Proud, Prouder, Proudest

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I gawked at the black drag queens strutting along the road in formation, and I gawked at the frat types yelling in jerseys, and I gawked at this grizzled guy with skin like bad coffee, a captain of his space, sure of himself in a way I couldn’t have imagined being, and when he finally looked back at me I turned the fuck away. The dance floors were packed and chilled. Some of these marchers have crossed borders. And yet it’s fucking magic nonetheless. I couldn’t not join in. Hey, he said, we love you. Some of them spring from accepting families. But when the parade turned the corner of Conti Street, those facts hardly diminished its tremors; and, in a town that isn’t terribly diverse, you were suddenly as likely to find yourself grinding on some Canadian kid as a flock of Iranian bears. The humidity made the city feel like a lukewarm oven. I flinched when he leaned across the crowd into my face. Eventually it would pop. Loads of murders go unsolved annually in New Orleans. But eventually I figured it out—or rather, the notion finally, thankfully, sat on my face—and once the door had opened, I hit up as many marches as I could. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Photo: Tony Webster
It was Pride Week in New Orleans. It happens every year. *
I spent last year’s Pride in Augusta, and then I drove to the clubs in Atlanta. So: in Tampa, I sat through traffic as the crowd streamed by. We were tired, with good reason to be. He closed his eyes and waved me along, as if giving me permission to pass. We’d go back to our lives. I didn’t know what would happen, or if anything had changed, or if anything would at all—and that’s when the brown dude I’d been staring at for a little too long turned toward me. I had no idea what the fuck the day had in store. Assaults in the loop of gay bars by Bourbon Street are hardly unheard of, and the city isn’t at all removed from the South’s virulent thread of hatred. But things haven’t gone completely to shit. Are you one of them, he said, nodding at the porch, and I told him I was. It was something we would all take months to process, and here we were, out in the world nonetheless. And then brunch, or, depending on your persuasion, maybe a little more. Whole swaths of the country and its institutions have committed to erasing open homosexuality from the culture. But even if the city moonlights as a Babylon of the South, it can also be a dangerous place to go out. We followed it with our eyes, just sort of willing it along. It wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. It felt a lot like my first Pride, back in Houston, before they moved the parade downtown. He offered me a cigarette. I gawked at the parents holding hands. It wasn’t that this was the thing to do; it was the fact that there wasn’t anything else we could do. It’s a pretty colorful city. And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that doom, however briefly, crossed my mind. *
The dawn after Pride in New Orleans, I walked the length of the Esplanade Avenue to my apartment. But this here was something worth working for. For the longest time, I didn’t know what the fuck a Pride parade was. New Orleans during Pride Week, 2016. There is, rightfully, a fear that LGBT rights in the States will backslide. We were struggling to keep it moving. Life could get much worse, even while it gets better. He looked at his smoke, and then at his dog, and then he waved me over. And then everyone was singing a song that I didn’t know then, and still don’t know now—only that it was gravely off-pitch, fluctuating in tone; just bad, simply inaudible, vibrating stupidly between several time signatures; and yet, despite all of that, we’d made a sacred, sacred thing. New Orleans has a ton of queer households on the census. There were more than a few Mexican flags flying high. It kept going and going. Afterward, the audience broke off, in various stages of undress, to porches and curbsides throughout the French Quarter, until the road was strewn with beads and condoms and go-cups. At a parade in San Antonio, I slurped shots off the backs of otters; in Charleston, a few years later, I walked the length of the city to the fairgrounds, passing Pride-goers coasting back and forth, until we coalesced in a muddy park, where I ran into an old white man hawking handmade flags. *
