While coming out of the closet is never a particularly fun activity, doing so when one is the only child of conservative, fundamentalist Christians from Orange County is, well, less fun. After enduring a few weeks of less-than-supportive comments from my dad and watching my mom struggle to make sense of her feelings, I made a mixed CD of songs that would keep me cheerful and convinced that coming out was the right thing to do and that loving my girlfriend, Jackie, was a-okay in the grand scheme of things. The CD, titled Coming Out Is Fun When Jackie Is Your Girlfriend, was sufficient for a while, as was having a comfort-food diet consisting solely of rocky road ice cream and pink lemonade-but soon I wanted more. I wanted community. Where does one go when one’s family just isn’t cutting it? What do you do when you need to feel like a part of something bigger than bigotry and prejudice, something stronger than hate?
Well, if you’re gay, you go to Gay Pride.
And so, my little red car propelled Jackie and me to West Hollywood, or WeHo as we lovingly refer to it, on a weekend in early June. Gay Pride events are never for the faint of heart-if men in tight jeans bumping Kelly Clarkson in their perfectly manicured Jettas are too in-your-face, don’t even think about it-but Gay Pride in WeHo is truly a remarkable event: The city literally shuts down to accommodate the thousands who flock there for a weekend of rainbow-inspired fun.
The designated festival space in the heart of WeHo featured more than 200 artisans, community groups, and social organizations hawking their goods. Within the festival walls (aka chain-link fence), there was a slew of food and drink vendors, and a very, very well-frequented outdoor bar/beer garden area.
There was also a huge dance area that bumped your requisite Madonna, Britney, and techno mixes, while the WaMu-sponsored main stage played host to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Tiffany, and L.A. Pride favorites Billy Masters & Momma. If you were in the mood for less live music and a more exclusively dance-oriented environment, there were a number of deejay-hosted events. Lastly, lest you think that gays and country music don’t mix-which means you haven’t seen the billboards on Santa Monica Boulevard advertising a country music station with a buff and smiling man encouraging drivers to “ride a cowboy”-there’s the Country Pavilion, held in the West Hollywood Park Auditorium, dedicated specifically to line dancing, two-step lessons, and yes, even a barn dance.
If there’s one thing gays know how to do, it’s party. But we also know how to put on a good parade, and that’s the highlight of Gay Pride, at least for Jackie and me. And based on the turnout, despite the midday heat and raging hangovers of likely thousands of viewers, I’d say many others would agree.
Despite my undisputably Casper-like skin tone, I decided to forgo the sunscreen and go for the tank top-a move I have come to regret based on the pain of an intense sunburn that devolved into puffy, boiled-looking skin and the ability to peel sheets of brownish film from my chest and shoulders. But my top was no ordinary complement to my short denim skirt; in my naive, never-been-to-WeHo-Pride mind, I thought my white tank with a bright red bra would get heads turning. Alas, those dreams were crushed as Jackie and I eked out a spot on the grass right by the parade route. It was there that a petite, perfectly toned African-American man stepped in front of us, wearing only tighty-whities with rainbow-colored stars on them; white suspenders with enormous, feathered angel wings; white, three-inch-heeled go-go boots; and big, rimless Chanel sunglasses. My red bra was nothing compared to this guy.
Now a parade is a parade, and no matter how gay someone is, there are only so many times a person can get excited about a car dressed up in rainbow stickers and flags, carrying around some higher-up from every gay organization ever created. Enter the floats. And I mean floats. An Altoids-sponsored float had a giant box of Altoids open with a virtually naked man-again, in tighty-whities; what’s with those things?-rubbing soapy suds all over himself. Although he was the star of that show, there were a number of other scantily clad gents shakin’ their thangs and rockin’ out in the sweltering heat on that float and the countless others snaking down Santa Monica Boulevard. Drag queens abounded, as did marching bands, cars carrying said higher-ups from a number of gay organizations, and general dancing frivolity. And at all times there was the faint yet distinct bass line of a techno song coming from somewhere in the distance.
The parade lasted a good three hours and by the end of it, we were ready for a snack. While meandering along the confettied streets, Jackie and I came upon Pinkberry, the yogurt shop that has launched a thousand parking tickets, L.A. Times stories, and general dairy obsessions. WeHo’s Pinkberry is the original store, and Jackie and I found the delicious, fruity treat a perfect way to wrap up our Pride weekend.
As Jackie and I made our way back up to Santa Barbara, I thought about how much more Gay Pride meant to me this year than ever before. While I’ve been a casual participant at many a gay-themed event-Sundays at the Wildcat, Thursday nights in WeHo, weekly L Word parties, and a quick appearance at a few Gay Santa Barbara events-I’m not sure if I’ve ever truly embraced being gay. The one-two punch of coming out to the folks and attending Gay Pride did, however, make me very aware that being gay is a definite part of who I am and is also a definite reason to be proud.
The sense of community and openness that I experienced that June weekend made me feel more aware of my otherness from straight people. Yet it also made me aware of the commonality in all human experiences; there we were, prancing around Santa Monica Boulevard, simply wanting desperately to be accepted for who we are, that ever-elusive desire of all humankind. But acceptance is a tricky thing, and for gays-a people group often pushed to the fringes-we have to have a big, crazy, outlandish party to create a group identity, to create a sense of community that inspires us to be confident in who we are in the day-to-day. And since Gay Pride happens only once a year, we have to do it right-and if that means tighty-whities with rainbow stars, then so be it.
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Penny Patterson writes an online column about gay life in Santa Barbara called Gay Girl/Straight World. See independent.com/gaygirl for more.