The LAGGP (Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade) is an experience that no one should miss. It’s kind of like that old saying, “See Paris and die.” Well folks I guess I can check out now, I have seen Paris – Paris Hilton – and almost died. I have to admit that I barely knew who she was and though I had briefly seen her on TV she has never really done much for me, (Duh! I’m gay!) But seeing her in person was a special treat, sort of like your mom bringing out home made Popsicles to you and the gang from the neighborhood on a hot summer’s afternoon. Paris was a refreshingly sweet woman who wowed the crowds. My God! I have never seen so many gay boys go crazy over a woman before in my life. She should be on those recruiting posters that the “Christian” Reparative Therapy Clinics use, I can just see it billboards 30 feet tall all over West Hollywood and Christopher Street featuring Paris nearly naked pleading to gay boys everywhere: “Paris, Prayer and God – We can make you straight!” Thankfully Paris doesn’t need the money and her calendar is booked full until the Second Coming. But I’m sure that she enjoyed the boys fawning all over her. (Me, myself, I just don’t get it?)
The atmosphere was a blend of Brazilian Carnival and a good old fashion Louisiana Pentecostal Tent Revival, the kind that lasts for days. Our special day was accented with rainbow hats, flags and even a few neon plastic trinket crosses. The experience has been an awakening for my soul and spirit. This 48-years-old former Ultra-Conservative, Republican, Nuke-the-bastards (and it pretty much didn’t matter who the current bastard was – they should all be nuked), Deep South Dixie Redneck has just survived his very first (but defiantly not his last) Gay Pride Parade! I’m sorry, survived isn’t quite the right word, too weak and imprecise, child I THRIVED! In fact I marched in the dang thing! So here I sit at 8:30 pm sore toes and aching heals letting my mind wander through the collection of sights, sounds and smells but feeling just a little conflicted. It’s a long story so I’ll try to be brief but you might want to grab some coffee, a coke or maybe some carrot juice if your one of THOSE types, (Oops sorry, that’s my former consciousness trying to slip through some crack in my mental door. He’s been doing that all day, the little shit! I call him “Little J.F.” named after that good ol’ southern bigot preacher fellow the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Who by the way I read somewhere was recently seriously sick – Jerry take some time heal and think about your life, man – W.W.J.D., I wish you well.)
I really do wish those folks well. They aren’t mean, though their actions can be. The things they do, and fail to do, are a result of ignorance and deep rooted fears. But let’s not turn this little visit into some big hairy-assed debate over the whole geo-political left/right thing. We have better things to do. Anyway as I was saying, little J.F. has been butting in all day and thankfully he’s had only limited success. He started in with me Sunday morning with my regular routine. Being a writer of sorts my day always starts with a little mental jousting put to paper and ol’ J.F. tried to tell me that because I’m so very engrossed in a “very important project” that I couldn’t possibly get away for the day. I laughed put on my neon pink rainbow “Jesus” hat and headed out the door. (I made a mental note to tell him to “go shove it” later.)
I was determined to go with an open mind and NOT prejudge ANYTHING that I heard or saw. That was my simple, honest goal because I had been doing exactly those things my entire life. My problem was I had been making snap judgments of eternal “damnation and hellfire” of others for most of my life while only possessing a limited and incomplete picture of whatever it was I happened to be condemning. (Faggots were a regular target!) The six o’clock news can be a very deceiving prism through which to filter truth because, being television, it only shows you selective vignettes of an event. All I had ever seen of Gay Pride events were scandalous (but gorgeous) men cavorting in next to nothing or “The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” (If you’re reading this kind of article you know who they are.) I didn’t know there was so much more to the story, nor did I care to. Living as a married closeted queer in the Deep South insulated me from so very much of the real world. But today, with resolve and a new spirit, and sure of my new found sensibilities I was ready for anything – or so I thought.