Unlike its counterparts all over the country, which celebrated the increasingly political ramifications of pride parades, this year’s New Orleans event was billed as “the one weekend a year where we really can put the politics aside.” But parades are, after all, a form of movement. And yet, here we are, in a big fucking group, doing it anyway: loudly and in unison. A Microsoft float blipped the logos of various sponsors into the dusk. There’s nothing mystical about that. When he shouted into my ear, I couldn’t hear him, and I told him so. At the end of the evening, the procession passed. And inevitably, those colors deepen in June, when Pride Week comes around: the clubs host parties funded by globalized sex apps, tiny drunken congregations bloom all over the Quarter, and the week climaxes with a march the final evening. The parade had just ended. Middle-aged softball teams vogued through traffic, and on the way from one bar to another, I passed a porch full of stragglers, sipping gin, blasting “I Would Die 4 U” and singing along. Or that queer folks congregated anywhere, ever. An incomprehensible thing had happened, a biblical calamity. We’ve seen these battles before. His lips grazed my face. Our countries would determine how big it got, or where it could go, or what we could do outside of it. Everyone froze. And then another voice broke out. The DJ yelled apologies. I’d been housesitting for some friends, and I went by myself. When he offered me one, I told him I didn’t have the money; and he smiled and told me I didn’t understand—that we were the flag, that the flag was all of us. I gawked at the women walking together. With this smirk on his face. Or that we had our own week. This homeless guy smoking by his dog caught my eye. The mood was somber, and bewildered, and defiant. At least two this year have involved transgender women of color. When we finished, some people clapped. I spent the evening getting blitzed under a balcony, stepping through polyrhythms in tandem with seventy thousand other men and women. But for the time being, we’d carved it from the air. There are no seasons in Houston, but the sky turned a searing orange, and everything was too loud, and it was all very neat; as if we’d decided that, for the next few minutes, this was where we’d concentrate our energies. (Although, in fact, you could spend today or this week or the rest of your life remembering them, thinking of Stanley Almodovar III, and Amanda Alvear, and Oscar Aracena, and Rodolfo Ayala, and Antonio Brown, and Daryl Burt III, and Jonathan Camuy, and Angel Luis Candelario-Padro, and Omar Capo, and Simon Carrillo, and Luis Conde, and Cory Connell, and Tevin Crosby, and Anthony Disla, and Deonka Drayton, and Leroy Fernandez, and Mercedez Flores, and Peter Gonzalez-Cruz, and Juan Guerrero, and Paul Henry, and Frankie Hernandez, and Miguel Honorato, and Jimmy Jésus, and Javier Jorge-Reyes, and Jason Josaphat, and Eddie Justice, and Christopher Leinonen, and Alejandro Martinez, and Juan Martinez, and Brenda McCool, and Gilberto Menendez, and Kimberly Morris, and Akyra Murray, and Geraldo Ortiz-Jimenez, and Joel Paniagua, and Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, and Enrique Rios, and Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera, and Jean Carlos Nieves Rodriguez, and Xavier Serrano, and Christopher Sanfeliz, and Yilmary Solivan, and Edward Sotomayor Jr., and Shane Tomlinson, and Martin Torres, and Juan Velasquez, and Luis Vielma, and Luis Wilson-Leon, and Jerald Wright, and anyone and everyone else who’s died at the hands of a bottomless ignorance.)
Well into the evening, while I was in the throes of some trance, the electricity in this bar shut off. Not to make up for lost time, exactly, but to keep convincing myself that such a thing could be possible. He said, We love you, we love you, we love you. But then one dude behind the bar started singing. In Atlanta, I got crushed in a barenaked flash mob. This wasn’t long after the shooting at Pulse. Some of them have bounced from shelter to shelter in search of that bubble, and others were born into it, and others tore at the air; but for a moment we’d all agreed to pour our energies into keeping it afloat. Even after the power and the music and the lights were back (a quick blip, a momentous nothing), it kept on going. Couples loped along patches of gravel, and the usual assortment of strangers biked by, and drunks sped through lights, and laughter skittered from open windows, and the block felt pregnant in a way it hadn’t a few hours beforehand. I spend the bulk of every June touring the South’s assemblage of offerings. And that is, I guess, one thing that Pride is for all of us: a necessary bubble conceived in the center of the storm.  
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. That first night, the crowd moved along the partition.