OPINION: PRIDE AND PROGRESS — A COMPLICATED RAINBOW

A couple years ago, someone in Boston came up with the idea for a “straight Pride parade.” Thankfully, the internet provides, so the response was swift and merciless. Memes popped up touting costumes consisting of chinos and Sperry slides. People joked that it would likely consist of five guys in football jerseys bullying a guy in the middle of the street, and that the login password for their social media accounts was likely “reverse racism.” More biting commentators offered support, but only if heterosexual marriage was first outlawed at the federal level for a few years. Good times. 

 But all this chatter points to some very real change. Typically, by the time fringe groups are panicking and grasping at straws, it means the change has already been widely accepted. In this case, the fact that Pride has become synonymous with the month of June is fairly visible proof of progress. There is a world of grey, though, between our favorite flag-waving queens and chinos guy in Boston. And sadly, there are new disagreements and growing pains in that space. 

Over the past few years, since marriage equality took center stage and same-sex marriage was federally recognized in 2015, rainbows have started showing up on everything from Starbucks cups to airline logos. To my mind, it illustrates a tipping point. Change has come far enough to drown out dissent. Just a few years back a same-sex kiss on TV still set off a chain of boycotts and made national headlines. Those incidents happened in my adult life, and I’m not old enough for that to be acceptable. For me, the proliferation of rainbow love means that my fellow LGBTQI friends and our allies are finally the majority. Our voices are finally louder than the opposition. We’ve been heard, we’ve been welcomed. And now, we can all have one big rainbow glitter-bomb party in the streets. 

Not so fast, though. Many people see the commercialization of Pride as a commodification by the powers that be — white, wealthy, corporate. To them, it’s as though the doors we’ve pushed on with such stamina for so many years have not burst open, but have just quietly been taken off the hinges with a shrug, as though there was never a push to begin with. While I don’t agree, I acknowledge that scars run deep and trauma endures. For many in the LGBTQI community, the struggle has been undeniably difficult. For some, those struggles embed themselves and resurface as, what must feel like, self-preservation. A friend of mine, a local bartender, recently recounted a tale wherein a straight couple walks into a gay bar, but in this case, the punchline isn’t funny. This couple was excited to be in Key West for Pride, wearing rainbow beads and day-drinking in a gay bar, when someone questioned their choice of accessories, and their general decision to celebrate. Fortunately, being a bartender in Key West, my friend is a kind soul with a big mouth. He thanked them for their support and told them about a game-changing Pride celebration in Key West when, in 2003, Gilbert Baker recruited straight and gay volunteers to sew and then stretch a mile-long flag down Duval Street. It’s a perfect reminder of what can happen when allies and oppressed communities come together.

I’m personally fortunate to have not experienced the very real suffering that has touched so many people before me, and so many still. Suicide rates are shockingly high in LGBTQI community. Violence against the community, while improving, has been pervasive for years. This is to say nothing of decades-long relationships that could only exist in the confines of one’s home, or of the handling of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. In my lifetime, I’ve had to argue about the validity of my rights. I’ve had to consider my surroundings to know when and where it was safe to hold my girlfriend’s hand (hint: it usually wasn’t). I’ve had to secure special legal forms, tax documents and medical releases when I moved to a new state that, in 2013, didn’t legally recognize my marriage. I still internally roll my eyes on a regular basis when people I’ve just met say, to my face, “Wow, I never would have guessed you were gay!” or ask whether my spouse or I carried our child. I haven’t been traumatized, but I am exhausted and damn ready to pick up my rainbow coffee cup and have someone wish me, “Happy Pride!”

It seems that younger generations, gay, straight and otherwise, are shifting toward a more casual acceptance of variances in gender and sexuality. For them, Pride as a month-long celebration for everyone is just a happy afterthought. Hopefully that acceptance and move toward normality will continue. And hopefully that couple visiting Key West felt empowered enough to board their flight home still wearing those beads.

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Erin gets to flex her creative muscle as Artistic Director of the Studios of Key West but has also completed a graduate degree at Harvard, served as a National Park Service Search and Rescue volunteer, visited all 50 states, rescued a 300lb sea turtle, nabbed the title of Key West Ms. Gay Pride, and gotten involved with Special Olympics. She says yes to pretty much everything. Luckily her wife, daughter and crazed terrier put up with this.