Pondering on Pride

Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash

Whew. Pride month always feels to my worn out bones like a reckoning. It has all the makings of a true New Year’s celebration, untarnished by religious trauma, dysfunctional families, and fucking winter. Pride month aligns with the end of the year at my job and the beginning of summer. Time is a social construct, after all.

It’s difficult to hide in summer. It’s too hot. Sweat irritates the skin and the truth alike. The heat of the sun forces us to be honest with ourselves: our bodies, our minds, and the fact that we have, yet again, started a gym membership in January and cannot remember the last time you set foot in said gym. Maybe you’ve realized that you never needed the membership in the first place.

While I have celebrated many Prides (10 out publicly), this is the first at which I am fully myself. It has taken me a decade to unlearn the full extent of cissexist and heterosexist programming that’s been ingrained in my head since birth. Over the years, Pride has taken on different levels of significance in my life, and I wax poetic about them now as a fully realized person than I ever would have before.

I’ve known I was queer in some way for nearly twenty years. The very first crush on a human person I ever remember having was on Danielle Fishel’s character, Topanga, in the Disney Channel reruns of Boy Meets World. It would take me a few more episodes to realize that I could also be attracted to many of the boys on the show, none would captivate my attention like Topanga, at least as much because she was smart, strong, and independent as she was smoking hot.

I didn’t know about Pride. I didn’t know that queer was something someone could be.

Growing up in a rural midwestern community where queerness was essentially the worst thing a person could be was difficult. The unfortunate combination of pervasive casual homophobia in my environment, a lack of healthy relationships with trusted adults in my life, and post traumatic stress made expressing any non-normative attraction or gender expression. I became the most classic of queer-in-denial, the befriending the objects of my affection and allowing them to do pretty much whatever they wanted without any regard for my feelings beyond that moment.

The first time that happened with a girl was in the first grade. She was the smallest kid in the class and had hair darker than anyone I’d ever seen in real life. Solidly fifty percent of my childhood friendships with girls fell into this pattern. I repressed anything that could even remotely be interpreted as homoerotic. I talked many of my female best friends through their first sexual experiences, from the decision to engage in them through the aftercare without once acknowledging or bringing attention to my own obvious and oppressive affection and affectations.

For many of my youthful years, I didn’t think I’d ever make it to where I am now. I was all but sure that I wouldn’t make it to 18, and certainly wouldn’t still be around at twenty-one. My queerness was a problem I would, I thought, never have to deal with. In the meantime, my bisexuality and the skill I had in performing just enough femininity to get by would keep me safe.

It did, mostly. I lived long enough to escape, to tear across the country in a half-cocked plan I was sure would work. I thought I’d be able to disappear into the fabric of New York City and be welcomed by the motley crews of queer punks that populated the city in the stereotyped popular consciousness of the rural Midwest. I never considered what would happen if I wasn’t able to find them. I never considered a New York with more in common with my hometown than anyone was willing to admit.

I did not consider a New York still held down by devotion to binary gender. I did not consider a New York where a naked man strumming a guitar in Times Square or preacher with old, incoherent signs shouting at the top of his lungs in the Brooklyn-bound 2 train turn fewer heads than a person who is visibly trans. I didn’t consider that the largest and most diverse city in America could possibly not be the most progressive. I hadn’t even considered that there could be smaller cities with more to offer me. I was a seventeen year old kid from the middle of nowhere who thought they knew a lot more about the world than they did. I was sure that I would be able to find a place in New York City that was not only affirming but celebratory of my deviance in a way that my inner child dared not even to dream of.

I crashed into New York, my own legs barely stuck up under me like a newborn foal, crashing into everything. Within the first few weeks of moving to New York, I found myself in the LGBTQ student group on campus. It was here that I met unapologetic bisexuals, gays, and lesbians. It was where I met people who would teach me to lose the shame I’d learned about being a sexual being at all, let alone embracing my natural sexual fluidity. I met my first trans people in real life, making real something I’d ever only seen possible for celebrities.

