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Pride

My First Pride

My First Pride

Aaron Hicklin

With the distance of time, the beginnings of things become harder to discern. For me it was subtle at first, aware that my preferences were not those of other boys. Offered a choice I gravitated to Nancy Drew over The Hardy Boys, enjoyed the company of girls at school, and worshipped Annie Lennox, the beautiful, androgynous lead singer of The Eurythmics with her cropped red hair and men's suits. I imagined the two of us happily married -- the only way I could make sense of my sexual orientation. It was rural England in the 1980s, and fear of AIDS and stigmatization kept me in the closet even as I began to understand my attraction to other boys for what it was. Little by little, though, I found the courage to push through my anxiety and fear. I recall the heart-pounding experience of entering a Cardiff cinema that was hosting a queer film festival, and the sheer exhilaration of realizing that, for the first time, I was surrounded by people just like me. How incredible it is to know you are not alone.

And there was a trip to London for the sole purpose of tracking down Gay's the Word -- a brazen name for a bookstore that requires certain courage from a closeted teen. The store is still there today, and looking up its website I was delighted to see that it hasn't abandoned that defiant, tell-it-like-it-is-attitude that once set my nerves racing. "Purveyors of fine homosexual literature since 1979" reads the banner on its home page, conjuring thoughts of a cheerful gay neighborhood, in which purveyors of fine homosexual cheeses and gay coal merchants would all have their rightful place. I no longer remember the book I bought on that first visit, but doubtless it contained enough sex to satisfy my jangling hormones. What I do recall is casting sly, shy glances at the men in the store, imagining what it must be like to live in a city and always be able to meet and mingle among one's own. That was before the internet changed all that; back then, Gay's the Word was the closest thing to a gay chat room you could find.

It was around that time -- the same day? The same month? Certainly the same year--that I experienced my first Pride. I was alone -- since I had no gay friends -- and terrified. This wasn't like sneaking into a film festival or bookstore; it was public, visible, exposed. Gay men were still being arrested for kissing in public. The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher had passed a repugnant law to prevent homosexuality being "promoted" in schools, which made us all but invisible. On television, the only gay characters were limp-wristed caricatures. Maybe 10,000 marched that year, maybe fewer, but a far cry from the hundreds of thousands that march today. What do I recall? Sunshine, banners, solidarity. We were in the middle of a plague; marching for our rights felt existential. At a rally in Hyde Park the Beverley Sisters, the U.K.'s version of The Andrews Sisters, sang their 1950s hits, a radical act of fellowship that still moves me to tears all these years later. They were the same generation as my grandmother. Two of Sisters are still alive, now aged 90. My grandmother is 97, and going strong.

It's been 30 years since I attended my first Pride, and when I join the parade this year what I'll see is our long history of triumph over adversity, of wave after wave of pioneers each making way for a new generation to take the fight forward, of the way in which our visibility has been the cornerstone of our quest for equality. Three years ago this July I was married on a gorgeous day, a few miles from the village in which I spent my childhood. My grandmother was among the first to send her congratulations.

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