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  • The Parade Under the Rainbow by Michael Williams


              After attending many Pride festivals I have come to cherish the ones that take on special significance. This is one of those Prides because it is my 18th year celebrating and that means I have spent half of my life out and proud and dancing in the streets about it. More importantly it means that next year I will have spent more years completely open about my sexuality than I haven’t. It also means I’m dangerously close to turning 40, but we’ll save my thoughts on that for another story. Every year I reflect on the Pride weekends of my past. It has come to be one of my favorite things to reminisce about, like some rainbow colored time capsule of who and where I was in each year of my life.

              There was the Pride I spent in San Francisco with my Aunt Davida. Growing up she was my godmother, mentor, and role model. She was also my Confirmation sponsor, so take that Catholic Church. I was ushered into spiritual adulthood by a lesbian. She taught me how to see the beauty in being gay and empowered me to confidently know myself. When I was a child I told everyone I was going to be a social worker one day because Davida was a social worker. Her girlfriend Renee played the part of Santa every year at Christmas. She was the first member of my family that I came out to and I will always remember the love and support she showed me that night. She welcomed me into our community with a knowing smile. Celebrating Pride with her in a city synonymous with the foundation of the queer rights movement was a powerful moment in the formation of my queer identity. Also there were fried Twinkies.

              Pride in New York City stands out as well. Not only was it my first east coast Pride, it was also the first I spent living away from home. I remember being astounded by the seemingly never ending parade. There was a group for everyone. Actually there were about a dozen groups for everyone and I think the parade might have lasted for 3 days but that could just be the tiki drinks talking. I attended with newly made friends, having moved to the city the preceding November. My year spent in New York was a game changer. They took gay to a whole different level. I was immersed into the scene on a scale I didn’t know was possible. We didn’t have a neighborhood or two. We were everywhere - holding hands and doing drag and living so fiercely out in the open about it. For the first time in my life I had as many, if not more, gay friends as straight. I know that happens in Chicago as well, but for some reason it never has for me. I was part of a brotherhood I had been searching for all my life and I was so content that day.

              Not all my Pride weekends have been epic moments of positive self awareness though. I have lost myself more than once in a boozy haze. One year when my friends had their fill of dancing and drinking I decided the bath house would be a better option than being alone. Excitement quickly turned to shame as I chased feelings of inadequacy and loneliness from my head with as many men as I could get my hands on. In the moment I chalked it up to an empowered celebration of my sexuality and freedom. In reality it was escapism at its most dangerous. I don’t regret that year or any of the others that became more about getting my drink on than showing my pride. The journey to get to where I am today hasn’t always been an easy one but I like where I’ve landed and I like who I am. It took those mistakes to get here.

              But more than any other Pride, I most cherish my first. It set the tone in such a way that I am still not entirely convinced it was not elaborately scripted for me by some cosmic gay fairy godmother. I was 18 and had just graduated from a less than pleasant experience at a very conservative, Catholic high school. There was an ad in the local paper for an lgbt youth group called PRISM that I looked at constantly, wondering if my family knew I was really rereading the same fifty words over and over and not looking for another summer job like I said. It was unbearable, trying to muster the courage to show up and find out what a group of gay teenagers actually does. I was as terrified as I was eager to do gay things with gay people. When I finally found my way to my first meeting I sat in the parking lot for half an hour before going in, so unsure of what to expect. Would it be like an AA meeting? “Hello, my name is Michael, and I’m a homosexual.” Would there be cute boys there? Oh no, what if there were cute boys and I had to talk to them? How many people would actually be in attendance and what if they didn’t like me? Once I entertained every possible question about who I might meet and why they might be there, I was ready to find out. Inside awaited a really lovable bunch of diverse and beautiful queers who couldn’t have been more welcoming and I quickly began playing catch up with my social skills.

