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Today is the first New York Pride for which I have been in town in many years: I cannot even recall my most recent one. My first march ever was in 1981, the summer following my move to New York. A group of us who had been friends at Yale all marched together under the direction of Anthony Barthelemy, then finishing his Ph.D. in the English Department. John Guillory was there too: along with Ann Fabian and Terry Murphy (both were American Studies graduate students and not lesbians, though many wished that they were, I am sure), Anthony and John provided adult leadership for a small, queer group at Yale that was known internally as The Family. People passed in and out of the group but two of the core undergraduates were me and Jeff Nunokawa who, not inconsequentially, was the first person to whom I voluntarily came out in the first couple weeks of our freshman year.
Anthony, however, was the Mother of Us All. He taught us younger folk things like: ham is at its best when basted in Coca-Cola; red wine can be removed from a table cloth when spotted immediately with seltzer; when nervous about jumping over a professional hurdle, dress up; insist on good table manners, even at a picnic; smoking too much pot makes you stupid; and — my favorite, which I have repeated to the young ever since — “Good food doesn’t cost any more than bad food.”
On this first march, Anthony instructing us all to spend part of our time with a small group of gay public school teachers (and by small, I mean fewer than 25) who were bravely stepping out despite the threat of being recognized and losing their jobs. My memory of most of the day is hazy, however. My guess is that John Tavenner was there, and Carole Stone, and also our dear Alfred Sturtevant (who would have loved Facebook and blogging, but died of AIDS in the spring of 1990.) I do remember The Passing of Bergdorf”s, where the whole parade knelt briefly in prayer before continuing on. I remember passing St. Patrick’s, where picketers held up vicious signs about our spiritual fate (remember that God Hates Fags – style protest was not invented by southerners or evangelicals. It was common practice among conservative Catholics everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s).
Homophobia I had experienced before, but never this. Yet it led to my first moment of true liberation as a queer person. Long before the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) taught us that truly militant protest on behalf of queers did not have to be a thing of the past, the parade paused periodically so that thousands of queers could turn and shake our fingers at these horrible people, shouting “SHAME. ON. YOU” as loudly as we could. When I shouted at them, I shouted at everyone who had ever shamed me for being gay. I suspect many of us did. It used to take a long time to fully step out of that closet.
Fast forward ten years to 1991, and I was marching down Fifth Avenue with the ACT UP contingent, stopping periodically at the direction of marshals to “die” on the street. The pretest in the midst of a protest brought the noise and happy celebration of the parade, as well as the defiant ACT UP chants, to a complete and sudden silence. It was a grander version of a form of protest that had been part of the ACT UP repertoire for some time. But it was very effective, in small part because many of us who did not participate regularly in ACT UP demos spent a fair amount of time lying on the ground, our heads, arms and legs intertwined, thinking about what we were, and were not, doing for the cause, and why we had only made time for it on this special day.
The massive die ins (one of which occurred in front of St. Patrick’s, thank you very much, so that the sign-wielding h8ters were greeted only with silence) did not just get in the faces of the homophobes. They were also an object lesson for a lot of people who were marching that day, but who still believed that on all other days of the year they could control homophobia by keeping their own lives a secret. In 1991, many wealthy, privileged queers still saw it in their own best interests to be closeted at work, keeping their gay lives confined to the weekends, and to vacation spots that catered almost exclusively to LGBT people. Although it was starting to break down by 1991 (in 1990, Michelangelo Signorile began his “outing” campaign by stating publicly that the deceased publisher Malcolm Forbes was a leather queen), it was still considered beyond bad manners to state definitively and publicly that a closeted celebrity, rich person or politician was gay. Regardless of what the media tells you, this is still often true. This why it is possible to state definitively that there are zillions of gay and lesbian professional athletes, for example, but no one is allowed to say publicly who they are, and then everyone does the happy dance about what a liberated society we are now when exactly two sporting queers come out every year.
Which is why this last story gives me so much pleasure. One of the lesbians with whom I was marching that day, an old friend and a not particularly militant person, had brought along a new girlfriend. Girlfriend was a very powerful corporate attorney, was most definitely in the closet, and was very reluctant to be at the march, lest she be recognized by someone at CBS, her place of employ. My friend, who was also in the closet as a professional (closeting, by the way, created outstanding and highly problematic compartmentalization skills among all of us, as well as an enhanced capacity for persuasive lying and ignoring reality), persuaded Girlfriend that there was safety in numbers. How could she possibly be recognized in a crowd of people that would swell to several hundred thousand throughout the course of the day?
Girlfriend was persuaded that there was safety in numbers, and off we all went. It was a huge march, and we were in a contingent that was about twenty times the normal size of ACT UP New York: occasionally Larry Kramer would stalk up and down the line in his normal state of visible rage. As we rounded 34th street, one of us looked up and saw Sara Krulwich, a friend of a friend and a photographer for The New York Times, perched on a lamp post taking pictures. We jumped around, screamed and waved to catch her attention (such is the exhilaration of Gay Pride, when you are young and have not yet had joint replacement surgery); Sara waved back.
Perhaps you already know the end of this story: the next morning, there we were, in the lead photograph, smack in the middle of the front page of section B of The New York Times! Girlfriend, clear as day in the center of the photograph, had been outed.