Starting All Over with Pebbles of Pride
“What an extraordinary achievement, what a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. What a reminder of what Bobby Kennedy once said about how small actions can be like pebbles being thrown into a still lake, and ripples of hope cascade outwards and change the world. Those countless, often anonymous heroes, they deserve our thanks. They should be very proud. America should be very proud.”—President Obama, speaking moments after the Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality, June 26, 2015.
One of the first things John and I ever did as a couple was to march in the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. The year was 1973, and even then the event, with its companion Gay Liberation Festival at the downtown Civic Center Plaza, drew tens of thousands. Many of us sported buttons and waved flags featuring interlocking male symbols and female symbols in bright lavender. We were dazzled and amazed to be among some 50,000 people like us. By the time we marched in our last San Francisco pride parade in 1977, more than 350,000 were walking with us.
Then we moved to Washington, DC, where Pride was just beginning to blossom. The annual celebration was initially a small street fair organized by Lambda Rising bookstore outside its door on 20th Street NW. When we first participated in 1978, it drew about 2,500 people to a handful of booths and food trucks. In 1979, DC Mayor Marion Barry began attending each year (followed by other politicians), and in the early 1980s the crowds grew to 20,000—then 30,000—at its new, larger location at P Street Beach.
Those numbers were easily overshadowed by the successive giant marches on Washington. The throng for the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979 totaled about 100,000 participants; the second march in 1987 drew 200,000. The third in 1993 brought together something between 750,000 and one-million people. Of course, John and I marched in all of them, and I hadn’t been anxious during any of them.
So, why then, after more than four decades of publicly expressing my pride in being gay, am I nervous about marching this weekend in my small town’s old-fashioned Independence Day parade? Because, despite all that has come before it, this pint-sized event presents a pioneering situation. As with the first Gay Freedom Parade in San Francisco in 1970 and the first Pride street fair in Washington in 1975, in our little city of Mount Dora, Florida, LGBT people have never before taken to the streets to declare publicly our dignity and to express that we’re an integral part of the community.
Our crew of a dozen volunteers, incorporated as Mount Dora Pride Inc., has created a colorful float that will roll through downtown streets amid sweaty high school marching bands, blazing red fire engines with blaring sirens and smiling politicians in open convertibles. To the best of our knowledge, our presence in the eight-block parade marks the first time any assemblage of gay citizens has marched as a unit in a city’s Fourth of July parade in Central Florida. Our plan is to mount a full-fledged Pride street festival with live entertainment and educational booths next April. It will probably resemble the early ones organized in DC by Lambda Rising 40 years ago, adding to my never-ending sense of déjà vu.
Our elaborate flatbed float is definitely going to add some razzle-dazzle to the event, with its three-dimensional arches in each of the rainbow colors—our unique variation on the classic rainbow-flag theme. Of course, John and I are such veteran marchers that the rainbow flag had not even been invented when we first paraded our pride. (Historical aside: The flag was designed by artist Gilbert Baker for San Francisco Pride in 1978, and it initially had eight colors. In addition to red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for serenity and harmony, and violet for spirit, it featured hot pink for sexuality and turquoise for art and magic. The latter two colors were later dropped to keep production costs reasonable.)
The theme of this year’s Mount Dora parade is America the Beautiful. (What a fresh concept!) So, our float’s theme is “American Diversity is Beautiful.” We will be blowing the crowd with a bubble machine and, yes, we’ll be tossing Mardi Gras beads in rainbow colors. But, as much as we want our float to be fun and festive, we also want to provide a public service. So we have attached cards to more than 2,500 strands of beads with a message against bullying as well as hotline numbers for young people to call if they are concerned or in danger—one number is for all youth (and their friends or families) who may have a complaint or question; the other is for nearby Orlando’s Zebra Coalition, which provides services and a safe house especially for LGBTQ young people.
Having worked on bullying issues for years, I know it is a problem (especially for queer kids) in our traditionally conservative county. While Mount Dora, home to countless artists and cultured northern transplants, is known for its open-mindedness, some areas of our county are still emerging from the worst of old South attitudes, including a history of KKK rallies and racially motivated hate crimes. Even now, some who post on social media rant in favor of the Confederate flag, and one former sheriff’s department deputy in particular singled out the rainbow flag as more sinister a sight.
So, we realize that not everyone may cheer us on as we stroll alongside our float, waving tiny American flags and tossing our beads. We expect about 30 people to march in our parade contingent, and dozens more say they’ll cheer us on from the sidewalks. We hope the cheerers neutralize any possible negative reaction, but we are prepared to avoid engaging anyone who may want to create a stir. We will just keep exuding positive energy.
In a sense, I am surprised we even have to discuss the possibility of unfavorable reactions to our float, which is tasteful and brimming with good will. But as we all know from too many recent events, especially the horrific racially motivated murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in North Charleston, there are still forces of hate-filled ignorance among us.
As LGBT people, we will continue to experience negativity even now that the Supreme Court has ruled same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right. (Ain’t that so, Alabama Justice Roy Moore?)
We will also still face political resistance against the many legal rights we have yet to achieve. As Michael Farmer, director of development for Equality Florida, said in celebrating the Supreme Court victory: “My most sincere hope is that we have the commitment to protect this hard fought victory and to keep this movement strong and sustained because there are many people who are still counting on us; people fired from their jobs because they don’t pass for straight, trans people, LGBT youth bullied in schools, LGBT seniors who fear discrimination in facilities that lack cultural competency and so many others. Marriage is just the beginning; we have so much more work to do to achieve justice.”
So, we must continue to be, in the words of President Obama, “anonymous heroes.” We must keep on tossing pebbles—even a tiny one like an LGBT float in a small town parade—to let people know we are everywhere, we care, and we are fueled by the power of love.