I was at St Louis Pride this weekend.
Saturday night, as I felt more and more anxious about being “outed” as a Pride attendee, I decided I needed to write about it; face my fear head on.
I could tell you that I was there in my capacity as a pastor (or pastor-without-papers, as I think of myself as the moment), and that would be true. God told me to go several months ago, and I kept trying to figure out a way to really represent Him. Carry a loving sign? Hand out some kind of scriptural trinket? Counter-protest the protesters? I never came up with a good plan, though, and that was part of the reason I was anxious that first night.
“How will I justify this? How will I explain being here to the people who would freak out over me being here? I’m not doing anything special. I’m not being especially Jesusy right now. I’m sitting on the grass listening to music, surrounded by – to be frank – a lot of gay people. This is exactly the sort of thing that gets me in trouble with other Christians.”
My friend Tina was with me at Pride. She’s a free-spirited Jesus-loving hippie who has no concerns about what the church folks will think of her hanging out at a Pride Fest. She was delighted to be there, basking in the general laid-back, accepting attitude. Tina is not gay, but she still somehow seemed to be in her element. As for me….I was struggling a bit. It wasn’t culture shock or disapproval. It was just that creeping fear of being found out by my church, my extended family, my homeschool friends. What would they say if they knew where I was?
And so here I am, making a decision not to hide where I’ve been this weekend. And what’s more, while I hoped that God would use me as a gracious presence at Pride the reality is that I received far more grace than I was able to give.
What did I see? Lots of color. People of all ages. Many, many families. A two hour parade. Lots of dancing. Very few things (but admittedly a few) that curled my hair.
What did I do? I ate Greek salad, clapped and waved during the parade, collected free swag (mostly beads), sat on the grass and listened to music, danced a little, did a lot of people watching.
At lunch on Sunday, Tina and I shared a picnic table with two men named Anthony and Mike. Anthony is married to a different Mike, but his husband had to work and so Anthony was doing Pride with his best friend. Both Anthony and Mike were friendly and cheerful and a little bit silly. Anthony mentioned that his 18 year old daughter was at Pride for the first time, and he was trying to keep his drinking under control for her sake. “She goes to church with her mother,” he said, “so she’s getting a lot of messages from that. But she knows that we love her.” Mike interjected to tell us that Anthony’s ex-wife still think he can “pray the gay away”.
Tina and I were standing in a line when a young man turned around and said, “You two are gorgeous, I want you to know. And you’re inspiring. I want my boyfriend and I to be just like you someday.” We were puzzled by this, and Tina laughed and said, “Well, we’re just friends.” The boyfriend spoke up and said, “How long have you been friends?”
“Really? You give off a vibe like you’ve known each other for a long time!” I replied, “It does feel like we’ve known each other for a long time.” Then I basked in the glow of being called gorgeous.
We spent a long time sitting on a curb listening to cover bands, watching the crowd in the street. One 30-something lesbian couple caught our attention with their exuberant dancing. They must have noticed us, too, swaying back and forth as we sat on the curb. One of the women ran over and grabbed both Tina and I, pulling us onto the street to dance. And so we joined the crowd and danced along to a medley of Michael Jackson songs. At the end of the dancing there were hugs all around.
What I saw this weekend was mostly people relaxing and having fun. Yes, some people were drinking too much and behaving accordingly – but that’s true at Cardinals’ games and wedding receptions, too. Daytime Pride, at least, was far more family-friendly than I expected. The mood was jubilant (in part because of this past week’s SCOTUS decision, I’m sure), and it really did seem like a place where every age, every race, every body type, every style was accepted.
People want to be accepted, you know.
At Pride, straight couples and gays and lesbians and trans folks sing along together to a cover bands version of “Don’t Stop Believing”. Children get their faces painted and teenagers play volleyball and it all seems so benign, so much like every other public gathering in these parts. So why was I afraid?
This post is not about sexual ethics or politics or court decisions. I think religious pluralism requires that we practice our various expressions of faith alongside each other without imposing religious convictions on each other. For me, that means that a distinction between civil and religious marriage has always made sense. But I’ve said that before.
This post is about me wanting the relief of not hiding, of speaking the truth – even if the truth is just that I went to Pride because I heard God calling me to go. But in the end, I didn’t go to preach. I just went to be with people. I laughed at Anthony’s jokes, and cheered for the band in the parade and hugged friends I ran into and enjoyed the event just like everyone else was enjoying the event. I think I felt safer when I imagined somehow having a “purpose” that would protect me from criticism. But I’m letting that go. Many of the people I was with have never had that protection, and never will. I’m afraid to admit I went to a festival, but they’ve lived with fear of rejection (or worse) all their lives. We Christians often talk about being “above reproach” and while I get the point, I think we sometimes just like to be “above”. I am tired to trying to be above. I want to just be among, for a change.
What else can I say? I love my Jesus, who befriended everyone. And I love that he’s pulled me out of my insular shell and into places I would never have gone before. I was wrong in the past for thinking that people who are gay are any more screwed up than the rest of this screwed up human race. I’m sorry that I ever said one word that made them feel less precious to God than I am. Right now, I have nothing but love.
By the way, I did have a sign, and that’s basically what it said (with credit to Derek Webb). I held it for a while in the parade, and then set it down so that I could clap. It blew away from me, across the barricade and landed face up on the street. The sweet young man to my right said, “Isn’t that your sign?”
“It’s okay, I was getting tired of holding it.” And ironically, I think more participants in the parade read the sign on the ground than had noticed it in my hand. It was just a disembodied message now, but I hope it was exactly what someone needed to hear.
I was wrong. I’m sorry. I love you.