In my early twenties, I got my first piece of “grown-up” furniture. It was a chestnut-coloured armoire, hand-crafted out of beautiful Maplewood. Yes, it came with a bed, a nightstand and a chest of drawers, but it was the armoire itself that was the piece that first caught my eye in the shop, and which ultimately haunted my mind until I finally brought it home.
I remember how proud I was to have such a stunning piece in my home. It became a centrepiece for my home. First in the bedroom, then in the living room. I wanted to ensure it got the attention it so clearly deserved. While the rest of my home might be full of garage-sale and hand-me-down tat, this piece was the real deal. I polished it regularly, looked after it with care and even pondered who would get it if I died. It was a sustainable piece which, if looked after, could be passed on from generation to generation.
Over the years, the armoire has remained a constant for me. Roommates and Ikea bookcases have come and gone, but the armoire has graced seven of my homes across two different countries. At last, it has found its permanent home. Nestled in the alcove of our guestroom it looks out onto our landing where it can safely watch us pass by. Occasionally I pause to look at it. Yes, there are a few dings and scratches, but it still retains its intrinsic beauty that first caught my eye nearly thirty years ago.
Growing up in rural Minnesota, I knew I was different from the other boys on the playground. I didn’t particularly like football, I couldn’t throw (or catch) a baseball to save my life, and I was obsessed with beauty. Yes, pretty girls were just that—pretty, but I really didn’t fancy them. I loved beautiful objects, outstanding architecture, drama and comedy and songs. Oh, and I thought my swimming instructor Warren was hot. I knew I was gay, but I just wasn’t ready to accept it.
During my freshman year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, I began the process of coming out. I met Jeff, my first “out” gay friend, at a Michael Dukakis fund raiser. He was quite a bit older than I was, he but took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of life as a gay man in the late twentieth century, a veritable fairy godfather. We hit the gay bars, sang with drag queens, danced with go-go boys and flirted with far too many men.
When the Twin Cities Pride event in June 1989 came around, Jeff asked me to lend a hand. He was a member of the organising committee and needed volunteers to be part of the parade. He handed me a flag on a pole, much like the kind you see soldiers carry in a military parade; but mine wasn’t an American flag, it was a solid red flag. I looked around and saw one guy with orange, one with yellow, one with blue, with violet, and green had just got his. We banded together and started chatting. Two of the guys knew each other, but all of us were somehow just randomly recruited to bear the flags. I waved mine fervently and with a twinkle commented I was just a “swishy flag.” There were a couple of giggles matched with a couple of groans. We began to march.
Looking out onto the sea of people watching the parade, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of Pride, equally matched with a sense of dread. What if I showed up on the TV. I was the red flag bearer, surely that would catch the attention of Channel 5 News. But then Orange Flag made a joke and when I laughed, my fears abated. I was part of a tribe of people who were willing to step out of the shadows into the sun to form a rainbow.
After the parade was done, Jeff and I met up and he walked me around the pop-up market stalls selling anything and everything you could put a rainbow on. Rainbow coffee cups, rainbow stickers, rainbow bookends, rainbow clocks, rainbow dildos, rainbow paperweights. There was rainbow bunting and rainbow cake mixes. There were books and pamphlets and t-shirts and hats—all proclaiming Out & Proud.
Driving home to my small town that evening, I remember switching off the radio and just reflecting on what had happened that day. Would my parents have seen me on TV? I really didn’t care. What if I had bumped into someone from my university? Oh well, they’d be in the same boat. I resolved to come out to my family and friends. It was time.
It’s now been over thirty years since I first came out. Telling my parents was the hardest part, but when that went well, I really didn’t care what the rest of the world thought. Who were they going to tell? My parents?
For the first several years, I embraced being gay with gay abandon. I had all the stickers, coffee cups and bunting. I moved to Seattle where I lived in a veritable gay ghetto. I had friends and I had boyfriends. I went dancing and cavorting. I sang with the gay men’s chorus, and I was part of the gay community. I was loud and out, but was I really proud?
I came across a book a few years back which postulated that most gay men suffer from Peter Pan syndrome—never wanting to age, never wanting to grow up. While I wouldn’t agree with the syntax of “most”, I would have to say a more appropriate measurement would be “many”, and I include myself in this category. Despite now being in my fifties, I still cling to an image of myself from twenty-five years ago. Youthful and fit with a self-imposed confidence. While youth and fitness have faded, I no longer have self-imposed confidence, as that confidence is now part of my essence, and that confidence, no matter how you look at it is down to pride.
True pride is sustainable. My rainbow flags and chipped rainbow coffee cups have come to the same fate as my Ikea bookcases and my first cheap futon. But like my armoire, my own sense of pride remains strong. Of course, it has undergone dings and scratches since my first Pride Parade way back in 1989--AIDS, the fight for gay rights, the rally for marriage equality and the chance to adopt kids have all left a mark. But now, thirty-odd-years-later, when I step back and see them in just the right light, these events help form the beautiful patina of my own pride.