June 28, 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Stonewall riots in New York City. These riots are considered by some to be the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. The first anniversary of the riots in 1970 was honored by the Christopher Street March, which has evolved over time into the annual Pride march in NYC.
I am fortunate to work for an employer who cares about diversity, and my company paid for an entry in the March last year. I flew up to New York, met up with many of my LGBTQ+ coworkers and their families, and marched down 7th Avenue towards Christopher Square and right in front of the Stonewall Inn, before turning up 5th Avenue towards the Empire State Building, lit in rainbow colors to honor Pride. To call the experience “amazing” doesn’t do it justice, but it’s hard to find another superlative which fits better.
Before marching, a friend and I watched the first few hours of the march on 5th Avenue. The feeling was electric; anticipation of the first marchers, celebration of the Pride event, and a general sense of happiness from everyone there. But more than that, I felt a strong sense of community. There I was, surrounded by thousands of spectators (estimates place attendance around 2 million!), all of us either LGBTQ+ or allies. I was in a huge crowd, and I belonged!
I felt relaxed. I didn’t have to keep my guard up against people who either didn’t understand or had decided they didn’t care what my experience was. Instead, I was readily accepted for who and what I am, with no questions and no judgement. No pressure to conform to rigid gender roles, no challenges to my authenticity, and no having to perform emotional labor on behalf of others. As an introvert, being in crowds isn’t appealing to me, but I found I was drawing energy from being in this crowd. It was exhilarating!
Marching took this feeling to a new dimension. Instead of being in the cheering throng, I was among the people being cheered! While I started the march in the middle of the road, giving myself a safe buffer from the crowds behind the temporary fencing, by the time we turned onto Christopher Street, I was walking along the sides, blowing bubbles from bubble guns our company provided into the excited crowd and giving high fives and even hugs to random people on the sides. I was transformed!
While we started the march as separate groups, by the end, we had merged into one big mass of flag-waving, bubble shooting, proudly LGBTQ+ comrades. The artificial lines which separated us were erased and we were all friends, united in our resolve to show the world that we will not be afraid, we will not be ashamed, but we will be proud of who we really are!
Prior to the March, I explored the city – a favorite pastime for me any time I’m in New York. I was struck by how the whole city came out in support – there were rainbow flags in nearly every shop window, businesses modified their signage to incorporate rainbows into their logos, and people were out in rainbow clothing, draped in various flags representing subsets of the LGBTQ+ umbrella. I saw trans flags wherever I went, which was a bit eye-opening, as I never really got just how common the trans experience really is: one person in every 100-200 is trans – probably closer to 100, as the prevalence is likely underreported due to the lingering stigma against trans people.
Pride events get a lot of criticism from people who question why they are even needed. Some even ask silly questions like “when is straight Pride?” (Answer: every other day of the year!) Pride events are important because even today, being LGBTQ+ can feel isolating. The large majority of people I come into contact with on a daily basis are straight and cisgender. People like me need to feel like we are a part of a community, especially one who readily understands and accepts us as we are. For a large portion of my life, LGBTQ+ people were, at best, made fun of, and at worst, subjected to violence and persecution for just being themselves. Being identified as LGBTQ+ was something to be avoided and denied, for fear of the bad things which would happen or be done to us.
Pride events bring us together as a community. They show us we aren’t alone. They normalize LGBTQ+ people within society. They make it a little safer for young LGBTQ+ people to speak their truths and live authentically.
Pride events are necessary.
Later last year, the city I live in held a Pride event. My city is significantly smaller than New York City, so I felt tepid about attending the local Pride; how could it compare against what I’d experienced?
But I pulled myself together and drove into town. To my pleasant surprise, I felt the same energy and sense of community. While the event was small in comparison, it was still quite large for our city. I joined with a local trans social group in the Pride parade, and this time, I came out of my shell right away. I was comfortable with myself, and even found myself moving to the music playing from nearby floats. I saw a lot of friends either marching along or on the sides, and even more friends saw me!
After the sun went down, our family watched the fireworks mark the end of the Pride event. The display was larger and more spectacular than even the July 4th fireworks!
This year, I’m back in New York for the Pride events. My company isn’t in the march, but You never know what could happen. I’m anticipating that this year will be even bigger, with the combination of the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall and WorldPride NYC. At this point, the forecast shows there may be thunderstorms hitting the city on Sunday, but I doubt even that will dampen the spirits of the people here; it won’t dampen mine!