The First Time I Enjoyed Pride

Brighton Pride 2016, I made a commitment. Setting aside various anxieties about my body or whatever, I decided I would do the whole flag-waving flesh-bearing thing and really give Pride a chance. After all, I wasn’t ashamed of being gay… was I? I’m an avid believer in sexual freedom, self-expression and sex-positivity; on paper, this is the kind of festival I’m wholly about.

I’d been to a couple of Prides before, but never really engaged — to be fair, anything with crowds generally fills me with contempt and bewilderment. This time, however, I had a great group of friends to go with, some very gay costuming to fight the homo-FOMO, and a few days off work to really get in the festival spirit. Most vitally, and luckily, my anxiety was taking a few days off.

My friends and I (on the right) before the festivities

It was from a position of actually enjoying the event that I noticed what I’d previously disliked about it. It’s an event heavily biased towards the enjoyment of the already-happy. It’s a celebration of hot bodies, self-confidence, happy couples. It’s great if you have all these things. You can swan around, comfortable in yourself, enjoying spontaneous interactions and validation at every turn. Everyone feels like your friend. But I couldn’t ignore the people who didn’t seem to be living those philosophies.

This actually reminds me of one particular refrain from one of Regina Spektor’s recent songs, Bleeding Heart. I think her entire discography is peppered with meticulous and deep etudes on self-confidence and anxiety, but this one spoke to this feeling in particular:

Someday you’ll grow up
And then you’ll forget
All of the pain you endured
Until you walk by a sad pair of eyes
And up will come back all the hurt
And you’ll see their pain
As they look away
And you want to help
But there’s just no way
’Cause you’ve won the war
So it’s not your turn
But everything inside still burns . . .

It’s this idea as an anxious person that you can leave behind your anxieties, gain self-confidence, but you’re doing nothing to help those still in the same boat. Even the idea that by buying into the “confidence” mindset — or worse, carving an edifice of confidence — you’re betraying your still-suffering brethren, adding to that societal pressure to have it together, to not be vulnerable. Defecting to the other side. And you also realise, the journey that led to you becoming less anxious was a valuable one, and you feel powerless to genuinely help them, with all the hard work required being intensely personal.

This happiness, my surprise enjoyment of Pride, sat in bizarre, clashing contrast to my subconscious knowledge, that the gay community suffers so many shortcomings: mental health, insecurities and anxieties, drug and sexual dysfunctions. This is a parade whose iconography is about glossing over all that: putting front-and-center strength over vulnerability; the false images of perfection over the messy ones of reality.

For the first time, I felt body-confident enough to be at my desired level of nudity, which is only discernible from actual nudity by the presence of underwear and rainbow suspenders. And yes, I had a lot of fun. So what’s my big complaint? It’s complicated. The gay community, like most things, is an emergent, bottom-up phenomenon; dictated by the group pressures that the influence magazine topics and social media trends, which all resolves to being largely about hot men, gym, and very publicly treading some arbitrary line between promiscuous and chaste, that proves you’re hot enough to get it, but not controlled by it. And I know I’m naive to think that a community as diverse, broad and… well, big, as the gay community could possibly cater to my every desire as a place to feel included; but still, I think there’s value in being vocal about wanting better. Perhaps that’s why I’m more drawn to labels like “queer”, that better encapsulates subversiveness, nuance and non-conformity (and, perhaps non-judgementality).

But as I said, it’s bottom-up. Which is where change needs to come from. I want a gay magazine that celebrates gay men’s successes rather than their bodies. Does anyone else? Maybe. But it’s not going to pop into existence because we want it. It’s just that nobody has yet had enough impetus to create it; and that fact, knowing human nature, is unfortunate but palatable. I’m not saying I want this to replace existing expressions of gay culture, though it will sound like that to some people (which I’d say is another of the driving problems in the community: resource-constraint anxiety). But a first step to changing the community is for people disillusioned with it to stay engaged rather than fall away, talk about the improvements they’d like to see, and provide those voices, that turn into trends, that one day become magazines and parades.

Some people are told “I’d like X” and hear “I’d like X to replace Y”. We can still have the topless guys and drag races. But I just want a space for the alternatives, as well. Don’t think there’s no in-between, twixt dogmatism for the status quo and revolution. If there’s anything being a libertarian has taught me, it’s there’s always an in-between.

…So, I actually didn’t publish this for almost a whole year because I wasn’t quite sure how to end it. Now that I’ve reflected some more, I think an epilogue fits.

This year, I’m still deciding which (if any) Pride events to attend. Part of me knows I have a really good shot of having a good time. The part that rationally knows I’m sort-of-attractive-to-almost-hot enough to most probably find the validation I need to feel part of it all. Another part feels sad that this is the fact of it. That in order to feel part of a community, the main source of my value is my appearance, with everything else (my philosophy, career, skills, philanthropy, my… mind) coming somewhere at the bottom of the list.

Are these complaints unique to those with self-esteem issues, who just need to loosen up and learn how to have a good time? Perhaps. Do enough people have self-esteem issues in the gay community that this is worth thinking about? Surely.

If you liked what I had to say (or didn’t!) you can engage with me on twitter and I’ll love you forever. For anything else, take your pick of social media which are linked all over the place.