              We were led by a generous and boisterous man who gave us a crash course in queer culture.   He would later become the first person I knew who would succumb to AIDS and I would eventually serve on the Board of Directors for the organization that sponsored the group. It is indelibly a part of who I am. Shortly after joining, it was time for the Pride parade. We rode the green line into the city while belting out the soundtrack to Rent with an exuberance that suggested we didn’t care if the rest of the train hadn’t signed up to hear about gay sex and AIDS. We were teenagers damnit, and it was our job to alienate everyone else on public transportation. We would be riding on a trolley with other members of OPALGA, the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association, and throwing beads and condoms to the onlookers. From the beginning, my queer experience was linked with acronyms and sex.

              It was pouring as we climbed into the trolley, unsure if the parade would be delayed or even happen. A full on, gays go home, downpour. Then, just at the moment the parade was scheduled to begin, the skies cleared and a rainbow stretched out over the route. They had really gone all out. We were on our way. PFLAG was marching in front us and in their ranks was Nick, a boy from the youth group with whom I had recently gone on my first date. He was older, home for the summer from college, and also experiencing his first romance with another boy. He had just come out to his parents and I was still 2 months away from coming out to mine, which seems pretty silly in retrospect as my mother’s reply when I came out was, “we’ve known since you were three.” We had been on a couple of dates and the butterflies were real. As we made our way through the parade route I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

              There were thousands of people lined up to cheer for us. No school administrators asking me to be less obvious and no bullies making their daily reminder that I was a fag - only the overwhelming sense of happiness. I had never been around so many gay people and so many straight people that were in on the fun. There were families and folks from all walks of life brought together to celebrate what had been my greatest source of shame and anxiety until that day. I thought of my mother’s one request, “don’t end up on tv - what if Grandma sees it,” and how ridiculous it was that I would tell her I was going to the gay pride parade but not that I was gay. Coming out is a skill that develops grace with time. The depth and breadth of the queer community wasn’t news to me, but to see it in action was awe inspiring. Being in my first parade instead of watching it was such a blessing. When the parade finished I experienced what would become the first of several times that I had the joy of meeting a boyfriend’s parent and pretending that I was just his very effeminate friend and nothing more.

              After saying goodbye to Mom and lunch with the group, we made our way to a Pride youth dance above Ann Sather and that’s when the nerves really started kicking in. Nick and I had only held hands up to that point and even that sent electricity throughout my body. Well, there was also the time I gave him an adorably awkward peck on the cheek before running out of his car like it might explode at any moment, but that was the extent of our physical interactions. So there I was, dancing with a boy that I liked, desperate for the courage to do something about it, and I was completely unaware of the world around me. It turns out I was a pretty good dancer. That shouldn’t have surprised me though as I did attend 6 proms in high school. The gay safety date is always in high demand. Do You Believe in Life After Love was playing and we had danced ourselves into a sweaty mess, pouring 20 years of pent up desire and frustration into a frantic, palpable beat. “I think he’s looking at me the same way I’m looking at him. Is there a certain way I should be looking at him? Wow that feels amazing when he touches my hips. Did he just grab my butt? I am a lady. Please let him grab it again. Should I kiss him or will he kiss me?” And then it just happened. We danced a little closer, locked eyes and smiled, and he kissed me. I had my first kiss while listening to Cher, at the Pride youth dance, after the parade under the rainbow. I’m surprised I didn’t burst into flames right there. I was experiencing emotions I didn’t have words for but I knew I liked it and I wanted a whole lot more. It was a moment that ignited the rest of my life and the bar for Pride was set pretty high that day. Afterward, we sat curbside, fingers entwined, watching the rest of the celebrations play out - simultaneously part of something bigger and totally inside our own world.

              So here we are, 17 Prides later, and some things haven’t changed. I am still shaken by the outpouring of love and support at each parade I attend. I still get butterflies before a first kiss, but I definitely have a better idea of when it’s coming. And I still look to the sky for a rainbow every time. There have even been a few. I don’t know what’s in store for me during my Prides to come but I can’t wait to find out.