We’re hearing so much about history, what’s real, what’s true, what never was true. History is vital in our lives, because our personal history, our experiences, and what we’ve learned through them, help shape our lives going forward. Memories take hold of our brains, our hearts, and often impact the choices we make. There are helpful aspects of having strong memories, which include maintaining your positive self-esteem, constructing a life plan for yourself that includes old friends, family you may love, and space for new friends.
When I prepare each year for Gay Pride, my memories creep up and then burst forth. We tend to cherish the memories of things that have been fun, touching, or have caused us to reflect. All of the things that pop up in my memories about Pride, and especially in New Orleans, were on high alert on Monday, June 29. That was the evening that the panel discussion “History of New Orleans Pride” took place, sponsored jointly by SAGE New Orleans and the LGBTQ Archives Project New Orleans.
When asked to participate, it sounded to me like a fun ‘outing’ during this pandemic, to share and to listen, perhaps see a few faces I hadn’t for months. It didn’t present itself immediately as an incredible learning opportunity, from both an internal and external perspective. But it was!
This panel was a kind of retrospective of gay social activity in New Orleans from the late 1970’s to the present, emphasizing the years from the early ‘80’s to mid-1990’s, a period that covered the worst of the AIDS epidemic. As facilitator Jim Meadows counted the growing number of participants who joined the Zoom meeting, I began to think that people might be really interested in hearing the recollections of the panel members: Valda Lewis, Mark Gonzalez, Michael Hickerson, and myself, introduced by Frank Perez.
I remember, as a young, out lesbian with a job at a Catholic college that mandated discretion around gender identification, having a wonderful time going out, meeting lots of diverse people, and being scared every single time I did. For me, that was because I was gay, and I felt like I projected that on sight. I feared for my job, my home, and any personal or professional respect I might have earned up till then. Apparently, though, I didn’t project that. I was often treated as though I was straight on the job, and found myself making friends with a wonderful gay man who worked with me, and with whom I would attend various social functions for the job. His partner and my partner would sometimes spend those evenings together, so it worked very well. Hiding. Denying. And feeling afraid.
Michael Hickerson shared how it was back then to be a Black gay man, and how that could often be disastrous. I’m of the generation who fought hard for racial equality and saw change take place so it wasn’t that I had no awareness. What I didn’t know was that racism was rampant within the gay community here in the late ‘70’s into the ‘80’s, and that this insidiousness caused much anxiety and fear.
Of course, while I could hide my identity as a lesbian, Black people can generally be identified immediately; for gay and lesbian Blacks, the potentially dangerous intersection of race and sexual identity added to their fear and anxiety. Today, it’s often a celebratory discovery to acknowledge the intersectionality of many of us. Back then, however, as I and my fellow panelists recalled, it felt simplistic, linear, and often cold. Times change.
Sadly, some of the same prejudices that were levied at gay and straight women, especially women of color, during the 70’s and 80’s have lived on through the 90’s until right now. Gender inequity/gender bias seem never to have ended, blossoming more at certain points as seen by the bizarre hearing of a potential Supreme Court Justice two years ago.
My memories of Pride gatherings, New Orleans Women Against AIDS, and many fundraisers were always of lesbians who were solid volunteers, creative minds, great supporters of Pride — but no one knew about them. Gay Pride back then was predominantly run by cisgender gay males, and as I learned recently, has reportedly been that way up until now.
Nationally, women still do not have an amendment to protect them, as we never passed the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). We may not have addressed that fact during the panel, but memories from that time came up for me. This is 2020, and we still don’t have equal pay for equal work, or secure legislation on a woman’s right to decide about her reproductive rights that doesn’t provoke threats of terror. We may be dangerously close to going backwards.
The most important memories I have, however, revolve around love, both for people actively in my life as well as those that weren’t directly. Caring, compassion, and dedication are things I remember from that time, whether we were raising money for Pride or the NO/AIDS Task Force or Lazarus House, or just having a great time in Washington Park or Armstrong Park.
We pulled together as a group, fought for many things, attended many funerals, and collectively mourned too many dear friends. Those are the threads that tie together my memories of early Pride in New Orleans, of the social justice issues we still fight for, and of the compassion we must continue to muster.
Be careful out there, friends, wear your mask, and practice social distancing. We have to be alive to make needed changes. Protect yourself, and those you love. And know that you are loved!