This was my first year working for Savannah Pride, an LGBT non-profit in Savannah, Georgia. We organize the annual Pride Festival in Forsyth Park in the middle of the downtown historic district.
If you’ve ever been to Savannah, you’ve been to Forsyth Park. Friends from out of town have a hard time believing Savannah has a pride event at all, with its sleepy speed and Civil War statues.
Pride is vigor and energy and sex. The whole “Gay Pride” imagery — floats and feathers and nearly-nude dancers — seems impossible here.
Well, yeah. Our Pride isn’t that. It’s a festival with booths and vendors and a little stage where local musicians play. There’s no parade, no march, no half-nudity. But it’s nice.
The number of vendors nearly tripled this year. Now that it’s over, I’ll confess that I was a little wary about getting involved in the beginning.
Last year, I criticized Pride for putting up a snow fence and charging admission. That was before I learned how much it costs to rent chairs, pay security, print fliers, and hire performers (plus cover performers’ travel costs, hotel rooms, food, etc.) Even after I was convinced that the cost was worth it, I was still unsure if Pride festivals were still necessary in a world of so much progress.
But is the world really filled with so much progress?
I came to college the year Grindr hit the app store, the same year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. For four years I’ve watched as country after country and then state after state legalized same-sex marriage. Since coming here, a steadily progressive climate is all I’ve known. But my awe can be nothing compared to that felt by people who saw an impossibly different country forty years ago.
The idea was impossible to me just five years ago, before I came to Savannah. Ninety miles east of Atlanta, my family’s farmhouse sits near an early branch of the Ogeechee River.
My father worked diligently to keep the outside world away from me and my sister, perhaps believing that the gay impulse would fail to develop if left unaided by media, TV, etc. He selected which TV channels we purchased and installed a parental blocker on our Internet that, as I later learned, blocked sites by keywords. No site with the word “gay” came through.
When I graduated from high school in 2010, I didn’t know about Stonewall or the entire cultural movement that was — and is — Gay Rights, a movement that by and large had already happened years before I drove away for college.
I never lived through Stonewall. There are horrors witnessed by gay people who came before me that I will never experience.
Pride festivals began as a movement in New York that has spread all over the globe. During my first two years of college, many of my peers, guys in their twenties who grew up surrounded by messages of tolerance and queer freedom, rolled their eyes when the festival came around, saying, “Why do the gays have to remind everyone that they’re here when the world already knows?”
As I adjusted to my new life, I started to agree with them.
“We don’t need Pride festivals anymore,” they said. “They just reinforce the fact that we’re different and need a festival to show off how different we are.”
Or: “Pride festivals just push us further and further from true equality. If we want to be treated the same way as straight people, why don’t we just start acting like them and stop showing off?”
Because this is where Stonewall happened. This is where the rainbow flag was first raised, not as a campy beacon in a parade but as a cry for battle. To remind us twenty-year-olds of a country without LGBT rights, look to the opposite end of the spectrum at places like Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, where homosexuality is still punishable by death, torture, imprisonment.
In those places and others like them, the only reality for gay people is the view I held in high school: I am the only one, there are no others.
Regardless of the fact that gay culture was happening around me in parts of the country I didn’t know about and didn’t see, the isolated feeling I believed in growing up felt very real. Later, I fully saw the cruelty of my parents’ censorship. They kept me from my own kind.
To criticize Pride now is a naïve and privileged perspective that comes from the unbelievable fact that — after a lot of marching, rallying, campaigning, protesting, fundraising, and organizing — we’re winning. Pride parades are symbols of that change. I’m honored to have done a small part to continue that legacy.