At the weekend, perhaps against my better instincts I stood on the sidelines of New York’s Gay Pride, a stance taken one way another for close to a quarter of a century. On this hot Sunday morning the streets at first were relatively quiet with small bands of colorfully dressed men and women, costume party hilarity swirling in the air, modestly joyous; I gave myself credit for weaving cleverly through the hushed western lanes of the West Village where the white brilliance of the sun ornamented my path with daubs of light filtering through overhead branches. As it grew warmer I sulked towards deeper shade, but with the growing street exuberance, it was not just to take refuge from the ferocity of the sun. The streets around me quickly became theatrical and my own neutrality felt drab and a little malevolent, making no effort to dress or claim allegiance towards a sexual attitude or preference suddenly seemed disrespectful in this context, instead of feeling invisible, the opposite was true. At a fire station I saw hostility from the four or five firemen scowling at the crowd as they passed by and their nod and smile of recognition towards me felt like a betrayal, was I so obviously an outsider?
As the streets thickened so did the diversity, I turned from the Jeffersonian maze of the Village to modernity; the corner into Sixth Avenue, one of the wide scars through the city, where there was a rainbow flag on each store front. I noticed a group of young black woman walking by sheltering in their center a couple, comically opposed; one slim and shy holding hands with a much larger friend wearing a huge black strap on dildo. Minutes later a naked black man in a pair of silver training shoes passed by, then a plus sized white guy dressed convincingly as a woman with the exception of a full beard.
The weather was indecisive, earlier sudden wind gusts accompanied the heat, then the clouds pressed in and darkened the entire city momentarily. With the rise in the temperature and the swelling crowds I absorbed the conflicting scents of discount perfume, managed the treacherously uneven cobbled streets where the crowds were now going towards and now away from the parade route with some secret urgency, dissenting voices “why do we have to meet her?”….all the time in the background was the militaristic white noise of helicopters overhead, the soccer roar of the crowd bouncing off the staid Village buildings and the clichéd songs from the 1970’s, Abba….Dancing Queen.
At one point a handsome young Thai man in swimming trunks and sneakers caught my eye and gave me a well-practiced look of lust to which I smiled genuinely grateful and secretly a little flattered. On another occasion an elderly man tried to engage me in a forced conversation about baseball to which I showed polite indifference, it wasn’t until several minutes after he had walked away that it occurred to me that he might have been trying to pick me up. I felt first offended and then sympathetic and then strangely a sense of guilt for my rudeness. Suddenly the specificity of the outward appearances and clothes of those around me made sense, they exist both to attract and repel; for the first time I thought how tiresome it must be to be constantly approached by strangers only to disappoint.
Yet despite the joy on the streets I retained a slight dissenting voice of my own, unease about the bluntness and certainty of desires being broadcast so openly here in lower Manhattan, a little fearful towards those so sure of their ideal sexual rituals and shared athleticisms, something that has the inevitability of diminishing over time. I want to issue words of wisdom for those who are eliminating wider possibilities that love is more complicated and surprising….. In time represented more by what you are prepared to forego than what you desire, it is what you build together despite your differences.
Increasingly, when I drift through over familiar streets like this, whether it is New York, London or other regular haunt, there is something ghost like to my detachment; a casualness towards the search for, and critique of, my younger self…ambitions and dreams realized and lost, the streets help me make sense of it all through the constant forward motion, deft maneuvers and the silent comedy of territorial negotiations with strangers.
The gay community drives forward with determination and surety, the creation of new language designed to label everyone based around their identities and desires, as if loves rituals are intransigent. We are gender fluid, cis-gendered, bisexual, gay, straight, transitioning, it seems we need to place ourselves in boxes, increasingly some of these decisions are being made at an age when sex is not something on the near horizon. Society is changing too rapidly and I wonder if we adults forget too much; the influence and pressures of peers, the childish deep affections we held and forego, on the rash somewhat irreversible decisions made in school yards.
But this isn’t a day to criticize….many years ago there was a different crisis, it felt like the world was unravelling, there was no cure. In the early 1990’s AIDS was a death sentence and we knew several people who passed suddenly. The march then was as much a requiem of survival and held huge potency. It was educational also and I remember the blushingly specific poses of dancers who played out safe sex practices on their floats, there was something hauntingly prosaic about these acts and they felt shockingly primitive in their directness, the same silent learning ceremonies could have taken place thousands of years ago in pre-language civilizations.
In my own childhood in 1960’s England, there was a singular view of the gay world; its existence was acknowledged, but limited to male effeminacy. There was nothing nuanced in popular culture, zero shown on TV about female partnerships; this was still very deeply underground. We endured the music hall traditions of ridiculing gay men which translated well into the TV sitcom, character actors whose antic’s represented laughter and amplified our masculine fears; at that tender age we concluded that there are certain men who like to act in a feminine way and I suspect we all as children collectively prayed never to grow up with such an affliction.
This attitude softened with a singular event that I recall with precision; I was twelve years old on a warm summer’s evening in 1972. After dinner, lying slumped on the coach watching television half way into a program called Top of the Pops showcasing pop music as seen from the powerful lens and massive lobbying efforts of the music industry. This was a must-see show but only because there were no better diversions, even at that age we smelt its inauthenticity, the manufactured commercialism of the acts, so frustrating to watch the dancers with their permanent smiles and the emptiness of the music! But at the midpoint of this show something extraordinary happened, the announcer said the words “David Bowie” and “Starman”, and there in the middle of all this nonsense was the man himself in what looked like a women’s bathing suit and make up. Not just that, the song which I already loved, was being played live – mistakes and laughter, thrillingly loose and a little awkward, taking all these risks was a supreme act of generosity. I had a new hero, and a highly unlikely one. It was wrong to say that this was the first time I had seen this androgyny in Pop music, it was already very much in the air mainly from Marc Bolan and a handful of others who had started to wear feminine clothes and glitter makeup, but they all still retained their masculine identities, a whole “glam rock” movement with obviously straight men, even in Bowies band “The Spiders from Mars” the remaining members had the appearance of construction workers pissed off because they are on national television dressed like this (and we learned later being paid a pittance) but with Bowie you had no clue.
This adolescent fascination for the androgynous and ambiguous might have led to questioning myself, but even at that age I was in love with an ideal; the mysterious sensuousness of an intelligent woman, I had started reading John Fowles and his heroines quickly became mine. Today I am surrounded by a lot of gay people and many are true friends, yet still I’m capable of making ill-advised jokes. I’ve said when people have questioned my degree of straightness (assuming that there is a scale and nothing is absolute) that I was put off by gay life not because of the sex but the need to go shopping for bed sheets in “Bed, Bath and Beyond” holding hands with a version of myself, or sharing a bed after a curry night. Through away comments intended to be worldly…but insulting to those who cannot imagine anything else and I’ve stopped myself, frozen midway realizing the ugliness at its core, a denial of the broader possibilities of love.
I suppose it’s true to say that everyone with any imagination has considered alternative desires and retains at least a mild curiosity towards gay life. One lesson we learn quickly is that the most ardent and vocal anti-gay politician will with some certainly be found in a public men’s room making a crude pass or be caught hiring male prostitutes. On the other end of the scale there are the straight people who seem to have only gay friends and talk endlessly about gay life who clearly have equally unresolved issues. Most of us never take the step due to a fear of damaging something we see as being precious, a loyalty to our given identity….a cherished normalcy, keeping this fragile part of ourselves intact. Despite the discomfort of the day, the crushing crowds, the dreadful party we were invited to…it’s still a day of celebration I won’t miss – for the brilliance of the activism and for those with the guts to be themselves.