Being from the “Bible Belt” had caused me to lose sight of the big picture of God’s unconditional love for all of mankind, faggots included. That’s all I knew of belts – the Bible kind – or the ones that hold up your pants. But Sunday I saw other “belts.” There were the “little old ladies” of the “Safe-Sex Buggy Brigade” (who were actually young guys dressed to the nines all decked out in black eighteenth century styled dresses ala “Mrs. Doubtfire” complete with garter belts. And then there was the nearly naked 20-something hunk with a perfect stomach who was well proportioned in the shortest pair of Levi shorts I had ever seen in my entire sheltered life. Thankfully he had the good sense to stand right in front of me (thank you Jesus!) with his adorable 31″ waist in those wonderfully torn and very revealing 36″ inch shorts sans a belt. Ya know, thinking about it now, the funny thing is that none of this harmless fun was “sinful” or even a bit out of place. My second mental revelation was that in spite of J.F.’s meddling I was “in the zone” and having the time of my life.
And standing amongst that harmonious sea of people, all of them wanting nothing more than to just simply let the day happen, I caught God’s Spirit. It was found in the warm smiles of little old ladies, and in the roaring of dozens of competing songs from dozens of floats. Grace swelled up in the proud faces of the drag queens who danced their way along Santa Monica Boulevard like roving evangelists wooing the crowds to partake of the days many blessings. It was heavenly! The cares and concerns of my everyday life that just a few hours earlier had seemed so daunting were now gone like a vapor to the sky. Even God himself helped his children out by giving us perfect weather. I can, in my mind’s eye, see him up there but not on his Holy Throne, no and He’s not dressed in the King James white robes of sacred cloth with a flowing beard that touches eyes of fury. Instead I imagined him up in the clouds lounging in a beach chair in Bermuda shorts, florescent pink sandals and His pot belly all smeared with sun block while sipping on a tall Manhattan Iced Tea. In His hand was not the hammer of divine retribution but a rainbow colored sign that says, “It’s true, I DID make her kid gay.” And with the other he summons the gentle breezes that kept us cool and the clouds that saved our skins.
Yes, I think he was pleased although I’m still a little undecided as to what he might have thought of the Go Go boys! But then again he made ’em so it must have been just fine with him. It’s odd for me to think this way because pride for me has always been associated with a type of thinking that is strictly last century and it had no place amidst this teeming throng of hopeful and yet funny souls. They were a jubilant family united by a pure and honest pride; one that says to the world, “You didn’t succeed. I’m still here folks!” There was no hatred, at least not much, in evidence. Oh sure there was the occasional “anti-this-or-that” group but even though the crowds were sympathetic to the causes themselves they did not succumb to the fleeting calls for disharmony. At the prayer service and communion that took place just before the parade began a few hundred gay men and women Christians actually prayed for the President, their perceived enemy, and did so sincerely from a pure heart.
Once our little band of good news warriors got there the day started off in a harmlessly enough way. I and a few blokes from my church group, a loose confederation of Lutherans and Episcopalians, were recruited to blow up balloons for the Episcopalian float. (We puny Lutherans didn’t have one. But we vowed not to be cowed by their superior numbers or budget.) It seemed like a rather innocent thing to do, blowing up balloons, but I soon found myself pumping them up with wild abandon using what could have been in any other setting a rather lewd device. It was a purple and lime neon colored hand held air pump. Right from the start the mood was light and breezy almost as if Christ himself was standing in amongst us sharing our mildly suggestive jokes about “size” and “hardness.” I was lifted from myself in that moment by realization of seeing God’s love and tolerance in a whole new light. I too began telling some jokes – teasing my fellow “blowhards.” I was having a BALL! Here I was with a group of gay Christians talking freely and unashamed. The experience was unlike anything I had ever known. Back home in my old life my wife and I used to argue over whether “dang” was a curse word or not! But here in my newness I don’t have to argue anymore – except at times with little J.F.
