I cringed when I learned the theme of this issue of Letters was “Pride.” Gay pride and I have a complicated relationship. For a long time I thought it trivial and embarrassing. Then I found it inconvenient because I needed to be here in Rehoboth working on my garden and getting my rental properties in tip-top shape for the summer season. Now I was finding it just plain irritating as I struggled to come up with something interesting to write about.
One night I was browsing Kramer Books in DC, ignoring the fast approaching column deadline, when I stumbled upon Mr. Know It All, the newest book by John Waters. Most people think about John Waters as a filmmaker but he’s also a prolific author. I own all seven of his books, so perhaps, I thought, Mr. Waters in his infinite wisdom could help me see a way out of this pride pickle.
I googled and searched and combed through my library until I stumbled upon the nugget of advice I was looking for. When asked what he thought about gay pride, Mr. Waters replied: “If we can laugh at the worst things that happened to us because of our sexuality, we’ll be the strongest minority of all…proud to be not like everyone else.”
Well now. Here was something I could work with.…
Flash back to 1986. Yours truly was young and cute and just coming out. I had no gay friends and I knew next to nothing about gay life except what I had started to absorb through the Washington Blade newspaper. Ronald Reagan was the President. There were no cell phones. No internet. Romantic connections were made in the bars and in the streets. That’s why the pride parade, in addition to being a carnival and a political statement, was also a meat market—an 80s version of Grindr. The DC parade concluded in Dupont Circle so of course the bars were packed afterwards. I ended up at JR’s, with what seemed like hundreds of drunk and cruising pride patrons.
Back then I wore contact lenses and when I was drinking, my eyes tended to get red and irritated, making it extremely uncomfortable to wear the lenses. I had a couple of tricks when this happened. One was to take out a lens and fold it up in a dollar bill. Later I’d put the lens in saline solution where it would rehydrate. So, there I stood in JR’s, a drunk, one-eyed horn dog looking for some fun.
Naturally, I ended up in someone’s boudoir later that night. Some more vodka, a joint, and my inhibitions flew the coop like a bat out of hell. Did I perhaps want to get a little adventuresome, my paramour asked? He had a devilish grin and was brandishing the largest tube of KY jelly I’d ever seen. Sure, why not, I thought. It had been, after all, my first gay pride parade. What could go wrong?
A lot it seems. For the entire night I had to endure my paramour narrating everything in his best Jeff Stryker impersonation. “You love that doncha? Tell me you love that.” The problem with someone talking dirty is that when it’s done with a slight lisp, it’s hard to keep from laughing. Then add in a spilled bottle of poppers, a yipping, nipping Yorkie on the bed, and something unmentionable in my eye—the one with the remaining contact lens of course. It wasn’t quite the hot scene I’d signed up for.
Nevertheless, I was a trouper. I popped the lens out and placed it into a glass of vodka and cranberry juice on the bedside table for safe keeping and carried on as any red-blooded 20-something gay boy would. I’d gone this far.…
The next morning I partook in another parade: the walk of shame. And what a walk it was—a four-mile groping stumble to my group house in the Palisades neighborhood. Seems I’d spent the dollar bill holding the contact lens at the bar and drank the cocktail with the other lens sometime during the evening’s debauchery. I had no money in my wallet and I couldn’t see a damn thing. To make matters worse, I had to wear a very old and unfashionable pair of eyeglasses for a week until my new lenses arrived.
For 30-plus years I’ve been embarrassed to tell this story. But now I can see it (pun intended) for what it really is—a comical tale of a youthful folly, a gay pride story I should tell with delight, shame be damned! Thank you, John Waters. I knew I could count on you. ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.