I experienced Pride back then as a party, a liberatory introduction to queer society. I was drunk, as much on the exhilaration of being able to be without fear as the alcohol. I only intermittently wore shirts. I tasted the inside of more mouths in one day than the rest of the year.

In New York, I found queer elders, gay men and nonbinary people who could fulfill the role of mentor, showing me what it was to be queer in the world. I didn’t consider that one could be queer and misogynistic at the same time. I didn’t unlearn all of the damaging, misogynistic things I’d learned growing up in rural America. In fact, my discomfort with womanhood was compounded. I would do anything to separate myself from it. I stopped sleeping with women. My skin still crawled with the association of myself with women. At nineteen, I came out as trans.

The hoops one had to jump through to be trans back then were much more difficult than today. I lived as best as I could as a man in my day to day life without any medical transition, dutifully doing my penance to prove my transness to the medical insurance industrial complex. I faced as much misplaced misogyny and transphobia within certain pockets of the LGBTQ community as I had in my hometown. When unforeseen circumstances ejected me from that community, I nearly drowned in the sea of existential dread I felt. Nothing felt right. My identity and expression felt as artificial and applied as an exclusively gay man as they had been as an exclusively straight (and secretly bi) woman. Transphobia and a lack of will to go on forced me back into the closet. Mostly.

I owned my bisexuality, working with my therapist to unlearn the harmful myths about bisexuality that had been shoved down my throat by everyone from my family to a therapist in Brooklyn I saw briefly. I went on dates with women as well as men and nonbinary people. I allowed myself to appreciate their beauty and to embrace my attraction, but I was weak. I would land myself in another non-affirming straight-passing relationship with someone who would routinely make jokes about my past as a trans man.

In this period, I watched Pride from the sidelines. I longed to be in that march, being moved to walk or dance by the beat of a million syncopated heartbeats.

It was only during the pandemic that I was able to truly accept myself for who I am. So much of my identity has been altered for the comfort of those around me that without their gaze, I felt free to explore honestly. I have some good friends and an extremely supportive therapist to thank for that. I came out publicly to the world in October 2020 and began my medical and legal transition as an agender nonbinary person in February. I have come to terms with the fact that I am bisexual in a completely different way than I have ever outwardly identified before. That, to some extent, the word lesbian is less wrong for me than I ever wanted to believe it was.

There’s a lot of discourse about what Pride is for. Pride marches as we know them today have their start in the Christopher Street Liberation March on the first anniversary of Stonewall. Collective action toward our collective liberation — ideally and imperfectly. Pride will always be a collective reckoning. In 2021, we march in protest of the Supreme Court’s ruling about adoption discrimination in Philadelphia. We march in protest of the continued ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual male-aligned individuals. We march in protest of the rise of institutional transphobia in state legislatures across the country. We march in protest of the continued violence against trans communities, particularly transfemmes of color.

Collective reckonings are not the only worthy reckonings to welcome during Pride. We can always take this time to sit with ourselves. To see how far we’ve come. To see how we’ve grown as people, healed our trauma, unlearned the damaging lies of heteronormativity and cissexism. To see what impact we’ve had on our communities, and what more we can do for our collective liberation.

The most liberatory thing the queer person can do is to experience pure, unadulterated joy. We must make space for that joy in all of our celebrations of Pride. Finding balance is the only way to place one foot in front of the other on the long path to freedom.

Pride marches this summer are still largely virtual, but my adopted home of Chicago has scheduled theirs for the first weekend in October. A pride march that aligns pretty well with my twenty-eighth birthday and my first anniversary out as myself? Count me in. Collective action, personal reflection, and abject joy? That’s what Pride is all about.

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(he/they) Queer, educator, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q

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Topher Bigelow

Topher Bigelow

(he/they) Queer, educator, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q

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