by Bruce A. Smith
I hesitated at the curb, then stepped off. For a moment I felt strange, standing on a spot of pavement I had been watching others walk on for the previous few hours. Looking around, I slowly breathed in the acceptance: I’m really in the New York City Gay Pride Day March.
I was marching because my stepdaughter Lauren is a lesbian and I wanted to show her my love and support in a public way. That’s tough to do. Her brother and sisters received festive parties when they were married, or they themselves give big shindigs when their kids have a birthday. But what kind of celebration can I sponsor for my lesbian stepdaughter? Birthdays? There doesn’t seem to be a societal equivalent for public displays of parental pride.
The plan to march began over a beer at one of our family’s frequent gatherings. I told Lauren of my desire to do something for her, a “coming of age party,” and suggested a big square dance or a summer picnic.
“Yeah,” she responded, “I can just picture your parents mingling with all my dyke friends who’ll be wearing rows of studded jewelry in their ear lobes, and shirts that say, ‘A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle'”. Lauren and I listed other family members who would flinch in the company of her lesbian friends. More than half our relatives made the list.
“So what can I do?” I asked.
“Why don’t you and Mom march with me in the Gay Pride Day March.”
“Whoa,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m ready to spend all day with a couple of thousand gays.”
“A hundred-thousand,” she corrected.
“Two-thousand , a hundred, whatever- it’s more than I can handle. A room full of your friends is okay, but not every gay in New York City.”
“God, I never knew you were so homophobic.”
I didn’t know how much I was, either. I wondered how a liberal guy like me could be so uptight; after all, nobody I ever vote for gets elected. Lauren broke my progressive ponderings.
“You don’t have to march all alone. You and Mom can march with P-FLAG.”
“Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays. They’ll have a group marching and you can go with them.”
But, Lauren, who are they?”
“They’re folks like you who’ve got a kid like me.” Then she leaned toward me with a twinkle in her eye. She put her hand on my knee and said conspiratorially, “You won’t have to worry about all those gay guys coming on to ya- the P-FLAG’ers will protect ya. Ha, ha, ha….”
To my credit I laughed, too.
Although I knew I was scared, or at least uncomfortable with the prospect of walking all day in a city full of gay men and women, I knew deep inside I wanted to march. Lauren and I approached her mom and outlined the plan.
“Sure, let’s do it,” Barbara said. I was surprised and impressed that there was no hesitancy in her voice. She looked me intently in the eyes, then gathered Lauren and me into a three-way hug.
The day of the march Barbara and I decided to join half-way. The expectation of political confrontations at St. Patrick’s Cathedral led us to forego the first half, so, we planned to join the P-FLAG contingent at Washington Square Park for the last mile of the march. But, the disturbances uptown at the Cathedral slowed the march, making us hours early for our rendezvous, so we waited and watched a world that was having fun, even if it was strange to me.
“Dykes on Bikes,” was the first group to go by, a motorcycle gang of lesbians performing precise figure-eights with their machines, none of which was a Harley.
“Lesbians for Patsy Cline,” was next – but they confounded me. Why were they attracted to Patsy? Was Patsy Cline a closet lesbian I wondered, or do lots of lesbians like country music?
The most striking groups were those clusters of men who had AIDS. One crew, called the “Gay Men’s Health Crisis,” had dozens of members who looked like holocaust victims – thin and gaunt. Although stooped, they walked so purposefully that they brought tears to my eyes. Each of their carefully placed steps said to me, I may be dead tomorrow, but today I am alive and proud to be here.
After several hours, P-FLAG reached us. I saw a small band of maybe three-dozen people. Barbara said, “Here they are, let’s go.”
I stepped off the curb, but cringed. Familiar, but still troubling fears made me sweat. For support, I looked around at my marching buddies. Some looked like veterans of every progressive political movement since the labor union struggles of the 1930’s. They wore vests filled with political buttons, and their eyes had a glazed, single-minded focus. A yenta came over to Barbara and me, saying, “Are you new to P-FLAG?”
“Yes,” we replied.
“Would you like to join?” She handled me a pen and an application. I shrugged and gave her back the pen, but kept the paper.
Some P-FLAG’ers looked meek and withdrawn. Others appeared relaxed and open. A few family clusters of parents and gay sons walked together, their arms around each other’s shoulder. Seeing them I said to myself, “That’s what this is all about.” I missed Lauren who had opted to march with her lesbian group further ahead of us, but I understood her desire to be with her friends. I felt proud that our family was strong enough to be in two places.
With stops and starts ,we headed down 8th St. Soon the march entered the West Village, which appeared to be the bastion of gayness in New York City. Turning into West 4th Street, I heard the shouting of thousands of voices and the roar of their applause. It sounded like a tsunami of the heart.
Who are they cheering for?
I tried to remember what groups preceded us, and why they might be earning such a response. I didn’t think Dykes on Bikes, or Lesbians for Patsy Cline would generate that kind of cheering. Perhaps the groups of AIDS survivors touched the crowd the way I had been moved.
Moving deeper into the West Village, the crowd swelled enormously. Men and women leaned out of every window, all the fire escapes were jammed, and any perch on the street such as a mail box, tree or street lamp had somebody on it. The sidewalks were packed like a human lava flow, surging down into the street, and up stoops and alleys. Everyone was shouting, cheering, clapping, or giving righteous power salutes. Again I wondered, who’s this for?
Suddenly, I realized that the crowd was looking right at me and my fellow P-FLAG’ers. I gripped Barbara’s hand hard. “Wow,” I said, “they’re cheering us.”
“Yes, it’s really something, isn’t it,” she said.
I looked into the faces at the edge of the crowd. My eyes caught many, and with some I slowly nodded, and they nodded back. I realized that the P-FLAG’ers were giving these tens of thousand gay men and women a universal parental acknowledgment: You’re okay, and we’re here to tell you that.
I began to weep profusely. I was moved being part of this parental love, even if it was momentary and I was a surrogate for all but one. Barbara clutched me and steadied me. I put my arm around her to hide from this tide of emotion that was opening up my mucous glands to the extent I could barely breathe. I could only look at the crowd briefly. After a glance I turned away to gather composure.
By the end of the march twenty minutes later, I was spent, light-headed, and happy. We sought Lauren, and she found us within a minute or two. I don’t think Barbara and I were too hard to locate.
That evening the three of us roamed the streets of the West Village enjoying the festival. And even though I was nervous about using the local taverns to pee in, the whole scene began to feel like family.
© 2011 Bruce A. Smith
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