A straight Peace Corps Volunteer goes to D.C. Pride as an ally, never guessing at the support that would be reciprocated.
“I’m gay catnip,” I told a friend as we got ready for the Pride Parade in Washington, D.C.
“But, aren’t you scared,” she insisted, “that they’ll make fun of you?”
I had given her the Gawker article the day before in preparation for the parade, “A Straight Person’s Guide to Gay Pride.” Since then she had dissolved into a puddle of insecurity. For two years in Mongolia, she had teased me for my lack of activism. We were both Peace Corps Volunteers, and where she fit every expectation you have of a Volunteer, I was the opposite. She had optimism and dreamed of international development. I believed people were essentially evil, and on average, too stupid to help themselves, much less each other.
We had rubbed off on each other over two years, and she tempered her idealism with cynicism, while I had decided that observation was fine for my writing, but participation was necessary for my credentials. Change looks simple from the sidelines, but gets complicated up close.
“It says that straight girls need to be dressed well, but not dressed up or else the stylists and drag queens might target you,” she fretted. “Besides, I have never seen a guy hit on you.”
“Whatever, I’m a lesbian’s wet dream.” I tried switching tactics, because she was right. I’m straight, but I used to enjoy the occasional ego boost when a random guy would ask me how thick a gauge of wire I was looking for at Home Depot, or after complimenting my cuffs, he would invite me to check out the pair in his bedroom. Okay, one of those instances may have been completely innocent but the innuendo was there. After college, my life had become conspicuously innuendo-free.
“Technically, I think it’s impossible for you to be a lesbian’s wet dream,” she countered.
“Yeah, well I’m in the dream … I’m just the guy in the background that she looks at before patting herself on the back for making the right ‘choice.’” I realized how ridiculous everything I said was. I kept chattering, though, to avoid admitting just how nervous I was to go.
My family is fairly typical Midwest—middle-class, religious, two parents who work, and casserole is a legitimate food group. Specific expectations were put on me. I went to church with the family, no exceptions. I put money into a savings account, even before having a real job. If I didn’t eat dinner with the family, I had a damn good reason for it. I treated my elders with respect, and I treated elderly family with the utmost respect. And I was straight, no discussion.
But as I said, my family is fairly typical Midwest, which I also like to think means they’re not stagnant. Upwardly mobile—that’s the euphemism for how America’s “Heartland” wants to be thought of on either coast. My grandfathers were a farmer and a bus driver. My parents put themselves through college. Their upwards mobility also has a moral side and as I’ve grown up, I’ve watched them grow as well.
Yet, I was still downright afraid to tell my parents that my weekend plans included marching in the Gay Pride Parade in Washington, D.C. Intolerance of the LGBT lifestyles causes a fracturing throughout the country. How it fractures families is fairly obvious. The younger generation hide their orientation from older relatives. Parents hide homosexual children’s lives from public view. The politics of regulating what lifestyle is regular and what is not disrupts congress and the workplace. More quietly than partisan bickering on the Hill, and more insidiously than social fracturing, this intolerance also tears apart psyches.
Of course I feared the disapproval of my family in spite of their own moral “upwards mobility” if I went to the Pride Parade. However, snarky comments from relatives and stylists were the least of my fears. I was afraid of being a hypocrite.
The issue is that I agree with the general outcry over using the term “gay” pejoratively. If I’m in public or with a group of friendly acquaintances, I physically wince when someone says, “That’s so gay.” However, I also laugh when my brother calls me to tell me, “You know how I know you’re gay? Because you just made spinach dip in a bread bowl and posted photos on Facebook.” When my closest friends who are still in the Midwest call to tell me they love and miss me, I have to fight back the urge to call them gay, and I often don’t succeed. Rationally, I’m ashamed at my actions, yet I sigh in relief as I release a toxic fart cloud of negative “vibes” and put a little distance between myself and the emotions I have for the people I love the most. Yes, that’s crazy-town, and I know it; that’s the hallmark of a fractured psyche.
My own inconsistencies aside, when I received an email sent out from the Public Affairs department at Peace Corps Headquarters about their efforts to organize a group for the Parade, I knew I wanted to sign up. While I served in Mongolia, I was struck by how much Volunteers look out for each other. Volunteers in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, had all the amenities of Soviet Russia in the 21st century, which is roughly equivalent to the amenities of Capitalist America in—let’s say the late 80s—cell phones could be used as construction materials, and commercial internet providers did exist regardless of whether or not they did anything worthwhile.
Those “city” Volunteers would send things to the “countryside” Volunteers continuously, sometimes cookies baked in real ovens, or jars of peanut butter from the State Department Store (that’s a real thing). But sometimes they just sent letters or text messages full of support.
The first real examples of that support, in my opinion, were the LGBT meetings during training, hosted by Volunteers who chose to set aside their own free time instead of running around after hours of intensive language and culture classes. When they return to the States, Volunteers continue that almost fanatic form of support, and I wanted to participate.
Washington D.C. is a conservative town, whether or not Republicans control it or liberals are running amok through the streets. The first sitting President in United States history had just “come out” in support of homosexual marriage, and I expected—I feared—the Pride Parade would be a brazen, raucous celebration of alternative lifestyles. Hell, I wanted it to be a downright shit show.
Perhaps, somewhere ahead of or behind the group of Peace Corps staff and Volunteers carrying flags from their host countries, it was a terrifying spectacle, but as we walked down the street I thought of two things: those chaps in ass-less chaps are rather subdued considering their choice to bare their backsides, and I think I have a little British affect when Eddie Izzard is on my mind.
First off, don’t jump on me, I know ass-less chaps is a redundant term. Chaps aren’t meant to have a backside, but unless I’m mistaken, I think they are meant to have pants underneath them. Secondly, why did I have Eddie Izzard in my head? It might have been the striking drag queen who was dancing but making sure that his/her flourishes and twirls were not too extravagant. It was more likely his bit about how flags legitimize atrocities that kept repeating in my head.
Even though the Parade did not match my expectations of it, it was worth every sunny, humid minute. I went to it, wanting to show my support, never guessing at the support that would be reciprocated.
Police and event staff lined the street, maintaining a fluid border between the marchers and the mass of spectators. The police did not hesitate to use any tactic to keep the crowd at bay. My favorite officers were the ones who used paper fans that had been passed out by a previous float to swat the fannies of unruly men and women. It is the dawn of a new age of police brutality.
One officer took aside a couple returned Volunteers for a moment. I managed to overhear: “A few other officers and I were in the military before we went to the Academy,” he said. “I wanted to thank you. While we were overseas protecting your lives, you were overseas protecting the lives of our children. That’s how I see it.”
Passing the judges stand—yes, you better believe there was judging at a Gay Pride Parade—I caught snippets of the announcer discussing Peace Corps. I wish I could have understood everything, but the appreciation of the service of Volunteers came across loud and clear. This event wasn’t for me, one of Sarge’s straight kids, but I still felt included and appreciated. It’s that type of inclusion, where both sides come together and hold together, that fuses a fracture.
—Photo credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr