How I Overcame My ‘Shameful’ Past To Find the Meaning of Pride

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For Pride Month, Well+Good is joyfully celebrating the right to Love Out Loud with a collection of stories from the LGBTQ+ community. With hard-fought battles alongside softness and vulnerability, these stories highlight what it is to love others as well as ourselves.

I attended my first Pride in 2018. I took the train downtown and switched to the Brown Line to meet up with a friend near North Halsted Street. He’d lived in Chicago all throughout college and knew the perfect intersection along the parade route. We went to a bar, but I didn't drink. I wanted a clear head for my first Pride.

The drumline of the marching band boomed throughout the concrete city, followed by the smell of motorcycle exhaust from a lesbian biker club holding signs reading “Rev My Hog.” Famous drag queens (though at the time I didn’t know their names or what season of Drag Race they’d appeared on) glided by sitting atop sparkling convertibles. Canvassers along the sidelines of the parade handed out candy and beaded necklaces and condoms—lots of condoms—but I pushed most of these items onto my friend and his friends. I remember watching people on the sidelines as the parade passed by—men and men, women and women, people laughing, holding hands, kissing—and even though I was with my people during our month, right in the middle of our celebration, I just stood there. I didn’t feel gay enough or queer enough to even interact with anyone. I felt like an imposter wrapped in a rainbow flag. Noticing my mood change from a giddy excitement to indifference, my friend asked, “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” I said as I floated above my body.

Compartmentalization and separation were my two truths for a long time. If I kept the world where I was gay—where I could be gay—separate from the world where I interacted with my parents, I was the “winner” in a game I’ve played for as long as I can remember. But a suppression of that magnitude, to force a whole world down like a beach ball in a pool, required a tremendous amount of energy—the buoyant sphere was always resisting my effort, forever threatening to snap to the water’s surface. I was tired of pretending to be someone else during every interaction with my family. I spoke in a lower tone of voice than I do now, carefully choosing my words and curating thoughts as not to sound feminine. I took off my favorite pin, a rainbow T. Rex pin usually affixed to the bill of my favorite ball cap, and hid it away.

My Lutheran upbringing taught me the definition of pride as one of the seven cardinal sins. To commit a sin is to make a serious error, I was told. I saw the world redefined by the Church’s labeling of pride. In college, I learned how hubris most often led to the hero’s downfall.

Pride in the context of celebrating oneself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community originally stood for "Promote Respect, Inclusion, and Dignity for Everyone." The month of June is dedicated to pride in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. An advocacy group would later make their own acronym—Personal Rights in Defense and Education—advocating for equal rights and benefits for the LGBTQ+ community. Their newsletter later became The Advocate (the nation’s oldest LGBTQ+ publication), a publication I’d read again and again.

After Chicago, I finally saw the correlation between sin and pride, the march, and the month of Pride. At that point, being gay had been presented to me as a choice and as a sin. I am sure this is where the shame grew, my teen self knowing he had to lie and smile even though he needed to cry.

Later, every time I went to a gay bar or met up with my LGBTQ+ friends, I was able to breathe a little more. But it wasn’t until my second Pride, in Iowa City, that I felt my world had finally locked into place. I rooted myself within my community—reading queer writers, watching staple queer films, and researching queer artists. Once I started to look, I saw myself everywhere. Slowly, my shame gave way to celebration, finally realizing just how much there is to celebrate. I began to think of the ways I’d tell my family. Over the phone would be best, I remember thinking. I was out to everyone outside of my family and the deception, even within moments of joy, was too great.

Slowly, my shame gave way to celebration, finally realizing just how much there is to celebrate. I began to think of the ways I’d tell my family.

Pride is the antonym of shame. Pride in oneself as it relates to queer people is the possibility of seeing yourself represented in a positive light. People with religious Midwestern upbringings are often told who we are before we have a chance to speak for ourselves. Pride is not a sin, but a liberation from the false expectations perpetuated by anyone outside of the community. Pride is the byproduct of living a life within our core sense of self and not apologizing for it to anyone. Pride, I’ve found, is only a sin to those who aren't ready to celebrate who they really are.

When I decided I was ready, I picked up the phone, and made four phone calls to my parents and grandparents to say "I'm gay." I called my grandma first, then my mom, my other grandparents, and lastly, my dad. I waited for them to pick up the phone, for me to stumble, for me to carry on a conversation and almost not bring up the real reason I called. In moments of awkward silence, I remembered that I am worthy of living a happy life, free to be myself. Sharing my truth with my family was a gift because I know too many queer people who keep that part of themselves from their own families.

Each member of my family more or less said the same thing: “We know and we still love you.” I felt the energy I had put into splitting two worlds start dissolving into one. When I saw my mom next, we sat on her couch and we cried. When I saw my dad, I cried on his couch for just as long. And when I stopped crying, I put my rainbow T. Rex pin back on my favorite ball cap—and I won't take it off.

Sign up for the Well+Good TALK: Love Out Loud, celebrating pride as the fight for equality continues, on June 23, 2021.

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