Pride, “Am I Doing This Right?”
When I was in high school, I resented gay pride and queer activism. To the younger version of myself, pride felt overbearing. I remember sitting in my counselor’s office and telling her I didn’t need to go to the Gay-Straight Alliance meeting. I imagined that going might mean I was defining my identity wholly by my sexuality. Apart from worrying about how I would be perceived by others, I was even more worried about what attending those meetings would mean for my own sense of self. In retrospect, I can say that my discomfort and paranoia likely came from deep personal insecurity — jealousy, even — of others’ ability to wear their identities better than I felt I ever could.
Now, a few years later, I am in college, and feel quite different from how I felt back then. I help lead a club called Athletes and Allies, which acts as a safe space for queer athletes to discuss the intersection of these identities. I have written about my sexuality in public articles and study queer fiction in my coursework. In other words, I suppose I feel more confident about it. Beyond no longer inhibiting my actions, my identity actively guides my interests.
Yet, I also find my pride slip out from under me in certain moments. When I talk about the boy I am interested in, I find myself using “them” instead of “him,” as if I do not want to remind myself of his gender. Even regarding clothing, which should be entirely benign, I sometimes feel nervous pulling on a shirt that points to my identity. Once, I left my dorm having unconsciously chosen to wear my “I support love” shirt and a “Make America Gay Again” baseball cap. When I realized this, I immediately felt a surge of self-consciousness, a desire to go back and remove at least one of them. I half-laughed at myself because I knew it shouldn’t matter. But my chest felt tight, and I stuffed the cap in my bag, because I realized I was still not ready. I was scared that my clothing might be “too much” and that it might read as overcompensation for insecurity.
For most of my life, I knew very few gay adults — no family friends or relatives, at least as far as I was aware. When I began to meet more queer adults, I realized I felt a certain anxiety about how I acted around them and particularly about how I spoke about my sexuality. Though we might have grown up in different generations, I knew we had some level of shared experience and wanted to prove to them that I was strong, that I was more than comfortable with myself. I wanted to prove that I was beyond even talking about sexuality, thinking excessive pride was just a sign of immaturity. I thought that if I tried to talk about my insecurities and nervousness, they might not take me seriously and that they would only see a child hopelessly lost in himself, not someone worthy of engagement. I watched these adults for guidance on how to live. What was a gay life supposed to look like? I even found myself doing this with fictional characters, people who could not even talk back to me. Although I have since found many queer mentors, I often think about the others who felt silent. I think about Dumbledore, someone who should be the ultimate gay mentor, and wonder why he never talked about his sexuality. Did he do so beyond the pages of the books? And if he didn’t, was my version of pride supposed to be silent as well? Did being a queer and wise adult mean being quiet about sexuality?
I think the heart of the problem was that I even imagined pride should look a certain way. And, more disturbingly, I believed that there was a way to overdo it. That pride had an “end,” or that there was an age or maturity at which it should cease and lose all its exuberance. Certainly, each person has their own way of expressing pride in their identities and within their own personal limits, but we should hold no general rules and set no expiration date. When I wondered what would and wouldn’t be “too much,” I think I was really finding excuses to avoid reckoning with my own feelings. I avoided looking at myself by looking at others, seeking out reassurance that I might be allowed to be both gay and “normal.” And I think this really reflected that deep down, I still did not want to be gay at all. I was actively trying to find out how to live without recognizing myself as queer. While I thought I was being so mature, the exact opposite was true: I lived in a plane of performance, obsessed with self-curation and self-control.
Beyond my individual expectations, I also find myself trying to conform to the expectations of others around me. I have had a number of conversations with friends and family who purport to love and support queer bodies, but don’t like it when pride becomes “over the top” or “too in-your-face.” I wondered, what exactly were they worried about? Even if one’s beliefs are not so overtly prejudiced, there is a way in which most people continue to privilege gay people who only present in ways that can still be perceived as straight. We participate in a system that only supports a certain kind of “respectable” gay body, which, in translation, often means we’re okay with coming out to support white male gay bodies to the exclusion of all others. I can be gay as long as I dress like a man. Why does seeking inclusion need to be this strategic and calculating?
In this kind of environment, I often feel like I have to carve out my own space, which can make me feel like an inconvenience. In my own experience, straight leaders often fail or hesitate to adopt inclusive practices even after direct conversations. I cannot know for certain, but I imagine part of this hesitation to speak about queerness comes from an insecurity of performing any other sexuality than straightness. Or perhaps queer inclusivity is not everyone’s top priority. Whatever the reason, many organizations forget that they have queer members they may not know about — and even if it happens that a group’s membership is entirely heterosexual, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to expand the potential for queer people to enter that group’s space and already feel represented? Why can’t male a capella groups sing love songs about men? Why are same-sex mixers still uncommon? If campus organizations could embrace pride more proactively, queer members would not bear the burden of asking for what is already a given for straight students: the chance to participate in a team or group culture with a structure and language that accounts for their existence.
Queer people have always had to live with and think about straight sexuality. The opposite is not necessarily true. The hesitation to embrace and represent queerness within group settings breeds a narrowness of identity that benefits no one. I am not suggesting straight allies should co-opt gay identity or be inauthentic to their own sexualities. I only hope that more straight allies could be invested in pride and actively celebrate queerness in their daily lives. I wish more straight people would recognize the possibility of queerness in themselves, as I and other queer people have constantly been asked to consider the potential for straightness in ourselves. We should all be able to imagine, think and value the existence of other identities besides our own.
We should not have to hesitate to love ourselves, nor should we hesitate to support other LGBT people. Queer people should not need to remind others that we exist in order to be respected. We should not be spoken of as exceptions or questions. To do this work, allies need to show up. They need to remember to account for and put in time for queerness long before it arrives. What tangible work have you done to support your LGBT peers? I think back to when I was in high school, a time when I could not account for myself. I am most grateful for those who were proud of me before I could be.
As I continue to think about my own expression of gay pride, all I hope is to come to a place where I no longer have to question how I perform my sexuality. I will always think about my sexuality, as I believe every person does, whether they realize it or not. I only hope my thoughts will no longer be regulated by internalized and external shame.
I do not mind living with an unstable sense of sexuality — I am proud of how I am able to hold that instability. I only worry that straightness continues to be an impinging force on my life and on the lives of others, regardless of sexual orientation. I do not crave a world in which queerness becomes what straightness is today. Instead, I wish that our conception of straightness might be changed, destabilized and, frankly, made more gay. To subvert heteronormativity would allow us all to be more than what we are expected to be. In this way, we might all be better prepared to risk loving people that we were not supposed to.