Channelling some serious "Born This Way" vibes, my first memories of a Pride march are filled with motorbikes, honking and rainbows. It was last year, on a balmy Saturday night in downtown Sydney, Australia, that I found myself in the middle of the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras celebration.
Being at the parade with my close group of friends, including my cousin Damon, was an emotional moment. My cousin and I stood there together, hand in hand, watching the parade, fulfilling a dream we'd had since we were 14 and 15--we'd never thought that the dream would come into fruition, until now.
The floats began to march along a barricaded Oxford Street, disregarding the red traffic lights. It was strange to see the lights change from red to green, as if rules still applied. It almost seemed to symbolised a sense of newfound freedom. As if, tonight, we didn't need permission; we had given ourselves the green light ahead.
I saw a float of police playing instruments to "Uptown Funk". I saw a sign saying "Masc 4 Mascara". Marches by headspace, an Australian youth mental health initiative, disability care and LGBTQIA+ refugees were all met with roars of adoration.
"It's nice to be in a place that's, just, gay," my friend Tim said to me. "I was holding Damon's arm before, which I would normally never do, but I felt like I could. I've never felt more comfortable to dance and to, just, feel comfortable. It's very rare. It's nice to not feel scared."
We began to reminisce, amongst the crowd, about our most poignant adolescent moments.
"I can still remember taking my sister's magazine, Cosmo or Cleo or whatever it was, and looking at Paris Hilton," Tim said. "Being, like, that's what you need to like. Push away any thought that's not Paris Hilton. I can still see the photo of her."
"I just remember," said another friend, Ryan, "I used to cry every night. Every night. I didn't want to be me. I actually just wanted to be like the others. I hated what I was going through. But now I love it, and now I live for it."
At that moment, I thought back to an encounter I'd had with a cab driver, a few days prior, on the way to the airport. He'd asked me where I was heading, and I told him I was off to Sydney for Mardi Gras.
He paused. I took a breath, preparing to get on the defence. "Oh, that's amazing," he replied. "Good on you. You'll have so much fun." I was admittedly quite shocked with his response. After all, I never really knew how anyone would respond; I'd been conditioned to expect the worse.
The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, 2017. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
I shouldn't have underestimated him, though. He'd accidentally stumbled across the parade, he told me, when he was on a work trip with his family, some twenty years prior. He said it was all things wacky, wonderful and wild. He said that I would have an incredible weekend, and I'd smiled.
He then spent the remainder of the cab ride telling me about an old friend of his, Jeremy who eventually became Jemma. He talked about Jemma's two-year transformation, from psychological therapy and psychiatric approval to multiple Bangkok trips for surgeries.
"As a man, he was great but, as a woman, she is amazing," he added. "It was a hard process, you know, to make the outside look like how she felt on the inside. I haven't seen her in a while, though, but I recently saw a picture of her and she's absolutely stunning."
Now, back amongst the streamers and costumes and screams, I looked at a mother, father and son to my right. They were standing beside me on crates. They were holding hands and the dad was hugging his son tightly to stop him from falling off the crate. The moment touched me--and that's when the tears started.
I wasn't just crying, though. I started sobbing--loudly. I couldn't stop. I hadn't cried like this since I was about 12. I guess I hadn't allowed myself to feel this joy before.
I cried for the struggles during my boyhood. I cried for the 15-year-old in me that had always wanted to go to a pride march. I cried for my 18-year-old self, who had always envisaged being amongst the flags and streams and floats and glitter but had never actually seen it as a probability.
I cried for my cousin and I, who'd dreamt of being here together, hand in hand. I cried for my friends who'd watched the television coverage year after year and were now able to experience a joy that they, too, had never saw possible. I cried when I began to look at the crowd around me; these were mothers, fathers, siblings, and grandparents. Humans with every gender, racial and sexual identity under the sun--all united by their love.
I cried when I saw a float with a giant red heart, accompanied by the message: "Love Makes a Family." I cried when I hugged a woman in a red wig and glittery gown. I also cried for Jemma. We were all crying, now.
These weren't tears of sadness, though; this isn't a sad story. Being in the crowd, that night, was a small victory.
That night, we were all victorious. There's a lot of hate in the world right now, and there's still a hard journey ahead for LGBTQIA+ people to legitimate their identities, but here we all were standing for equality, step-by-step, transcending cultures, races, genders and abilities.
These moments are our small victories. Wearing what I like is a victory. Saying how I feel is a victory. Feeling happy and comfortable and loved is a victory. And I hope I never stop having these moments; I hope I keep having reminders of happiness. I hope I continue having small victories.
"I never thought I could feel this way," said Tim, looking at me.
"And I have never, in my life, been so proud of who I am," said our friend Ben, with his arms around us.
Neither have I. Everyone's first Pride march should be cherished.
Louis Hanson is a writer and activist. Check out his work here or on Instagram.