I almost didn’t go to Pride this year. Even after writing an article in which I stated, truthfully, that it felt important to go, I almost didn’t. I’ve never been a big fan of parades or nightclubs, and Pride manages to cram both of those things into one weekend. I’d forgotten what day San Francisco Pride was, and scheduled my defense of my master’s thesis for the Monday immediately after Pride. Getting to and from would take 12 hours of driving.
And I was scared. I was scared to go to Pride, in a way that I’d never been before.
I went back and forth on the decision. (I am one of those people who will often not make a decision until it is too late and the decision is effectively made for me.) I woke up at noon on Saturday the 25th, thinking that the decision had been made for me. I wasn’t going. Even if I got in the car right then, I wouldn’t get to San Francisco until 7 PM at the earliest.
I opened my laptop and checked Facebook, only to be confronted with a picture of a childhood friend and her girlfriend on the NHS float at London Pride. I checked the newspaper and saw a photo essay of Pride through the years.
I texted my friend Siobhan, who I’d previously told that I would not be attending Pride this year. “I’m coming. See you at 7ish.”
I drove north on 101 for six hours. I listened to the audiobook of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which has been a balm to my queer heart these past few weeks. I thought about my first Pride. It was 10 years ago. I was 15, and completely unafraid. (It would take me five more years to realize that I liked women.) I knew I’d reached northern California when the groves of live oak gave way to eucalyptus trees.
I called my parents to tell them I was coming home for Pride. My mom texted back that she didn’t want me to go.
I parked outside my childhood home and took Muni to Castro. As I climbed the steps to stand on Harvey Milk Plaza, the first thing I saw was Twin Peaks Tavern, the bulbs on the ancient sign valiantly strobing, the inside packed and sweaty. When I reached the top of the stairs, I looked south, down Castro, and I saw people like me. Hundreds of us. Maybe thousands. And even today, it gives me a bit of a thrill to see so many queers in one place. I stopped to take a picture of the illuminated marquee of the Castro Street Theater. (It took me several tries to get a picture with all the letters lit.)
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I called Siobhan, who told me she just left her friends at Dolores Park, and she was walking toward me. We texted and called each other several more times, trying to locate each other. We finally found each other under a sign advertising soft serve ice cream at the corner of 19th and Castro.
We hugged. We held onto each other for a long time. The last time we saw each other was several months before. The last time we talked was the evening after the shooting in Orlando. That night, she sounded just as exhausted and heartbroken as I felt. Before we hung up that night, I told her that she is stronger and braver than she knows.
“You look very gay,” I told her, approvingly. (It’s true: she has an undercut that makes her look a little like Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters.)
We walked away from Castro, toward Mission, looking for somewhere relatively uncrowded to get food. As we walked, she told me about the myriad of ways that local politicians have been fucking up recently and showed me pictures and video of Trans March on her phone. At a certain point, she got a text from her friend Leah, who wanted to join us on account of the park was “cold and full of straight people.”
We walked all the way to Mission and ordered quesadillas and horchata when we got there. Leah joined us and introduced herself to me. She wore an olive drab army jacket, covered in pins. Siobhan had pins on her lapel, too.
“Can I have this one?” I asked Siobhan, plucking at a black pin with pink lettering that read “Still Here, Still Queer.” She unfastened it from her collar and handed it to me. I attached it to the strap of my tank top.
We sat on a curb to eat our quesadillas, and Siobhan told me about her various romantic pursuits over the past several months. Then we walked back up to Castro, stopping to get ice cream and cupcakes along the way. (The cupcakes had rainbow sprinkles.)
Castro was dark, loud and packed when we got back. My pulse was singing in my veins. Throughout the night, Orlando had never been far from my mind. There were cops everywhere. There were also thousands of people, and any one of them could potentially have had a gun. At Q Bar, the bouncers were wanding people with a hand-held metal detector before letting them in.
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The lines at the bars were endlessly long, so we ended up just wandering up and down Castro. We stopped to take a picture of a hand-made “Love Wins” sign in the window of the hardware store. (I still think of the statement as more aspirational than factual. But I think there is value in the sentiment, nonetheless.)
