Jo Chiang is an actor and writer in NYC.
When news of the Pulse shooting broke around this time last year, I spent my entire morning reading the stories of the people we lost. And crying. I couldn’t stop crying. Coming into my queerness in relative comfort and safety, it’s easy for me to be cynical about Pride (with a corporate, colonized, capital “P”). I came out at a women’s college in New York City, to parents who had evolved to be accepting, if a little unsure. The LGBTQIA+ community was cautiously beginning to thrive after decades of struggle I never had to experience. Pride was becoming so common, it almost felt cheap.
My first Summer out of the closet, I went to the New York City Pride Parade. It was a bright and brilliant experience, full of joy and friends and boundless energy. I went again the year after, but the event had lost a bit of its luster. I suddenly noticed how companies with dubious labor practices – or a history of discriminating against trans employees – were parading their “gay friendly” policies, as if it absolved them of any other obligation to do better or be better. I saw the NYPD walking with banners held high. Behind them followed the brown and black bodies they still committed violence against, when the news cameras were turned away. I knew there was pride on those streets. But it was a hollow pride. A pride that struggled to reconcile how a man could finally bring his boyfriend to parties at his insurance company, while, in the same breath, his company could deny coverage to folks living with HIV because that’s what they’d call a “preexisting condition.”
The next year, I did not go.
I was visiting my family in California when Pulse happened. There was no one in that straight, suburban neighborhood who saw Pulse as anything but another shooting, and I felt deeply alone. I wanted to be with friends, strangers, anyone who understood how my heart was breaking. How, despite the perceived banality of my personal battles, the certainty of my right and my community’s right to live a full and honest life has always been – and continues to be – painfully tenuous.
The Pride parade was less than two weeks away, and in a few days I was going home. Once there, I would hold vigil at Stonewall Inn in an effort to find a way, any way to cope and process the loss I felt. But Pride didn’t feel right. I couldn’t bring myself to go. That’s when the notification popped onto my feed: an invite to the 24th Annual New York City Dyke March.
I knew about the Dyke March. It was founded as a protest and not a parade. It does not seek a permit, it does not look for sponsors, it does not ask for permission. Allies are requested to remain on the sidewalk and are welcome to cheer and bear witness, but not to take up space. For a couple hours and about as many miles, we claimed the right to fill up all that space with the sheer audacity of our existence. I realized just how deeply I needed to feel invincible. I wanted to declare my right to live, unconditionally, unapologetically.
The day of the Dyke March, I met up with a few friends in front of the Bryant Park library. The march was already underway, but it stretched for blocks as far as the eye could see, and we quickly slipped in to join the chanting crowd. I could feel the energy of the marchers in my bones. There was anger and an edge, but there was also joy.
Young mothers (with babies dressed in slogan-bearing onesies bouncing on their hips) pounded the pavement beside old-school butches, radiant with their graying undercuts and fading tattoos. A plump, bespectacled auntie motored next to the marching band on her mobility scooter, rainbow flag jauntily streaming behind her. Trans activist groups raised defiant signs into the air, daring the spectators hanging out of windows to deny them their justice. A sign here reminded us that “Black Lives Matter. White Silence Kills.” Another asked Olivia Benson to marry her. A flock of queens crowed out a very heretical rewrite of “God Save the Queen” from the steps of a street-side church. Young, anxious-looking college students, fresh out of the closet, cried and laughed and sang along.
We all carried our tragedies – Pulse, yes, but also heartbreaks and breakdowns and broken families. We laid them bare on the streets as an offering, maybe, or some kind of proof that we are still here. We had so many reasons to be afraid. And yet we marched. I don’t want to forget the terrifying joy that comes of being proud in the face of that fear.
Those we lost at Pulse were stolen in the midst of their joy. And no matter how angry and exhausted and heartbroken and powerless I feel, I never want to let that joy go. It’s a costly joy that can thrive despite knowing all that we have to lose. It’s a precious pride that allows us to resist and fight and, above all, live. Yes, sometimes pride is rainbow flags, and glitter, and revelers dancing on floats. But sometimes it’s also moments of silence, raised voices, raised fists, and holding your partner’s hand on the street. And that kind of pride? There’s nothing common about it.