Asheville Blue Ridge Pride
So many thoughts are to be had about my first pride experience; it was full of so many things that this new project of mine is about. The notion of having an isolated space to celebrate and empower gay identity, finding a sense of community and solidarity, etc. So instead of trying to organize this entry, I think I will make this blog a simple flow of writing whatever comes through me to write.
The day started with something beautiful. I saw my ex-boyfriend (who now is a good friend) get his face painted to try out drag for the first time. Between me, who is all about “queer sacred space” and providing an affirmative and non-judgemental space for gay men, and the third member of our group Joseph, who in his own way had a passion for providing safe space through his experiences in a body positive burlesque group, we helped bring out something fabulous in him. I remember when we dated how we both shared our insecurities with each other, our background being bullied in school, our social struggles in trying to find confidence and self-esteem all while I was in the midst of trying to complete my senior thesis on the Queer Sacred Spaces. Here on both our first pride experience I saw his inner RuPaul come out as I helped glue on his fake eye lashes and watched him put on fake nails and watching Joseph painting his face (who had never done drag make up, but had experience in theater make up and hence did a better job than either I or my ex would do). Thus “Mandy” was born as the three of us went out to Pride together. I can only speak as a third person observer, but Mandy seemed to really enjoy himself and got A LOT of compliments from passerbyers. I do believe this was only the beginning of a story for a new up and coming queen.
A lot of people would look at the adorable pictures of the three of us smiling throughout the day, and the picture of us on the local Newspaper the Mountain Xpress and think how cute we look together as friends. But that happy queer space we shared that day didn’t come easy (and it was a very beautiful day we shared together the smiles on our faces are genuine feels I guarantee you). How did the three of us come together…grindr and adam4adam.com. That’s right the cute gay boys having family friendly happy time at the public park at pride have a background story. I met Mandy off of adam4adam during my research after our first meeting we started dating, we had fun but mutually decided we weren’t romantically interested in each other not long after starting to date, but we still enjoyed each other’s company and became closer as platonic friends over time after breaking up. Joseph and I met off grindr, we instantly connected because he was smart and had a similar educational background and we had in depth conversations that made us actually want to meet outside of the digital app so commonly referred to as a “hook-up app.” We became further close as friends when we realized we both grew up in the same area and had A LOT of mutual friends. In getting to know him I actually texted one of our mutual friends to make sure he was legit and not someone who was a creep sense he had invited me to his house for dinner (its sad that a social invitation like that is viewed with suspicion amongst us as gay men I might point out, but I think we often do have a lot of trust issues between each other as gay men because we are taught to think the only reason gay people ever connect to each other is too hook up or date, never just to enjoy each other’s company simply as it is, but then again sometimes we do have reason to view our community with suspicion after all we do have a lot of internal issues) and indeed he checked out. He of course thought it was cute and funny I did that, but we actually really connected that evening in realizing we had very similar values and philosophical view points and chatted about life, the “gay experience,” our mutual friends and past connections (both good and bad) to other gay men in the scene, the awkwardness of coming into our identity, our similar conclusions about philosophy and religion, etc. This of course was all over wine until about 2 or 3 am in the morning. Until we were way to tired and unfocused to keep talking and I went back home. We continued to hang out every week or so and as pride was on its way and I had promised myself I would finally do it after so many years of dismissing it thinking it wouldn’t be my scene, we decided we’d go together. I had told Mandy about it (who is partially closeted hence why I am referring to him as “my ex” or “Mandy” and not his real name) and told him about Joseph going with me and invited him to go too.
They had only met each other briefly before they had met me, but they really didn’t connect because they were in totally different universes at the time. Yet given that I had a positive relationship with both of them and suggested the three of us go to pride they finally met and had a great time between the three of us. As we got to know each other and arrived at the festival site, we all started running into people we had known through community involvement, dating, among other things (rather that was for good or for ill ;P ). Between the three of us being in different aspects of Asheville’s gay-verse over the past several years, we of course knew quite a few people. It wasn’t long till we could exchange stories about how we met people and common themes would come up. In knowing some of the same people and groups through different experiences it was kind of empowering to be able to talk about it with friends that could relate. To realize that other people went through the same awkward moments (sometimes with the same people) and that we really aren’t so disconnected from each other as it may seem. It took me years to finally find guys I could hang out with and feel like I was a part of the tribe, but up until that point I felt like a fish out of water and didn’t really like the gay people I got to know or at the very least just didn’t feel like I could relate to them. But after navigating the scene long enough to start getting more comfortable with it, and knowing where my boundaries are and understanding the issues and cultural norms a little better I’ve been able to filter out what is healthy for me and isn’t in terms of the gay people I want to let into my life (which of course has been a carry over into all my life relationships, but I think my experiences in trying to learn how to navigate gay culture helped me do that in its own unique way, exposing me to things that challenged my preconceptions about people and putting me in situations that challenged me to develop a little bit of tact and street smarts). I look back on my gay relationships since coming out and I realize really any awkwardness or uncomfortable experiences were really just due to the fact that I was inexperienced with the scene, and I was desperate to date and didn’t know how to be comfortable without needing the gay people I knew to be a potential boyfriend. I also didn’t realize how many gay people are out there and how many I would meet over time and how not necessarily all of that was going to be awkward and negative. All and all the gay culture experience can be what you make of it, the social growing pains of learning how to navigate it and get comfortable in it is something ALL of us share in one way or another and they are just that, “social growing pains,” they don’t need to be a reason to shut out the whole thing all together, if you are smart enough to grow from the experience it can become a progressively more positive thing in the long run. Towards the end of the day after several laughs, and people asking to take our picture, and catching up with different people we knew I remember Mandy saying “you know I really didn’t know what to expect…but I really did have a good time.”
