Sunday in New York City: a beautiful, sunny day for the annual Gay Pride March. Thousands of men and women are assembling in mid-Manhattan for the march through the center of the city. I’ll be marching with a group from NOMAS: Michael Kimmel, Jim Harrison, Karl White and Ron Smith (who led the first M&M), Sidney Miller, my wife Joanne, and several other straight and gay friends. The mood is festive; banners, balloons, and colorful costumes blaze everywhere. There’s a proud old man who took part in the legendary Stonewall Rebellion, which gave birth to the Gay Liberation movement. There’s a tall woman on roller skates, wearing an evening gown; someone is costumed as a spider, with six-foot legs waving everywhere. But underneath the gaiety, there is a seriousness about this march. This is a city that has refused to pass a Gay Rights Protection Bill. One that still has no laws to protect the civil rights and personal safety of its GLBT citizens. Men and women have died on these very streets, for no crime but their sexual preference. Like every other city in America, New York needs to see this march.
For a heterosexual man, marching in any Gay Rights demonstration is likely to be a emotional and “consciousness-raising” experience. I’d done it before, but the feelings always come back with a jolt. When you plan it in advance, the idea is simply to march, as a straight person who cares about justice, and wants to support that struggle. But when you step out into the march, and you look at the faces of the people on the sidewalk watching you go by, it suddenly hits you: All Those People Think That I’m Gay. You look at their curious faces, you feel their eyes on you. A man stares directly at me, and whispers something to the woman he’s with. She smirks. (I can almost hear them…”Jeeze, look at that one! What a faggot!”)
You can almost feel their disdain coming out at you, sometimes even hatred. It’s an eerie feeling, all this crazy, impersonal hostility coming down on you, and it’s scary. And the weirdest part of it is that you can’t help wanting to say: “But wait!, I’m not gay! I’m just here to show support…” But reality is now irrelevant to what’s happening here. To all these people, I clearly am Gay. Me, and all my friends here with me. And “reality” is getting a little fuzzy anyway, because I’m now feeling a strong bond with all the marchers, and an eerie estrangement and separation from that hostile straight world, gawking on the sidewalks. That’s my world. Or is it? Like the story of the prince and the pauper, I’ve stepped over some invisible line, and found myself in a different world. The “invisible minority.” Except that it’s visible today, and I’m now part of it.
I duck out of the march to buy a soda, and wait in line at the deli with a few other customers. One man smiles at me, and gestures at the parade going by: ”Makes you wonder what the damn world’s coming to, don’t it?” And it suddenly hits me: I’m not gay anymore. I’ve just passed back, into the other world. I walk out to the curb and stand for a moment, watching the parade go by. It seems endless. Hundreds of men and women march by, beneath huge banners. Someone near me says, “Can you believe all this?” I’m still part of the straight world it seems. Soda finished, I run to catch up and rejoin the march. Now I feel the curious and hostile stares again. Now I’m again a Gay Man, in the eyes of the world.
As I’m marveling at these instant changes, and the effect they’re having on my head, we approach a group of watchers, being cordoned off from the marchers by a line of policemen. It’s a congregation of born-again Christians from Queens, out to save us from our terrible sins. What a sight! I step up close to them to snap a picture, and a man yells: “It’s not too late to save your soul!” Relieved to get this news, I reply “Thanks, and good luck with yours too.” They’re all shouting at me at once. An elderly woman who resembles my grandmother pushes a sign toward me: “DON’T DESTROY AMERICA FOR YOUR LUST”. Their derisive shouts follow me as I rejoin the parade. I guess they feel pleased that they actually got to confront one of those faggots up close.
I guess that I know them a little better than they know me. I grew up in a southern Methodist Church, reciting Bible verses, and have known hundreds of solid, respectable Churchgoers all my life. But in my small home town I had rarely heard even a mention of homosexuality, in Church or anywhere else. But these folks live in the big city, so they hear and see a lot more. I smile as I wonder to myself if they would recognize me if I should walk into their Church some Sunday morning in a suit and tie with my wife and daughter. (“Good morning and welcome, Brother!!! Say…, haven’t I seen you, somewhere before…?”)
At last our march reaches safe and familiar territory, the heartland of the East Village, where there’s a street fair now in full swing, filling Christopher Street from one end to the other. Everyone relaxes and gorges on fresh fruit and hot delicacies from the sidewalk stands. The mood everywhere is festive. Another Gay Pride march has taken place, and the long term struggle goes on.
I have found marching publicly in Gay Rights parades to be a fascinating and illuminating experience. I do it partly of course because I think it’s always good for straight men to publicly support our GLBT brothers and sisters with our actual presence, to add to the numbers, etc. But the hard and wonderfully consciousness-raising part, is the experience of being viewed by strangers as a gay man. For no logical reason I can think of, this is terrifying at first. The bizarre hostility and hatred that openly GLBT people experience in this country feels a lot more real, when some of it is directed toward you personally. And the experience can be a powerful opening, into understanding many things about ourselves: our deep unexpected reactions; our fears; our own homophobia. If every straight person in America would march in a Gay Rights Parade just once, it is likely that many emotional doors would begin to open.