Finding my place in 'Pride'

Some years ago, I was at work casually walking down the hall toward the printer, when my colleague Lori shouts my name as I pass her office. I step back and she yells, “Monday is MLK day!” I was the only black person in the department, and the only one to get Lori’s shout-out that we would be celebrating a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King.

I often think of this moment when June rolls around and someone wishes me a well-intended, enthusiastic “Happy Pride!”

Pride month and all of its colorful and now corporate celebrations often cause me to examine my place within the multiple communities in which I identify. To be clear, I respect the symbolism of the celebration, but I have no idea of what to do with “Happy Pride” well-wishes.

I grew up in and around Newark, N.J. Whatever messaging that was making it to some communities about Pride had not made its way to my neighborhood. The closest contact to Pride I had as a young person were the local news clips of drag queens and men dressed like The Village People. Even squinting, I did not see myself anywhere within that frame.

And others in my life appeared to not really see me at all.

In the summer of 2005, I had just experienced a breakup with a man I had been with for five years. The relationship was both beautiful and rocky in the ways that relationships often are. I allowed, more often than I should have, for my boyfriend to be referred to as “Phill’s friend.” Friends come and go. So when I lost my “friend,” life just went on.

No family checked in, no one came over with ice cream and two large spoons to help me drown my sorrows. Granted, the ice cream thing probably only happens in movies, but still, something adjacent might have been nice. The thing is, those sorts of basic human responses were not often afforded to people like me, those who didn’t fit into the neat narrative of being straight.

Mainstream narratives about gay people were very narrow for much of my life. There were often two extremes: sassy hairdresser or depressed castaway. I don't fit into that spectrum. A therapist who I'd been seeing for some time posited, "I'm not really sure that you are actually gay." While I knew that wasn't true, I wasn't quite sure of where my place was in the community.

After my breakup, I moved into a friend’s apartment off of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood — the heart of the gay community in Los Angeles — and stumbled into a Pride parade one morning while in search of caffeine. People in feathers, chaps and sequins were buzzing about, clearly thrilled to participate in something I had no idea was happening, even though it was steps away from my front door. I felt as foreign among that group as I would among the forlorn loners.

Not long ago, I was at home binge-watching “Master of None” on Netflix and the “Thanksgiving” episode about the coming-out story of Lena Waithe’s character Denise took my breath away. Denise had friends and was full of life. She was burdened, but not hopeless. In other words, she was human — and whole. If I had stories and images like that when I was growing up, things might have been a little bit easier.

Times have changed and perspectives have evolved. I am married with children now, and people in my life use the word “husband,” not “friend” — no matter their orientation, they participate in my life fully. I can also recognize much more clearly now the full prism of existence within the celebration of Pride, while still feeling disconnected from it. I fly my flag in many other ways; ways that feel comfortable and authentic for my life. Still, I celebrate those who choose to live it up in June, because at the core we are all working toward the same things: civil rights, visibility and peace.

Phill Branch (www.phillbranch.com) is a writer, educator and lecturer. Twitter: @phillbranch; email: phillbranch@gmail.com.

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