Having gone with my Pastor and his loving, (and very cute – shhhh don’t tell ’em I said that) partner of 29 years I felt safe and “protected.” I’m still very new to the idea that I can be gay as well as a Christian. I never dreamed those two worlds could co-exist in such complete harmony. At first I wasn’t all that ready to jump into the deep end of the Pridefest pool. But life has a funny way of coaxing me out of my shell. There’s a young man in my church named Gabriel who is as joyful a person as you’ll ever meet. He’s about an inch or two taller than me standing at about 6′ 1″ and he’s Latin with a wonderful accent and a style all his own that simply disarms you right from the get go. He is infectious to be around and I very much enjoy, and envy, his zest for life. God used Gabriel that day to nudge me just a little.
There we were, just the two of us, sitting on a side street of residential homes with a smattering of trendy boutiques parking our fannies on a long yellow-painted cement wall when Gabriel throws one of his slender arms around my shoulders and starts regaling me wistfully with stories about the apartment building across the street and the lovers he had known there. This was done so casually as to seem, well, normal. I loved it! Me, this middle aged dork of a guy from Rednecksville, USA, was now living openly gay and chattering like a school girl while the two of us scoped out dreamy guys in limited apparel! I was jealous of Gabriel’s freedoms and just when I though I heard it all he tells me about his escapades in some of the nearby bushes back in the rowdy eighties. I blushed and thought “Oh my God, no you didn’t!” but truthfully I was in queer heaven! He had drawn me out completely and what’s more he even recruited me to be a banner bearer for our little group, Lutherans Concerned.! (It’s a national organization of GLBT Lutherans.) Me a banner bearer in the L.A. Gay Pride Parade! Boy! If the old folks could see me now!
The parade started promptly at eleven and it was huge! I never knew that being gay could be so universally accepted. There were floats of all kinds from the little red child’s wagon that was brightly decked out in rainbow colors and complete with its own Grand Marshall – a rescued Pug Puppy, to the huge 30′ float featuring a glittering pink four tiered wedding cake topped with a go-go boy! There where Buddhists and agnostics, anti-war groups and the PTA – every segment of America was there, almost. But in some small way I was representing that part of America that has yet to reconcile itself to the realities of this modern age. I was, and I guess still am Middle-America. But just like her I found myself closing in at times. My eyes would meet some cute guy and then without thinking I would turn away still unsure, and perhaps a bit ashamed of the thoughts and desires of my true self. But undaunted I marched! Boy did I march! I lasted nearly to the end, (having lived the past 25 years as a full-fledged member of the North American Couch-Potato Club I pooped out with just a few blocks to go!)
Yet undeterred I marched proudly with my banner held high and I passed the seemingly endless sea of human faces joyfully assembled there, like some like some portrait of “Main Street, USA” by Norman Rockwell, I was awe struck at the complete rightness of the moment. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, gay couples and straight were all there to affirm humanities true righteousness and not just the illusion of it. I was at times almost brought to tears. You can probably tell I still have a Southern mindset but today I have started on a path towards joy, and freedom – my personal freedom from fear and shame and all I can say to quote the well heeled drag queen in a red sequined evening gown that shouted to me as she saw me marching is this, “You go, girl!”
If only those that blindly hate our very existence could know how much they are missed and even needed. Sadly many of the good families that shared our special day were incomplete. There were mothers missing daughters, sons missing mothers, brothers and sisters longing to be united with each other. The parade was just as much about the hope of healing and reconciliation as it was about pride. But even with the incompleteness life was everywhere and in everyone.
As the parade was winding down the people still lined the streets and boulevards wanting the moment to last. Many were leaning out and looking down the path of the parade for the next group, band or float. And even when it was clear that it was over thousands of people stood curbside silently hoping for more. Absent was the rush of drivers with keys in hand for their cars or the jostling for a place in the line of traffic. “See you next year!” was passed from ear to ear and shouted to friends and ex-lovers from curb to distant curb as the throng slowly made their way from a day of magical wonder and back into their ordinary lives. Young men kissed and said their good-byes reassuring old friends that they’d keep in touch. I’d like to think they will.
All in all it was a grand day indeed.
Louisiana native James Clark Chappelle came out at 45 years old, moved to Los Angeles and has also lived in Oregon and Arizona.