Friday, June 20, 2014

On the Eve of Pride

It is the eve before the Columbus Pride parade.  So many things going through my head.  I’m excited about George Takei being in town.  Hopeful that I’ll be able to meet him and have a few words at the Stonewall Pride Brunch on Sunday.  I’m also looking over my day tomorrow, and it seems extremely long and exhausting.  I’ll start with being downtown for breakfast with some co-workers at 9:00, then march in the parade.  After that, I’m going to be at the Equality Ohio booth at the Pride festival all day to work with a video production company to capture the thoughts and stories of real people around the subject of marriage equality for the Why Marriage Matters Ohio campaign.  Then, I’ll run home to shower and, hopefully, rest a bit before going out to enjoy some of the chaos of Pride tomorrow night.  I know that I could just call it a day and stay home after the festival, but I know I can’t resist the energy of Pride and being out amongst so many other people all united in ways that are sometimes, and sometimes not, able to be put into words.  Then, of course, Sunday brings church and the Pride Brunch.  

In many ways, it truly is all exhausting, but I think back a few short years ago to 2010, and I see myself standing on a sidewalk on High Street, in front of Martini.  I stood there, scared.  Excited but scared, hoping that no one I knew would see me there.  I wasn’t out to many people at that point, and I certainly wasn’t ready to have to explain my presence there at the parade to anyone.  I hadn’t even agreed to go to the parade until about a week before.  A friend of mine, Brandyn, had been asking me to go to the parade.  He was only 18.  He wanted to go badly, but his dad wasn’t crazy about the idea of him going alone.  I just knew I wasn’t ready to be out and proud.  I was still struggling to accept me.  

A week before Pride, I finally relented on one of the other things that Brandyn had been asking me to do.  I wasn’t living in Columbus yet at this time, and Brandyn lived in the same small town that I did.  He’d gone a few times to the club called Axis.  He liked going there because it was the only gay club he could get into because of his age.  I decided that I needed to go on my own first.  I was afraid to let Brandyn drag me into it.  I felt like I needed to have control of what happened.  Plus, I wanted to be free to leave if I wasn’t comfortable.  I called my friend, Brittany, who was also from the same town, but she had recently moved to German Village.  I asked her if she would go with me.  She and I had connected because we had both found ourselves recently exiled from the same church, me for being gay and her for having the audacity to divorce her abusive husband.  Brittany immediately agreed to go with me.

We looked up the address for Axis, 775 N High St.  Their website said that they didn’t open until 10:00.  We spent the early part of the evening walking around in the Short North.  We got dinner and did some hookah.  When it got close to 10:00, we started looking for Axis.  We saw the numbers on the businesses in that area, and we identified where Axis had to be, but there was nothing there.  We crossed over and walked up and down the other side of the street, thinking that we might see something from over there that we were too close to see on the side where Axis should be.  We even joked that maybe it was like something out of Harry Potter, like platform nine and three quarters.  Finally, I gave up and called Brandyn.  He told me to look for a sign that said Da Levee.  He asked me if I saw it.  I told him that I did.  Then, he told me to look to the right.  I did.  He asked me if I saw a tunnel.  I did.  I told me to walk up the tunnel, and I would see Axis.  I had seen the passage way he was talking about.  I was wide enough to drive a car up.  It had just never occurred to me that a business would be hiding back there.  Brandyn told me that he was just getting off work, and he would drive up to join us.  Well, I guess I wasn’t going to get to have full control over where my evening went.  At least, I had my car.  I could leave whenever I wanted to if I had enough.

Brittany and I made our way back to Axis.  It was just a few minutes after 10:00.  Of course, now, I know that no one goes to Axis at 10:00.  I didn’t know that then.  We walked in, and all the lights were on in the building.  We found our way to the bar and ordered drinks.  Then, we went further in and found another room with a stage.  We sat in a booth off to the side of the room.  The booth looked as though it had seen better days.  There was some sort of show going on, and there was a man on the stage speaking.  He introduced and welcomed the next performer to the stage.  As Brittany and I sat there in the booth, I kept switching my eyes back and forth between the stage and the rest of the room, taking in every detail that I could.  Then, there was music playing, and the next performer, which I quickly realized was a man dressed as a woman emerged onto the stage.  The reality sunk in that I was sitting in the audience of an actual drag show.  I was in shock and feeling intrigued at the same time.  I was just coming to terms with my own sexuality.  I hadn’t wrestled with any kind of questions regarding gender identity or gender expression yet.  The me, at that time, wouldn’t have even been aware of a difference between identity and expression.  As I sat there and watched and listened, I found myself smiling and laughing.  I was at a drag show, and I was loving it.  I wasn’t sure what to do with that, but I was enjoying this.  

As the night drew on, more people arrived, and the lights were brought down.  Brittany and I headed to the patio so that she could smoke, and we could get another drink at the bar out there.  We chatted with the bartender out there.  He introduced himself as Paul.  Brittany was by far the more talkative that night.  At one point, he asked her what brought her out that night.  She told him that she was there to support her friend and nodded towards me.  I really appreciated her in that moment.  I’m so glad that she was there for me in that moment.  I explained to him that I had recently come out after years of living as an ex-gay.  He seemed to take that in and then moved on to other customers.

As we stood out there on the patio, I looked at the other people around us, and I realized how safe I felt there.  For the first time in my life, I wasn’t worrying about what I was wearing, what my hands were doing, or what my voice sounded like.  I was surrounded by people like me, and I felt safe.

Brandyn would eventually make his way up to meet us, and we found our way out onto the dance floor.  I was still afraid to completely let go, but I remember feeling a sense of community that night that I had never experienced before.  It was addicting, and I wanted more.  I told Brandyn that I would go to Pride with him the next weekend.  Brittany was going to be out of town, but she said that we could stay at her apartment.  Just like that, and the plan was set.  I was going to my first Pride.

Fast forward to a week later, and I was that timid soul standing on the sidewalk that I described above.  I was scared, but I also remembered that sense of connection that I felt that night at Axis.

Brandyn and I at Columbus Pride 2010

As the parade started, I didn’t know what to expect.  I imagined it to be an overly sexualized experience.  There was some of that.  I expected scantily clad people, drag queens, and people wearing leather.  I saw all of those things.  I did see the church people that I expected to see with their signs and bull horns protesting the parade.  I avoided that group because I feared that I would recognize them from ex-gay circles.  The church people that I did not expect to see where the ones marching in the parade, churches with banners bearing messages of welcome.  I admit that I didn’t initially trust those banners.  Telling me that I am welcome does not tell me that I am safe.  I was skeptical, but I was intrigued.  I was also surprised by the number of mainstream businesses that had groups marching in the parade, and I was surprised by the politicians that I saw marching.  In my limited experience, living in a small town, supporting the gay community was political suicide.  I didn’t understand why anyone would do that.

As I reflect on that person that I was a mere four years ago, that timid soul who, 12 months later, would boldly walk down the middle of High Street holding one of those church banners, no longer trying to be invisible, I am so incredibly thankful that my weekend is so full.  It is exhausting.  It truly is, but it is worth every drop of sweat and every aching muscle.  Nothing compares to the exhilaration of walking down High Street and seeing those masses of people and not carting who sees me.  I know that I am surrounded by an amazing community of people, and I can say, without a shred of doubt in my voice, that it truly does get better.

Me marching with my church at 2011 Columbus Pride

Brittany and I at 2011 Columbus Pride


© Joshua Culbertson 2014

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