Everyone loves a parade: the cheering crowds, the confetti, the flags, the bands and the balloons. Parades are best on summer afternoons, when even the sun seems to celebrate. In just such an atmosphere, the New York Gay Pride Parade stepped out at 12 noon yesterday from 36th Street on its march down Fifth Avenue to Christopher Street in the Village.
Seven and half hours later, when I left to meet my friend Marisa for a glass of chilled rosé at Le Zie (OK, it was a bottle), the parade was still passing my block at 16th and 5th.
I’ve been going to the Parade off-and-on since sometime in the late 70s. I confess I used to be frustrated by the images that dominated the parade and which inevitably appeared in the press coverage: leather daddies in ass-less chaps, bare-breasted overweight lesbians, drag queens in stiletto heels and little else, the Dykes on Bikes, and any number of others who didn’t represent the gay person I perceived myself to be. Marisa used to say she wished the parade organizers would request marchers and spectators to “come as you are everyday,” so that the world would see gay people in business suits, military uniforms, nurses’ and doctors’ lab coats and scrubs, that we were everywhere among and no different from the rest of the world. If anything could counter homophobia, the realization that gay people were “no different than me” ought to do it.
However, over the past year or so, I realized something about homophobia: that its root is not a feeling of disgust or shame or fear over people of the same sex having sex or being physically affectionate or even being in love. It’s much deeper than that.
It’s about gender — what’s acceptable behavior for boys and girls or men and women and what are acceptable public expressions of gender, and even the binary gender notion itself. I realized this when I was writing a poem about a time when my father criticized me when I was in high school for using the word “exquisite.” Boys don’t use that word, he said.
I have no doubt that some of what fueled my father’s reaction was his perception (and fear) that his son might turn out to be gay. But I also realized that any boy — gay or straight or somewhere in between — could have been criticized by his father for using language that society deemed inappropriate for males. Gender behavior and expression were the real culprits.
The gender binary is deeply rooted inside all of us. It is the first point of identity assigned to us and the original point of “difference” we’re made aware of. “It’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” the doctor pronounces, and parents prepare the pink- or blue-edged announcement cards, or more likely today, the proud posts to Facebook and Instagram. With those pronouncements and announcements, we’re changed from the neutral pronoun “it” to a definitive noun that goes one way or another — “boy” or “girl.”
The mind needs to categorize things. It’s part of our DNA and essential to our survival as an individual organism, as a member of a tribe, and as a species. “Friend” or “foe,” “family” or “stranger,” “one of us” or “not one of us.” I could argue that those distinctions are becoming less essential to survival on our globalizing, urbanizing, networked and over-populated planet. In fact, they may be antithetical to our survival as a species at this point. But old habits die hard.
So I’ve come to understand and appreciate the deeper meaning of the rainbow flag, of the concepts of diversity and inclusiveness that create such awkward identifiers for the gay movement as “LGBTQ.” (It seems like every other year, another letter needs to be added to the acronym lest someone be excluded.)
What all those letters have in common is this: NOT adhering to traditional expectations of gender behavior and expression. Or to avoid the negativity of “NOT” — outside of, beyond, having transcended, and perhaps most accurately in terms of the benefit — FREED from the restrictions of those expectations.
So, as I watched the parade move down Fifth Avenue this year, I rejoiced in all the wonderful people dressing and behaving however they chose. And I was very clear that everyone — regardless of sexuality — benefits from that freedom.
Indeed, the Pride Parade has become the place, the day, a moment in which everyone gets to enjoy and celebrate that freedom. More and more, one sees families, parents, groups of teens, friends and colleagues along the parade route all draped in pride beads, waving rainbow flags, jumping at the chance for a selfie with a famous drag queen.
Of course, this year, more sobering thoughts were never very far away from the celebration and the smiling faces, as reminders of the 49 murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando were everywhere throughout the parade.
I had expected tight security at the access points to the parade route, thinking maybe that backpacks and such might even be prohibited. There was none, however; seemingly anyone could have walked onto the sidewalk with whatever they wanted to carry with them.
There were, of course, armed policemen everywhere. One walked up and down the block of Fifth Avenue where I was standing. But it seemed to me it would have been ridiculously easy to snatch his pistol from its holster as he passed inches in front of me time and time again.
The Israelis — for whom security is an art form — brought their own heat to the parade. Two men whose dress and demeanor telegraphed Mossad (I suppose that’s the point) trailed the Israeli float. What you’re not seeing in this photo is the coiled wire behind this guy’s left ear, nor his watchful pacing between the float and the crowd, as the parade paused in one of its frequent parade-jams in front of me.
In this vein, there was one sign I saw in the parade that more than any other summed up my feelings today about the position of gay people (and all the other letters; I use “gay” for convenience) in the world today. It was a small sign, and it was carried by someone in a group of Asian-Americans.
In the media, questions continue about the shooter in Orlando. Was he actually gay, and were the murders, in essence, a horrible act of self-loathing? What was the role of his religion? Was he just an angry lunatic with an axe to grind about gay men hitting on him?
None of this matters to me. Regardless of his personal motivation, he specifically chose a gay club and gay people to target. And as he pulled the trigger over and over, he was killing gay people.
What suggests to anyone — deranged or not — that killing gay people is justified? What gives “permission” for that? Whose hand is also on the trigger?
Pope Francis was quoted in the New York Times this morning as saying, on his plane trip back from Armenia, that “the Roman Catholic Church should seek forgiveness from gays for the way they had treated them.” This in response to a question from a reporter asking if the Pope agreed with a similar statement made recently by a Cardinal of the church in Germany. To quote the Times: “Francis, looking sad, recalled church teachings that homosexuals ‘should not be discriminated against… They should be respected, accompanied pastorally,’ he said.”
This sounds good. It’s the kind of thing the Pope has a habit of saying that makes him the darling of good liberals like myself. But it’s worth parsing the Pope’s words precisely, as I do for a living in my communications consulting and as a poet as well.
The Pope said that the Church “should” apologize; not “is apologizing” nor “will apologize” or “is going to apologize.” He also, notably, did not apologize, something you’d think he could do as the titular head and de facto chief spokesperson of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Times goes on to point out that “the church teaches that gay tendencies are not sinful but that gay acts are, and that gays should try to be chaste.” That sounds a lot like “Boys don’t use that word” to me.
So I would challenge the Pope to stop pronouncing what the Church “should” do and to do as a famous advertising slogan suggests: Just do it.
And I would maintain that anyone who represents any institution that seeks to “teach” or portray in any way that gay people are somehow “less” than anyone else, also had their finger on the trigger that killed 49 gay people in Orlando and wounded 53 more.
To those people, and especially to religious and political figures who “lead” people around the world, I say: Take you fingers off the trigger. Stop killing us.