I found myself upon a New York City rooftop, staring down into a rainbow city. Not just any regular city, but the biggest city in the United States. Love, respect and, most of all, pride radiated through the streets, up into the skyline, and I felt blanketed by hope and support. I can’t imagine a better feeling, as if everyone with whom I crossed paths was a friend, understanding (or trying their hardest to understand), accepting and loving me for who I am.
But there was another feeling prevalent in the city that day: fear. Police presence was palpable; I was almost constantly within feet of a police officer or military guard. Security had been increased drastically this year, in the streets, undercover, looking down from rooftops, in helicopters, all to ensure our safety. I usually feel nervous around policemen, but this time I was comforted. I could tell that people were holding fear in their back pockets, wearing rainbow colors and kissing their significant others, but more alert than usual. The young men that my friend and I met on the train were quick to ask us if we were afraid. “Afraid of what?” I asked. “You know, because of Orlando.”
I attended D.C. Pride on June 11, 2016. I’m sure it’s obvious that New York City Pride is a much larger parade than any other. This year’s parade was the largest pride parade in history. DC Pride was a little different. It was much more laid back, without any barriers between the crowd and the parade. It was much shorter, less populated and even a little less rainbow. I felt kind of awkward in my rainbow unicorn tie and suspenders with my face painted, because many people just wore jeans and a T-shirt. If I walked about 5 minutes away from the parade, I was surrounded by normal every day life: people casually going shopping on a Saturday afternoon, walking their dogs and leaving work. In New York City, however, the pride stretched for miles. Everyone was sporting a colorful and glittery wardrobe, and everyone seemed to be there for the same reason. I walked into the city and was greeted by a huge colorful billboard reading, “Be together, not the same.” We were all together. I could feel the unity the second I got on the train to New York City, as my friend and I were surrounded by parade attendees headed the same place as us. We made friends who showed us around the city and talked to anyone who approached us as if we knew them. We took Snapchats while dancing with strangers, and a random girl handed us her bottle of liquor inside a black grocery bag as a peace offering. The larger difference between the two parades, though, is that New York City Pride took place two weeks after the Orlando massacre, which happened directly after D.C. Pride.
I found myself sitting in the same city that, 15 years ago, was subject to the worst terrorist attack in US History, and it was two weeks after the deadliest mass shooting in US history, which occurred at a gay nightclub and was most certainly a homophobic act. It’s hard to celebrate the pride you feel inside while also realizing that we don’t seem to have come as far as we thought; we are still afraid.
At one point in the day, my friend and I stopped to join a tour group led by a beautiful transsexual woman, and she talked to us for a while about fear. She asked us all, “What does fear do to a person?” Answers shot out of the group’s mouths like rapid fire, answers like “It keeps us from living our lives,” “It makes us feel powerless,” and “It makes us less of ourselves.” She told us how far back in history the LGBT community has had to feel fear: fear of being who they are, fear of loving who they love, fear of saying what they way to say and doing what they want to do. Gay people were afraid to leave their own homes, because for a long time, dating all the way to the 1970’s, homosexuals and transsexuals were often sent away and imprisoned, or even worse, lobotomized (given brain surgery to remove parts, or lobes, of the brain). In California and Pennsylvania, these people could easily be sent to a mental hospital, and in most other states, being a homosexual could result in a life sentence in prison. In some states, castration was even used as a way to stop homosexual “deviance.” And there we stood that day, forty years later, wearing tie-dye jumpsuits and rainbow bandanas, partying in the streets and dancing like nobody was watching because we are free to be ourselves. That felt amazing, that gay people no longer have to hide our true selves. But that doesn’t mean we no longer should be fearful, as 20.4 percent of hate crimes are targeted towards those of a different sexual orientation per year, while only 2.1 percent of the population identifies as gay, according to The Daily Beast. Many groups in the parade reminded us that we have reason to be alert, to watch out for one another.
After Orlando, twenty more groups signed up to join the parade that went on for over eight hours. In the beginning marched many groups mourning the lives of those we lost in Orlando. Some were even family members. A group of 49 people dressed as angels marched through in extravagant white tulle garb, setting them apart from the crowd, and when I looked down the line, I couldn’t see anything past them. Forty-nine sounds like just a number, a number I saw graphitized on brick walls and lampposts, but it was completely different seeing 49 human lives march in place of those who no longer can, those who no longer can because homophobia, violence, and discrimination against the LGBT community still exist. We weren’t just solemn or sad, though: we were also pissed off. Groups came through the parade yelling things like “Fuck the NRA,” and one anti-NRA group, along with “Gays Against Guns” even got all of their members (seemingly over 100) to lay down and temporarily stop the parade to protest gun violence. At one point in the parade, we all started to chant, “Orlando.”
So it’s safe to say that I learned a lot at this year’s NYC pride parade. I learned a little more about our history, I got to see Stonewall Inn, the gay bar whose police attack in 1969 started the entire idea of pride parades, I read signs about protests I didn’t even know existed (or needed to exist), and I chanted in unison with others just like myself and others completely different from me. Most of all, through all of this, I learned that love trumps hate any day of the year. People shed tears, people screamed out in anger against discrimination, but people also held hands, kissed, and thanked NYPD and our military for keeping us safe during a time in which we could have felt anything but.
My friend and I left the city that day in one piece. We asked police officers for directions to the subway, and then from the subway to Penn Station, and then we got on our train and went home. And I was almost surprised at how safe I was when the day was over. I almost expected something bad to happen somewhere, someone to get hurt or something to make headlines. But nothing did. I just went home.
Heritage of Pride co-chair, David Studinski, remarked, “When you leave the event on Sunday, the goal is not just to feel great that day, but also to wake up on Monday morning and still having that feeling of pride, and have more of it every year.” The sad part about this is, I do not feel nearly as much pride when I go home to my small hometown. I don’t feel as much pride in every city I encounter because I am not naïve. I know that there are still people who would rather gay people be lobotomized, imprisoned, or thrown holy water upon until they become straight. New York City pride gave so many of us a place to celebrate who we are, to feel safe in our own skin, to give and receive more love than we may have ever felt. But this doesn’t always continue when people leave pride, as so many are still hiding because of the dangers of intolerance and so many are still ashamed of who they are because others told them they should be. I am proud of who I am, and I am proud of every other member of the LGBT community. However, I am not proud to live in a time when others are able to kill a mass amount of people because they don’t agree with their choices.
As pride month comes to an end, I reflect upon the struggles and triumphs of our community. Last year’s NYC pride celebrated the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality blissfully and excitedly, and this year’s parade mourned the loss of 49 humans in our community, solemnly and somewhat fearfully. Many would have rather been at that all-smiles celebration in 2015, but I think this year was so much more important. We saw first hand how our community comes together to fight back against the evils of society when events don’t call for a celebration. We showed the world that we can celebrate even when in mourning. We fought together. We chanted together. We told our stories in grueling detail to let everyone know that we are here to stay. We put our fear aside to embrace the immense amount of love surrounding us and radiate even more into the world. Finally, fear seems to have stopped making us less of ourselves. Fear seems to have made us stronger. Instead of being afraid, we are strong and we are united. We are the LGBT community, and We Are Orlando.