One gay cowboy’s mind is opened by the diversity of celebrants at the 1987 San Francisco Gay Pride parade.
I grew up in an ultra-religious, deer-hunting, cowboy family with a father who claimed that all men with earrings in their left ears were queer. All men who wore earrings in their right ears were drug dealers, he said. Or maybe it was the other way around, I don’t remember. But in the 1970s, jewelry in a man’s ear was considered abnormal, certainly in Wyoming, Utah, and Montana where I spent much of my childhood.
When I was growing up, my family read the Bible daily. We were homophobic and intolerant. The church we belonged to claimed that homosexuals were not born that way but had likely acquired homosexual behavior by engaging in the sin of masturbation when young and, after discovering that such solitary sexual play was a lonely activity, they resorted to seeking out members of the same gender for mutual sex exploration. Homosexual behavior was “learned,” my religion believed. Homosexuality was probably caused by masturbation, they said, which was precisely why masturbation was a sin.
My father and my religion taught me that homosexuality was a behavior that was learned and predominately practiced by effeminate men who wore dresses in San Francisco or Hollywood. Somehow, the condemnation of homosexuals never included the mention of women. Homosexuality was exclusively male, we believed. Lesbians didn’t exist. In rural America, where I lived, men in dresses didn’t exist, either. Neither did people of color. I grew up in small towns of mostly white people where men had gun racks in the back of their trucks and earned their livings in the oil fields. I believed what I was told, as a child. Homosexuality was a sin.
From my early teens, I knew that I fit the literal definition of homosexual. I knew that I liked other boys, not girls, but I didn’t view myself as a real homosexual. I wasn’t interested in drag, and no one would have guessed what was going on in my head, or my heart, by simply looking at me. By the time I reached the age of eighteen, I was riding bulls, roping steers, and driving around town with a gun rack in the back of my truck. I was celibate, and imagined I would spend my life alone. There were no other gay men like me, I thought. I was turned on by big, burly, masculine men who looked like they could swing a hammer—men who only existed in the straight world, I was convinced. I was attracted to men like me who had no fashion skills and could gut and skin their own deer. Men who could bait their own fish hooks. Men who couldn’t possibly be gay.
My epiphany was when I visited the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco in 1987, at my age of 23. That visit was prompted by a college friend who I knew to be gay. Within a few months of that visit, I had been introduced to gay police officers, teachers, counselors, firemen. A year later, I attended my first Pride event in San Francisco. That was twenty-four years ago, and I have never forgotten the crowd of celebrants at that celebration. As I expected, some men wore drag. Others wore leather, or cowboy boots. There were more men in ugly Bermuda shorts than in women’s clothing. There were a few men and women who wore nothing, and others who clearly hadn’t checked themselves out in the mirror before they went out in public, but that aside, I was struck by the normality of the crowd. There were hundreds of thousands of perfectly normal people in attendance—people I didn’t need to fear or judge. People who, by their existence, opened my mind into realizing that perhaps the world wasn’t what I had been made to believe.
Nothing can open a closed mind like a Pride event where the mass of humanity appears to be just that. A rainbow assortment of human beings who happen to share one thing—a diversion from the perfectly straight and white world that I came from.
Today, attending Pride is tantamount to voting, in my mind. The world must see that we come in many colors, shapes, sizes, and persuasions. Visibility is important. Some gay men have fabulous taste. Others couldn’t decorate an apartment if their lives depended on it. Homosexuality is not what I believed it to be, when I was a kid. What my father and my religion convinced me to be true, isn’t. I know this every time I attend Pride. Gay men and women do not come in one color. There are plenty of gay men who are just like me. I am not alone.
—Photo credit: Sam Felder/Flickr