We went back to Joseph’s house where the day started as Mandy started taking off all the glamour. Joseph, being the cultural sophisticate of the three of us decided to expose us to Valley of the Dolls and explained how it was popular in the gay community of its time. It wasn’t long till we started just talking about experiences being gay men in the scene over the past years at greater depth. Discussing the issues in everything from the hook up culture, guys insecurities, encountering guys that are experimenting or closeted, slut shaming, preconceptions about sexual relationships, etc. At this moment in time I might point out that in my own past experience when gay boys talk about these sorts of things it can be an experimentation with intimacy. Make a connection to a guy, he’s kind of cute, meeting and getting to know each other, the past relationships talk can be an experimentation with gauging the other’s values to see how compatible he may be as a potential romantic/sexual encounter. How often do a group of gay men just talk about it in general just because it’s an opportunity to share view points, discuss and deconstruct the issues, and share insights. Again another aspect of “queer sacred space” discussed in my thesis, through realizing there is more to gay kinship then the opportunity for sexual/romantic partner selection, there is also potential to be empowered. Instead of talking to your str8 besties about boys, you talk to someone who actually shares the same experience, who has gone through the same rites of passage to get access to gay relationships, and the same process in constructing their identities as someone who is different, struggling with similar insecurities and frustrations. There is always a subtle judgment when you talk to heterosexual friends “I met a guy on grindr and…” or “this guy had a girlfriend, but seemed to be interested in me and…” or “I get so frustrated when guys…” or among other things.
Sometimes allies mean well, but they really don’t have the life experience to really be able to share in the same empowering and special way that gay men could amongst themselves. Even earlier that day I had a friend who as far as I know doesn’t identify as gay (as he is married to a woman as is romantically involved) trying to challenge me to see if it was necessary to refer to myself as “super queer” which I had to explain that was the character I was creating for pride, putting on a rainbow flag as a cape and being “super queer” the gay super hero. Not that I consider him to be a homophobe, I actually do have a lot of respect and affection for him as a friend, but that is the kind of bullshit I am talking about. Is it anyone’s place to tell me how to define my gay identity especially as an outsider, frankly to do so is exercising hetero-normative privilege and homophobic. Like a feminist having to explain she isn’t hating on men, but she is pointing out patriarchal privilege, a black person isn’t saying white people are “bad” but they are pointing out racism. I as a white person cannot proclaim to tell a black person how they should or shouldn’t be black, if I did that’s just racist and exercising my white privilege. We need allies and we should welcome them and be inclusive of them, but not at the expense of not having a space for ourselves exclusively as gay men. Gay identity and culture are about gay people, those that support us are invaluable, but they are not “us.” Hopefully as a marginalized group ourselves realizing this fact will make us more sensitive to other marginalized groups and support their need to have their own empowering isolated spaces and fundamental right to define what that is and isn’t for themselves. Sure there are some things that are going to be common themes in all life relationships, about love, about sexuality, about all of that. But there are differences when gay men have to utilize the things they do to meet each other, there are different sexual politics, and pressures put on us as a marginalized group of people, and very specific insecurities that are common amongst us that create some of our internal issues. Having a space to talk about that with people who have gone through it and have had a lot of time to think about it and self-actualize it (assuming they are reflexive enough to do so) is something a lot of guys miss out on and could GREATLY benefit from.
Finally the night finished out with us going out to the local gay bars for the after party events. At first we were a bit to tired after being at the day festival so long, but soon were having a blast. After thoroughly discussing our common experiences in the gay community and having in depth conversations about gay culture and issues, we just had a good time. Making snarky jokes, enjoying music, laughing about things only we could get amongst ourselves, then some karaoke. Finally finishing the night off singing our favorite showtunes in a late night restaurant and on the car ride back. We simply celebrated ourselves with each other, something that can be hard to do sometimes. Between having hate preachers yell at us at pride, dealing with internal drama, and discussing our life insecurities and traumas, we somehow could as the line from Queer as Folk states “take something ugly and make it beautiful.”
I have to say I really enjoyed my first pride experience. It was only an affirmation that this project is something I really want to put an effort into doing. Sense coming out at the age of 16 I have gone through many ups and downs in my gay experience, but I really do feel more and more that I am a part of the “tribe.” For all the craziness and the issues involved there are a lot of positive things in Gay culture, it’s just a matter of being the kind of person that can make meaning out of it and learn and grow from it as you go. A spiritual mentor once told me “life is messy…” and he was right, but I think when you realize that and accept that as opposed to trying to escape it or avoid it, you can really begin to live and begin developing the personal responsibility necessary to make meaning out of it.