Public and Private Pride
When I enter my e-mail in the morning, the first ten minutes always seems to be devoted to delete and unsubscribe. But I proceed with caution for fear of deleting something interesting or important. Several days ago there was a message from a source I didn’t recognize and reflexively I almost hit delete. That would have been a mistake. It was a soliloquy on aging which I promptly sent to an assortment of friends, family and fellow-travelers.
In part, it said, “I would never trade my amazing friends, my wonderful life, my loving family for less gray hair or a flatter belly. As I’ve aged, I’ve become kinder to myself, and less critical of myself. I’ve become my own friend.…
“I am so blessed to have lived long enough to have my hair turning gray, and to have my youthful laughs forever etched into deep grooves on my face.…
“I like being old. It has set me free. I like the person I have become. I am not going to live forever, but while I’m still here, I will not waste time lamenting what could have been, or worrying about what will be. And I shall eat dessert every single day (if I feel like it).”
This is a poignant expression of the pride of a senior who has weathered life’s storms. But you don’t have to be old to have pride. Since the Stonewall riots in New York City in June of 1969, June has become the month of Pride—Gay Pride. Parades with dykes on bikes, rainbow clad marching bands and bikini bottomed muscle boys again will galvanize celebrations throughout the world. In recent years pride parades have become somewhat controversial. Some gay and lesbian leaders feel parades are no longer needed—that they are less an expression of pride than an excuse for a block-party. The fact that the utility of Gay Pride Parades can be questioned is a testament to how far our community has come.
There are, however, two sides to gay pride. One is public. The other is private. A parade is a public display and provides an opportunity for many in the LGBT community to stand up and be counted in ways that may not be possible for them to be counted in their work lives, family lives and personal lives. Regrettably, however, parades don’t change public opinion.
A 2008 survey, done by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), found the reason most frequently cited by straight people who reported having a more favorable view of gays was simply knowing someone who is gay. An individual coming out as gay to a straight friend, or family member, or work colleague is more influential in changing public perception than is a march or a parade. My own experience, from decades ago, supports the survey findings that personal experience is the crucial factor in changing perception.
I entered high school in Allentown, Pennsylvania never having known or met a black person. That was in the forties. As a result of the economic segregation of the times, the blacks in our community all lived, literally, on the other side of the tracks. They had gone to different grammar schools and different junior high schools. Although I entered high school without personal knowledge of a black individual, I was full of negative stereotypes about them. That wasn’t knowledge I gained at home. It was information I’d absorbed from the larger community.
Then, in high school I met Lindsay Jones. He was black. He was the tenor soloist in our high school choir. He was in the National Honor Society. He was attractive and personable. From that time forward I had to evaluate every black person I met through the filter of knowing Lindsay Jones. He destroyed the stereotype I’d bought into.
Personal opinion changes through personal contact— not through celebrations and parades. Even casual contacts may be important. In mid-May I was in New York for a long weekend. Within three days I saw four shows, three museums and attended services at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. On Sunday morning, in a busy deli close to my hotel, I got a cup of coffee, a Danish and some juice. The place was crowded but I finally spied a table for four with only one man seated. I asked if I might share the table with him. “Sure,” he said. My wife and daughter will be through the line shortly.”
When his wife and daughter joined us, I quickly learned they were from southern Virginia and in New York to see a Yankees game and a Broadway show. Conversation flowed easily and they were interested in the museums I’d seen, the shows I liked and the fact I was headed to St. Thomas’ on Fifty-third at Fifth. “Any time I’m in New York on a Sunday morning, I go,” I confessed. “It’s the best show in town. Theirs is one of only four church sponsored choir schools in the world. The men’s and boys’ choir is magnificent. You should go hear them,” I declared enthusiastically.
When the family found I was from Fort Lauderdale, Mrs. Yankee-fan gushed, “Oh, that’s one of my favorite places. I love it there. Why did you choose Fort Lauderdale for retirement?”
“It’s a great place to live,” I affirmed. “Beautiful beaches, plenty of cultural stuff and great weather.” Then I added, “You may not be aware, but Fort Lauderdale has the highest concentration of gay seniors in the nation. I’m a gay senior and it’s the right place for me to be. It’s easy to make friends in Fort Lauderdale and there are a lot of activities to help keep seniors young.”
They didn’t press me for more information about being gay, but they didn’t bolt for the door either. Instead, as I left, they smiled and Mr. Yankees-fan thanked me for my recommendation on St. Thomas’. “We can’t go today but we’ll put it on our list for the next time,” he assured me.
Rightly or wrongly, I assumed a family from Southern Virginia who were in town for a baseball game might not be charter members of PFLAG or the Human Rights Campaign. This is the private side of gay pride. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my gray hair (thank God, I still have some) and I’m proud of the struggles I’ve endured to be able to say, “I’m a gay senior.” I’m proud that Mr. and Mrs. Yankee and their daughter now have to look at gays through the filter of the guy they met at the deli in New York —the one who recommended they go to St. Thomas’ on a Sunday morning.
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.