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Friday, August 01, 2014

The Best Day of the Year

Christopher Street Day has a special place in my heart on so many different levels. It wasn't until very recently that I realized just how many levels. I know this sounds like the introduction to some kind of Buzzfeed-style gif-fest, but it's not.

My first CSD was back in 1998 in Berlin, when I was a 17-year-old exchange student from Oklahoma City. It was an eye-opening experience like nothing I'd ever seen before in my life. The experience stood in stark contrast to pretty much everything that I'd known at the time. Back in the days, I could sum up my knowledge of the LGBT culture in OKC with rumors and hearsay of two locations: the Wreck Room and Habana Inn. (Much later I went on to have many an awesome and memorable evening at both locations.)

If I were hard-pressed to describe my first CSD as anything, I'd say that it was the first time that I'd ever witnessed anything coming close to unconditional acceptance. It was simply amazing and that feeling stuck with me. So much so, that when I scheduled my next trip to Berlin in 2000, I made sure to time it with the CSD celebrations.

I wouldn't necessarily call my upbringing "sheltered". It was full of a lot of seemingly contradictory elements. I grew up in the South in a multiracial, patchwork family that happened to skew towards evangelical/non-denominational Christianity. My godfather was my father's youngest brother, Ken.  He was a hilarious and warm-hearted guy, who made every holiday family gathering a treat. And by family gathering, I mean the time after most of my paternal-side aunts, uncles, and cousins had left my grandma's house for the day (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc) and me and my siblings/parents stopped by. I don't really know why it was separate. I didn't notice it until later. Occasionally, we'd be there with lots of relatives. That was usually the exception to some unspoken rule to which I wasn't privy. It's much different now, but back then... I felt like we were outsiders.

Uncle Ken used to stick around or come by later during these evening visits. He'd joke around with us kids. He gave me two bits of advice that have stuck over the years: Hold my head up when walking -- instead of looking down at the ground -- and don't nervously pull on my earlobes. If it had been anyone else, it would have come across as an admonishment. From him, it was this same sense of unconditional acceptance. In his eyes, there was no need to pull on my earlobes or walk with my head down, because I was an awesome kid.

He owned and ran a business called "The Frame House" in which he sold and made custom picture frames. His work was beautiful. After he passed, and my grandmother and aunt took over the business; I did a bit of filing/administrative work in the shop myself. I'm sure Pickles has a few framings still that were commissioned by my mom. I'm also pretty sure that these were mostly framed Bible scriptures, which is a really weird thing to think about now.

I guess most of the adults in my family (and maybe some older siblings) knew that Uncle Ken was gay. His siblings -- my father, another brother, and my father's sister -- and the rest of the family never treated him any differently. Except for the fact that they never, ever, ever, mentioned anything about homosexuality (at least not "in front of the children", I'm assuming) and especially that Uncle Ken was gay.

I found out from one of my older sisters, but only after Ken had been diagnosed with AIDS and by that point he was in the late stages and in hospice care. Needless to say, I was devastated. This was the early/mid-90s, so still before the more advanced drug therapies came out. Still, by the time I found out about the diagnosis, it was scarily close to the end.

I never saw him again after I found out. I know he died during Fall Break. Maybe I was in 8th grade, maybe in 9th grade. I don't remember for certain, but I definitely know it was Fall Break. I spent the two days crying in bed. I didn't see him to say goodbye and I didn't go to his funeral. On my list of life regrets... it's pretty high. It wasn't because I was scared of the disease or because of finding out he was gay. It's just because I super suck at dealing with death. This was the first major family death that I'd experienced and I handled it with the opposite of aplomb. Not that the others were a cake walk either.

Still, the memory of Uncle Ken has stuck with me, even though it's been a super personal/private matter. Until now, maybe I've told a handful of friends. After he passed, I gave up my earlobe-pulling habit for good. When I'm walking with my head down, it's to make sure that I don't trip over a cobblestone or step in shit.

What does any of this have to do with Christopher Street Day?  Aside from, you know, gay uncle stuff?

Well, as my uncle was on his deathbed, there were a number of attempts to "convert" him to Christianity. Confess and repent your sins and whatnot. Get into heaven, blah blah. But to pose these questions to a terminally ill person is just all sorts of fucked up. I know for certain some of these attempts were undertaken by my mom and those, in particular, hit me in an abundantly unsettling way. It's embarrassing to admit that now, because my mom did so many amazingly selfless things in her life. More than anyone I know. I don't the extent of it, but the idea of her proselytizing to someone on their deathbed makes me uneasy to this day. I didn't understand it at the time and I don't understand it now.

Looking back, it's the first time that I questioned the faith/religion that permeated my life.

Thankfully, it was not the last.

Even so, it took a few more years and experiences to firmly place me on the side of questioning and then dropping religion altogether.

It took a tragedy to plant the seed, but witnessing the LGBTQ community at my first CSD was the first nail in the coffin of my own ignorance.

CSD/Hamburg Pride is a wild and crazy day, no doubt. But it's wild and crazy for all the best reasons. I'll shout and celebrate and day drink and thoroughly enjoy the time where people take control of the city center; a time where, together, we can reclaim the historical ugliness and repression of the city center; a time where there is power and safety in numbers and no one has to hide or be ashamed; a time of unconditional acceptance...

A time that will one day, hopefully soon, be all the time.

And if that's not something I should raise a glass to... then I don't know what is.

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