Pride events are not just a celebration of our identities in the LGBTQ+ community. They are existential experiences that push us forward to be our best selves — they teach us who we are. Pride events celebrate love, union and progress. But sometimes, a sense of pride is elusive, like when we feel judged. In extreme cases, pride is forbidden. In the rarest of cases, pride can be in the last place you’d expect it. This was the case for my first Pride event in my hometown of Watertown, New York.
I was not thrilled to have a second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic back in upstate New York. Ever since I got accepted into Stony Brook University and moved to Long Island, my expressions as a gay man were endless. How could they not be? New York City was two hours west and Fire Island was half an hour south of me. Those of us in the queer community tend to flock to the metropolises of the world. How could we not when gay rights arguably started at Stonewall in Manhattan? Just in 2019, we had Stonewall 50 — WorldPride NYC, the city’s 50th Pride celebration since the Stonewall riots in 1969 — and that was one of the largest events ever held in New York. But COVID was coming to change all of that.
I was privileged enough to be able to attend Stonewall 50. I remember thinking how incredible it was and how hard it would be to top the parade in the following year. COVID-19 shut it down anyway, but the pandemic could never remove the experience I had, nor the one I was going to have in the summer of 2021.
Taking all the Pride events I had been to before for granted, I called Stonewall 50 “my first real Pride.” It was the first time I really felt like I got to celebrate myself. It was honestly one of the greatest days of my life, but even then, I knew something was missing. What I didn’t know is I would find what was missing in that moment in the one place I hated the most; home.
Driving six hours home from school for the second pandemic summer infuriated and depressed me. Most of us who lived on campus at Stony Brook had to relocate, and I lost my on-campus summer opportunities. So I was staying with my parents for the summer. I felt robbed of being able to experience Pride this year. It already seemed like there was never much to do in Jefferson County, where Watertown is.. Adding a pandemic onto that made it feel like a barren wasteland. Jefferson is in the North Country, and the North Country is in upstate New York, which is also one of the most conservative areas of the state. It is no surprise to anyone that you see more Confederate flags than Pride flags. And so, my coming out experience was not the greatest. I found few outlets to be a young gay man. Most of the men I was interested in on the dating apps were in Canada. The one gay bar we had closed down. It was also a place where I never felt like I could be my full self. It is a place where an alarming number of people believe COVID-19 is a hoax and gay rights should not be allowed.
I did everything I could in the last eight years to get away from home. But this past summer there, I filled a hole I had been digging in my heart.
I heard through friends and family that Watertown and Jefferson County had started having Pride events. Just like New York City and the rest of the world, those plans were voided in 2020 because of the pandemic. But local members of the LGBTQ+ community were building something special for 2021.
It started with some events at a few bars. I went alone because my one gay friend from home had to work. To my surprise, the events had huge turnouts. In my naiveté, I just assumed this was because COVID-19 numbers were dwindling and we were vaccinated now — I still couldn’t see or feel the truth.
I was at The Paddock Club in downtown Watertown when a diverse group of attractive men I had never seen before in town approached me in my lonesome. They were flirty and nice, and they invited me to sit with them. I got their names and asked where they were from. I was confused, flabbergasted and even angry when they told me they were from New York City. Here I was sulking over the fact that I couldn’t celebrate Pride back in the city. Yet there was this group of young, attractive gay men willingly coming up here? They were all friends who worked in the city and said they were tired of the same Pride things there every year. They heard through a local friend that Watertown was having one of its first pride weeks ever. So they all took vacation days and drove six hours north, excited for something different. I started to feel embarrassed as I ignorantly told them not to expect much. I wasn’t being open or fair to my community.
We all exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up the next day for Watertown’s Pride Drag show. The show is where it finally happened.
The show was held in a conference room of a Ramada hotel, a small space with poor lighting and a burnt-yellow carpet with no stage. Not the ideal location for performances, but drag queens are resourceful, and this show was different. It was Pride, so they gave it their all.