We checked out a few of the bars, all of which had exponentially long lines. We drifted noncommittally back toward Muni, briefly discussing other bars we could try to go to that were accessible by public transit. We ultimately decided to go home instead. (“We’re here, we’re queer, it’s past our bedtime,” said Leah.)
So we rode MUNI and then BART, half asleep and standing up. I leaned against Siobhan as we ride. (Late-night, half-asleep BART rides are a staple of any Bay Area kid’s teenage years.)
I woke up late the morning of the parade. My mom came into my room with an exaggerated, cartoon frown on her face.
“I don’t want you to go,” she told me, touching my foot.
“What do you want me to do, Mom?” I asked. “Live my life in fear?”
“Yes!” she said, still with the cartoon frown. “Fear is a good survival strategy. It’s kept me alive for decades.” We both laughed about that. We were also both a little scared. As I left the house that morning, I promised my parents that I would always do everything I can to stay as safe as I can, and that I will never willingly leave them.
I texted Siobhan, asking her to take pictures of Dykes on Bikes for me if I didn’t arrive in time to see them. The first thing I saw when I exited the Powell BART station was a guy on the ground being handcuffed, with seven cops standing around him, which gave me a sickening jolt of adrenaline. Later, Siobhan told me that Black Lives Matter and at least two other groups dropped out of the parade due to the increased police presence. Given the history of police shootings and racist texts in the SFPD, and the current state of the OPD (as well as other departments around the Bay Area and the country) the decision to drop out of Pride is, unfortunately, very, very understandable.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
So, with a heightened pulse and mildly queasy stomach, I made my way up to street level, to hear the sounds of the parade, which I could not see due to the sheer number of people standing and watching. There was a guy selling a whole bunch of different stuff with rainbow motifs. I briefly considered getting a full-size Pride flag to drape around myself but decided against it.
I called Siobhan, and she described exactly where she was; I eventually recognized the back of her head. “Caroline!” she said, smiling. She clasped my forearms and pulled me through the crowd to stand with her against the metal fencing separating us from Market St. Leah is standing with Siobhan, as well as three of Siobhan’s friends who I haven’t met before.
People booed Mayor Lee as he rode by. Siobhan told me that the way he’s addressed homelessness in the city has left a lot to be desired. Leah flipped off the SFPD and FBI contingents. I got a little star-struck as some of the local politicians went by. I leaned on the partition and yelled “Madame Speaker” as Nancy Pelosi passed by. I got a bit weak in the knees over California’s Attorney General and likely future Senator, Kamala Harris. (I’ve had a bit of a crush on her since I saw her at my first Pride, back when she was the DA of San Francisco.)
Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images
As a group of Drag Queens walked by us, I commented that I couldn’t imagine wearing platform heels to walk halfway across San Francisco. One of Siobhan’s friends told me that she wore platform heels for Trans March. “You are far more badass than I,” I told her, impressed.
I teased Siobhan about how she used to say “You are a gentleman and a lady” as a way of complimenting me (as opposed to “You are a gentleman and a scholar.”)
“I thought that was the expression!” Siobhan said. “My dad used to say that to me when I was a kid.”
“That was your root, Siobhan,” Leah said. “I think my root was when some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came to my sixth birthday party and sang ‘Happy Birthday to the Birthday Boy.’ I was so happy.” We all laughed about that.
“I think my root was ladies,” I said. “Cute ladies. Being cute.”
“That’s fair,” said Siobhan.
We talked about the ratio of corporate to community floats in the parade. Siobhan expressed a belief that the parade tends to skew a little too heavily toward “corporate.” And for hours I watched the parade and the crowd. I think the part I liked best was the different religious groups that marched in the parade. I am not religious. I have never been religious. But I still value the idea of a force in the universe that sees us all and accepts us all for exactly who we are. And I value the things that connect us and hold us all together, whether you want to call it courage, community, or spirituality.
As individuals and a community, we are not perfect. We are deeply flawed, in a myriad of ways. But there is something within all of us, greater than the sum of our parts, that uplifts us, and holds us together.
So I stood there on Market and I watched the parade. And I saw people like me, living, loving, dancing, laughing. Kissing each other and holding their children. Standing in the sunlight that generations before us fought so hard for. That so many of us died for.
I saw my community. Free. Unashamed. Loving. Accepting.
Follow Caroline on Twitter: @CarolineCantrel