This essay was chosen by editors in reponse to the #FirstTime prompt: What was your first Pride experience?
I could not have asked for a more complete first Pride. I’ve chosen to use the word “complete” rather than one with some wholly positive, joyful connotation because along with all of the joys and the smiles I experienced over that weekend, there was also a low in which I unlocked a new point of view on my community. All of these things came together at once, giving me a crash course in the strong, inclusive, beautiful community I belong to. For that I am truly grateful, but first let’s back up a bit.
I am pretty sure I have always known I was gay. I had a girlfriend in high school but I also had the most homoerotic best friendships. People speculated—I would always deny. I eventually came out in 2012 when I was 20. It was my junior year of college in Los Angeles and one of the freest times of my life in a very open city, yet I deliberately avoided the LGBT network at my school. Maybe I was shy, maybe I wasn’t ready—I definitely wasn’t, at that point, proud. After finally admitting to the world that I liked boys, I remained voluntarily on the outside. I had just a couple of gay friends, but we didn’t hang out too often. I would go to spin class in WeHo, but I still envied the men holding hands in the rainbow crosswalk, as if I somehow didn’t get to share in their freedom.
That was my choice. I’m in medical school now at a university in DC that is diverse enough, but I have more fingers on my left hand than there are gay people in my class. I’ve continued to avoid participating in the gay realm. Fortunate to live in another city with a thriving gay community, I finally decided to celebrate Pride this year. I was determined to see what all the fuss was about, even if it meant I had to venture out by myself—which proved perfect.
Friday night I went out with some friends from school, but while the night was still young, I broke away to go to the gay bar Nellie’s. Almost immediately I struck up a conversation with a few guys who welcomed me into their friend group for the night. We connected so effortlessly, drinking and dancing; it surprised me that these guys were so friendly, but I think I also understood why. We shared context. We all had a “coming out story,” something that so defines us, yet something that straight people can, at most, only empathize with. I couldn’t stop smiling; it was surreal to make friends within minutes without feeling even the slightest bit self-conscious or uncomfortable. This might be what Pride was about, and I was missing out on it for years!
Related | My First Pride: Los Angeles, 1977
This was the first time I have worn anything with a rainbow, and it felt so good not to worry that someone would judge me for it. I have always tempered my gayness around my friends, my classmates, my professors, my coworkers, and also my parents, because somehow I envisioned being gay as something unprofessional or inappropriate. But I’ve been wrong. It is a privilege to belong to a group of people that treat each other with such respect. For a bunch that likes to walk around naked, there is still something inherently so dignified about it. We own it.
The sun rose on Sunday morning and Orlando seemed on everyone’s phone screen. I had not yet read the news, but I received a text message from my mother asking if I was all right. I told her of course I was, but really had no idea what was making her so worried. Her message was touching nonetheless. I remember watching her cry when I came out to her, and watching her scribble on the dinner table in Sharpie because she was so uncomfortable. Two years later, she has made strides in accepting me as gay, and I am so grateful that she has always been there to look out for me, through everything.
I switched from iMessage to Safari to investigate what had happened in Orlando. When I read that 49 LGBT individuals had been killed while celebrating Pride, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Over this weekend where we expressed our individuality and connected with others like us, a safe space was violated. And so during a time when I was exposed to the joy of belonging, I was reminded of both the struggles we have endured for the privilege of being gay in 2016, and the progress that has yet to be made in securing our civil rights.
For me, my first Pride has been a call to action. Rather than continue my passive, peripheral association with the gay community, I have decided to take a deep dive moving forward. Be it as an activist, as a physician, or simply as a vocal participant in organized endeavors, I am going to buy in for real. Through the good and the bad, we are resilient. We are unashamed. With a glimpse of the triumphs we share and tribulations that we endure in our community, I can now confidently say that I am, indeed, proud.
Conner McMains is originally from Orange County, CA and now attends medical school in Washington, DC. He aspires to be a plastic surgeon and to make an impact in healthcare quality and safety, practicing and encouraging competent care for LGBT individuals—a group whose needs are often overlooked in medical training. In his free time, he enjoys running near bodies of water, hiking outside anywhere the sun is shining, and creating fusion cuisine in the kitchen.