During the years I lived on the Gulf coast of Florida, we didn’t have any kind of gay parade. I went to high school in rural Florida, in a small town where to admit to not being either a Christian or a heterosexual was to become an instant outcast. I was already an outspoken atheist; I didn’t yet realize I was queer. After high school, the closeted ones and I made our way to Tampa, the nearest big city. I know because I found them there when I arrived, a few years after them. LGBT people had our own coffee houses, dance clubs, churches, and activist groups in the big city. On campus, at work, and in the mall, there were pride beads to help us find each other. I put on my rainbow-colored beaded necklace in 1996, and didn’t take it off again for years.
Some of us also had a gay family reunion in the annual Gay Day event at Disney. This was and remains an unofficial event, not sanctioned by the park officials. Starting in the early nineties, someone put up a website, and would post the date months in advance. Central Florida LGBT folk, and more from out of state, even from out of the country, would show up. We would all buy our tickets like anybody else, only when we arrived at the gates, we would be wearing red shirts or something rainbow or gay-themed, like t-shirts that said “NOBODY KNOWS I’M GAY,” or more Parade-like attire, to whatever extent didn’t violate the dress code of the park. No assless chaps are permitted in the Magic Kingdom.
I’d been to Walt Disney World before going to Gay Day. I went as a child, taking my first airplane trip with my parents and little sister for a family vacation. When we moved to Florida, we went to the park again, driving the hundred or so miles for a day in the Happiest Place on Earth. In high school, I’d gone to Grad Nite at Disney, twice—once as the date of a senior and again in my senior year. Grad Nite was held every year in the late spring. After the park was closed, we were invited with other Florida high school seniors for a night in the Magic Kingdom. It was an all-night party for students at Disney, so there were many safety rules in place: everyone had to arrive via the buses, not drive themselves. On arrival, our attire had to meet the semi-formal dress code: no doubt an attempt to keep us all behaving like ladies and gentlemen. We submitted to “Mickey’s Friendly Frisk” for drugs and firearms. Then we had the park to ourselves for the night: all the usual attractions, plus big-name music acts. In 1991, I saw The New Kids on the Block and C+C Music Factory perform at Grad Nite.
When I went to my first Gay Day, it was my first time back in seven years, and the first time going to Disney dressed, not to please school or park administrators or my parents, but for gay visibility.
Hundreds of people in the park that day wouldn’t know we were going to be there until they saw the sea of red shirts and inquired about them. Walt Disney World is full, on any given day, of people who have made a trip of a lifetime. Many had planned for months or years, like my parents had for my first visit, and had traveled from all over the world, to delight their children and enjoy the park that day. By random chance, some of them were wearing red. If a guest got upset about all the gays and complained to a park official, Disney would give them a pass to visit EPCOT Center or one of the other Disney parks in Orlando that day, instead.
In 1998 Operation Rescue protesters showed up for Gay Day at Disney, and their people made it all the way into the park, buying admission the same way we gay redshirts did. I saw a couple of them inside, talking to other park guests, but most visible were the protesters who stayed outside the park to be seen on the way into the park. The Operation Rescue protesters, standing on the immaculate grass with their grisly anti-abortion signs, in front of the beds of foxgloves and tulips in the shapes of Disney characters, were just part of the orienting experience that day.
I’d seen an enormous anti-abortion protest once when I was in high school. Bradenton, the city next to our small town, had the nearest shopping mall, and as my blithe and unchurched family drove to it one Sunday, we rode past hundreds of people lining the streets, from the city limit at the river’s edge, down US 41 to the mall and beyond, stretching, for all we knew, all the way out to the beaches, twenty miles away. Many had their children with them. They were all dressed in their Sunday clothes and were holding signs like these.
In 1999, I would face off against another Christian army, Love Won Out. You wouldn’t think a group with such a nice name would need protesting, but they had poured a lot of money and resources into my sunstroked Gulf coast community, to educate public school teachers, administrators, social workers, lay ministry, Sunday school teachers, church members, parents and every other interested party in how to counsel youth who might come out to them as questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, and would need coaxing back onto the “right” path. In the course of the protest, I found myself pulled into a group of people on the GLBT side who were chanting, “Love thy neighbor,” more and more loudly and at close range with a group of counter-protesters, until I was filled with mob rage, screaming the words. I stumbled away in confusion. How could I yell those words with so much hate?
I realized, standing up there over Main Street with my arm around her waist, that Carolyn and I would look like tourists, or allies, to all of the people gathered below, not like two queers who live in this town. Our queerness becomes invisible at times like this. It’s not even as simple as saying that this is an experience of passing trans men, or of bisexuals in roughly half their relationships, or even more complicatedly, of lesbians who sometimes date men. My farmer has seen me at the farmer’s market on different days, kissing Carolyn or holding hands with Kevin. He knows who I’m married to: we’ve been to his house to buy meat and eggs. I wonder if I should come out to him about my girlfriend.
On Mother’s Day this year, Carolyn bought me a card. It was one of those cards that are blank on the inside, that they sell for times when there just isn’t a card. For even more complicated reasons that have nothing to do with trans identity, she deserves a Father’s Day card, so the following month I did the same thing. An experience we share is that the kids we’re thinking of on these days don’t send us cards. We love them, and they love us back, but we don’t get to see them. So we’re sad around kids, and on days when parents are honored, and well-intentioned people don’t know why, when they try to get it right, wishing us a “happy” on the right days. It’s a kind of invisibility, too, like when the relatives you haven’t come out to ask you if you’re thinking about settling down, yet.
There are so many aspects of our lives that we don’t flag, or hold up a sign about. You can stud yourself with markers of your religion, politics, and cultural identities, or you can walk around in a plain white T-shirt, like I usually do. Whether it is a matter of survival to appear anonymous, or of sanity to put on the rainbow colored beads of your resistance, depends on where you have stood lately, who you have had to stand up against, and whether you are free today to be yourself, where you are.
On the bridge over Main Street, Northampton, Carolyn and I stand close together and cheer for each of the marching groups as they pass beneath us. I’ve marched in other Pride parades—twice through the Village in New York City—but I’m done for now. I figure the parade is for the ones who need it: young ones who need to be loud about it, old ones who have never done this before. Carolyn, Kevin and I have each done our share of marching. Maybe we’ll be down there together on Main Street some year in the future. In my dream for us, we’re all there with our overlapping families of partners and lovers, our friends and neighbors, all cheering, all smiling and happy and proud and gay. They can all see us, finally, and we can see them, and there’s no one left to come out to or fight with about who we are.
For now, though, we cheer, especially for the kids. Today, it is enough just to be here.
—Photo credit: jerekeys/Flickr