This essay was chosen by editors in reponse to the #FirstTime prompt: What was your first Pride experience?
It was 1977. Nearly a decade had passed since Stonewall and our safety was still measured by the dimness of the lights and the rotation of a mirrored disco ball suspended above the dance floor. At age 25 I had just moved from the insular confines of rural Western Pennsylvania to Southern California, leaving behind my fears and bursting forth from the closet, as it were, with the first tentative steps of one whose life was about to change profoundly. I embraced my newfound freedom, oblivious to its inherent dangers and soon to discover with the Briggs Initiative that I had not really left my fears behind. They had followed me.
With John Briggs's Proposition 6 threatening our livelihood, I had become involved as a community activist at the urging of my boyfriend, a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. Asked to march in the Gay Pride Parade to represent the Center, I agreed, innocently accepting the task of walking along one flank of the route with a donation can. Since 1970, a year after Stonewall, gay and lesbian Los Angelenos had celebrated Christopher Street Liberation Day with a march down Hollywood Boulevard and a smallish festival of booths, games and children's rides on a vacant lot in the heart of Hollywood. For me, this would be my first public demonstration of my gay pride, and I remember the day suffering from LA's seasonal "June gloom," yet gleefully joyous in the spirit of the hundreds of brave souls who had turned out.
But despite the Mardi Gras environment, behind each set of glittered eyes there lurked the fears we all shared in our daily lives: the bullies, the judgmental, the self-righteous, and the ever-present fear of what one crazy man with a gun could do. There had been threats of violence as usual, and a contingent of LAPD officers were under a court order to provide protection. They were of little comfort.
As we set off on our journey, I gamely walked along the boulevard's gutter, soliciting donations from the sparsely populated sidewalks. There were no cheering crowds greeting us or even smiling faces. Most on the sidewalks that day had no idea who we were and just stared blankly at the spectacle of "Dykes on Bykes," gaudily dressed go-go boys and legions of drag and leather queens, forming a kind of surreal commedia dell'arte cum Erte improvisation. Close behind followed an array of the out and proud, holding hands and sporting signs demanding their rights.
Some bystanders preached the Bible at us while others simply mocked us with chillingly familiar pejoratives. Still others angrily hid the eyes of their impressionable children. A few stopped and watched, some secretly smiling and dropping a few coins in my donation can. One angry spectator rudely flicked his lit cigarette butt at me while still another leaned over and spit into the can. I thanked him just the same. I would not let the animus of one homophobe ruin the day. But, despite my bright smile and buoyant enthusiasm, my eyes were all the while furtively scanning the spectators, fearful of what the next encounter could bring, always aware of the threats of violence for openly expressing "the love that dare not speak its name."
Now almost 40 years hence, myself an aging academic and married, I marvel at the rights we have secured with our activism and I envy the freedom that a new generation of gays and lesbians now experience. I worry that they will take these rights and freedoms for granted, not having to struggle as my generation had, oblivious to our past battles and terrors. Then Orlando happened, and all our worst fears have come true. We all now know what one crazy man with a gun can do, and now, truly, regardless of our age, we are all Orlando.
Jon S. Robbins, a former gay activist and features editor for Frontiers Newsmagazine (1985-1987), is now a college arts administrator, writer, and educator living in Olympia, WA.