, but just as often listen to the voices all around you that can help shape and nudge you in the right direction; in the direction of progress, change, and freedom. That’s what Pride is, that’s what Stonewall was. We are queer children, begging for nourishment, love, and support. Let’s give it.