The glitter, the rainbows, the saucy signs and shirt slogans, the floats spouting confetti at all angles — Pride is the picture of exuberant joy and bright-spirited revelry. Individual expressions of gender and sexuality are celebrated openly on city streets typically dominated by heteronormative realities, and the results are exhilarating, reminding everyone present of the vibrancy inherent in the human rights to love and live authentically.
With each consecutive year, attendance reaches new record numbers at Pride parades and festivals around the country, with more than 20% increases in turnout reported at many of this June’s commemorative events compared to 2017. These statistics are, of course, affirming. Pride is about play, yes, but it is also about advocacy; it is a rallying cry for raised awareness, acceptance and equality for and within the LGBTQIA+ community. As with any march, the more willing to show up and step up for the cause, the merrier.
But each letter in the acronym that Pride aims to honor is rooted in a deeper and sometimes darker personal story than the colorful flags and cheer alone can convey. To live beyond commonly accepted gender and sexual norms comes with moments of pain, loneliness, prejudice and peril in between the moments of pride, and these tougher realities must be recognized, too — especially by those who count themselves as allies to the community and haven’t experienced the hardships firsthand.
Compared to many, my own queer story has been relatively smooth. I grew up assuming I was straight; by my late teens, I think I knew I had a slightly more open approach to sexual attraction than my peers, but not to an extent I recognized would affect me much. To my own immense surprise, I stumbled into my first gay relationship during my junior year of college, and the two of us kept ourselves a secret for six months, since neither of us was fully ready to come out to friends or family. The eventual breakup was excruciating, largely because I couldn’t talk to anyone about being dumped by a girlfriend they didn’t know existed.
It took me a couple of years to date a girl publicly for the first time, to come to terms with being gay and to talk about it, and then just when I believed I had it figured out, I surprised myself again by falling for a straight cisgender man in my early twenties, post-college. Guess I’m not all gay after all, then, I thought. Weird. At this point, I identify as bisexual when identification feels necessary, but I’ve surrendered to the knowing that my sexuality may continue to shift and evolve over time, and I’m content in the in-between, trusting my attractions as they organically emerge.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am a cisgender, straight-passing white woman, which means I’m enabled with immense privilege when it comes to my treatment by society at large. I’ve endured some hurtful looks and comments, yes, from strangers as well as some people close to me, but the vast majority of reactions I’ve received have been positive and supportive.
So then, why does it still feel hard? Why does explaining my sexuality seem like scary work? Despite having considered myself so wholeheartedly supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community since whenever I first learned what “gay” meant as a kid, why was it so difficult to embrace and understand within myself? What part of me didn’t feel safe, and still sometimes doesn’t, speaking my queerness out loud, and why?
These are the sorts of questions on my mind, because their answers are the ones that will make queer expression feel safer and sweeter on a day-to-day basis throughout the year, not just during this unique celebratory season. Ultimately, I think each resolution comes down to a need for clear, consistent allyship. Queer people don’t just need support after they come out; they need to know that coming out will be a supported option in the first place. A sense of camaraderie like the one sensed in the welcoming crowds of Pride should be the everyday standard.
Below are a few basic ground rules for remaining an ally long past last month's rainbow-splattered parades — for creating and sustaining a safe space within which a friend, child, sibling, coworker, or other familiar face will know that they can come to you with their own ever-changing truths at any time.
1. Learn the terminology.
LGBTQIAWhat? To truly engage with the queer community, you have to speak the language, which means reading up on the vocab that’s not typically taught, but should be. Especially if you’re a parent, introduce pieces of proper terminology to your little ones, so they get comfortable speaking to queer issues from the start. Here's an online dictionary you can peruse, and if you hear someone else use lingo you aren’t familiar with, it’s okay to ask.
2. Speak up when it’s awkward.
That means calling out the anti-queer jokes and bigoted comments, whether or not anyone is around to hear them, in order to help break the cycles of prejudice. It means asking for confirmation of another person’s pronouns, which can begin with sharing your own: ”I’m Leah, and I use she/her pronouns. You?” (Here’s a more detailed guide to proper pronoun usage.) It also means apologizing when you slip up — which is inevitable when you begin trying to learn the complexities of queer culture and language — and make an error or comment you quickly recognize as offensive. If you’re resisting saying something because you feel awkward about it, ask yourself why your own comfort is worth more than that of the queer community.
3. Engage with more queer media.
We say that love is love is love, but do our favorite movies, books and TV shows reflect that truth? Queer people have to interact with cisgender and heteronormative media on a regular basis, and one aspect of equality is accepting more and more queer stories into this common mediascape and into our regular personal repertoires (which can help to undo internalized concepts of transphobia and homophobia on a subconscious level). In ideal contexts, gay characters aren’t just token gay characters, trans and non-binary actors and actresses are the ones playing trans and non-binary roles, and ample POC are involved, too — here are some shows and films to start with.
4. Signal and display acceptance to your larger community.
Hang a rainbow and/or trans pride flag from your front door, or add a sticker to your car. At large meetings, set the standard for others by introducing yourself with your gender pronouns. Volunteer for local LGBTQIA+ organizations. In other words, make your allyship regularly and routinely known in whatever public ways you can, both to signal your support to queer people in your community and to invite other cis, straight community members to do the same.
5. Support queer-owned businesses.
Though it’s heartening to see major brands speak out in support of the queer community, it’s simultaneously frustrating and worrisome to watch these corporations attempt to commodify a very meaningful movement for the sake of marketing strategy. From banks to apparel chains to high-end gyms, many large-scale businesses got in on the fun with clever promotions and product sales for this year’s Pride, but do they truly give back to queer organizations and stand up for the cause in sincere ways throughout the rest of the year? Sadly, typically not. Do your research to find small (and ideally local) businesses with queer founders, owners and managers at their helms, and spend your dollars there whenever possible as a concrete way to bolster the livelihoods of LGBTQIA+ people. Here are a few examples to get you started: spices, chocolate, home and apparel, swimsuits and lingerie, beauty, apothecary, and books.