The Queens were decorated in glitter, sequins and rainbow patterns. Their performances were lively and entertaining. I kept looking for the reactions of my friends from the city, hoping they wouldn’t be disappointed. They loved it. But then one performance shifted the emotions in the room. There was a stillness and seriousness as it began. The lights dimmed, and a sound bite played over the speakers with a familiar, famous voice. This was not some flashy pop music number, but an important message. The audio was from 11years ago when Ellen DeGeneres sent an important message on the awareness of gay suicide and bullying. The Queen walked to the center of the room quietly and respectfully as Ellen’s words went on. They were a tribute to Tyler Clementi and a call to action. As Ellen reminded us, Clementi was a bright student at Rutgers University who took his own life after his sexuality was exploited by other students. The sounds of emotioned hiccups filled the room while tears ran down people’s faces. A heaviness filled my chest and my heart started racing. The lights came back on and the performer took the time to remind us what Pride was all about, and how important it was to love each other. They also shared that during Ellen’s sound bite they heard a couple of parents whisper, “this is exactly why we brought our kids to this.”
At that point, I felt more than I could handle. I rushed to the bathroom where I finally let the tears escape — but I wasn’t crying because of how moving the performance was or how important Ellen’s message was, I was crying out my guilt.
I had spent my entire life getting away from home, trying to find what Pride meant to me, just to find Pride was there at home after all. It was in the one place I refused to believe it could exist. The hole that was in me at Stonewall 50, and every other queer event, was the unfinished business of the hole I had dug back home. I doubted my fellow locals and queer community. I marginalized myself and the community. I compared us unfairly. I took what I had for granted, while beautiful people like Tyler Clementi were truly robbed of celebrating their Pride. And in that moment, I promised myself I would never do that again.
I wiped my face dry, took a deep breath and walked back to the party — proudly.
The emotions and pride continued the next weekend, with a first-ever Pride flag raising in the town of Clayton, New York with Vogue model Maggie Rizer as a guest speaker. Maggie grew up in Watertown and is also an AIDS activist and told another powerful and touching story that caused tears throughout the audience. She spoke about the life and experiences she had with her biological father, Kevin Rizer — who was gay and died of AIDS in 1992 — and what it was like being in high school and having a gay parent. She spoke of the importance of advocacy in the gay community.
I felt it again.
The heaviness in my heart grew as new tears formed. Yes, it was induced by the power of Maggie’s story, but something else was also making me emotional — the presence of my family. My mother actually went to school with Maggie, and she whispered to me, “I never knew that about her.” I replied that it wasn’t something people would want to tell their friends in high school back then. She nodded and I smiled.
I am a lucky one. For many members of the queer community, coming out is not easy. It wasn’t easy for me or my family at first, either, but I’ve had the privilege of healthy growth from it, alongside my family. They were skeptical at first, but they checked their skepticism and loved me unconditionally. I wish the same for everyone who comes out to their friends or family, but I never expected to see my mother, decorated in rainbow attire, at a Pride event with me. My stepfather was also there, along with my grandmother, whose face my mother bejeweled. That day, my grandmother told me my family was there because “we love you and we support you.” I looked around to take in my appreciation for their presence as many of the young queer children and young adults around me did not seem to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. I hope one day, they are all accompanied at Pride by someone who looked after them while growing up. I feel that my family’s pride in me and others like me, is also a part of my pride.
When this past summer ended, for the first time in my life I was sad leaving home. If anyone is ever trying to find their pride, try looking in the places you would least expect it. I built my own prejudiced, one-track story of my hometown, and being vulnerable taught me differently. We have to celebrate ourselves and the ones we lost along the way to truly be proud. We have to believe in the power and pride of a community that comes together, no matter how big or small that community may be. Home can be where the heart is, but your heart should be in a home that you’re proud of, and one that’s proud of you too.