The first time I peaced out from my small hometown of Big Bear—out of the closet, fire lit up under my ass to escape the vacuity of Straight White Male Christendom and find a far more inclusive culture—I passed by signs and billboards in support of Prop. 22, the OG Prop. 8 that rallied up folks against gay marriage.
For me, this was one cog in a big struggle that I had long experienced up in the mountains, one that was a balancing act of knowing how much to admit and to whom, all the while gauging the possible outcomes that ranged from acceptance to violence.
Given this, when I first saw a black-and-white photo of a calvary of queers marching down Ocean, led by drag queen Emperor Boom Boom, I finally found a peace in knowing that my struggle wasn’t solely mine; I also found a simultaneous mixture of sadness and inspiration in knowing that the balancing act I faced daily in a small town was even more tedious for queers in the 1980s.
The LGBTQ community faced a nationwide crisis in health, rights, and politics. As AIDS nearly annihilated an entire generation of artists and thinkers, activists and politicians became viciously divided, if not outright vitriolic toward each other.
As with all struggles, however, there is a silver lining. In Long Beach, it turned a gay community that was relatively conservative in public displays of sexuality toward cohesion—and in that coalescence, created one of the most influential and adored cultural communities in SoCal.
“Long Beach was different than LA—it was quiet,” said Vanessa Romain, a lifelong member of the Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride (LBLGP) organization that spearheads the weekend-long celebration each year. “And you know, it was just that part of it—the reservation and respect—that so many of us liked. We kept quiet, our neighbors kept quiet. There’s danger in that though ‘cause you can only be quiet for so long before you realize that the things going on around you, whether it’s your city or not, are just wrong.”
Come 1983, Romain joined a handful of others—Marilyn Barlow, Bob Crow and Judith Doyle—to create what we now know as Long Beach Pride and held their first parade and two-day festival in 1984. The parade? Thirty minutes. The festival? 5,000 people. Shockingly, it went off without a hitch but this was largely due to the fact that no one was paying attention.
“They didn’t notice us because they didn’t care about us,” Romain said. “We were invisible.”
However, continuing Pride as a tangible reality was no easy feat, having been built on a path of most resistance, from City Hall leaders to residents.
Then-councilmembers Warren Harwood and Edd Tuttle along with former mayors Eunice Sato and Ernie Kell were outspoken opponents of the festival and parade during its second year, not to mention critics of LGBTQ rights in general. Harwood explicitly stated he “didn’t want a buncha queers in the trees.”
Threats were so high that many parade-goers wore bulletproof vests after former City Manager John Denver unilaterally attempted to limit the festival’s celebration to one day. That attempt drew some 300 people to Council chambers, some sporting surgical masks with “AIDS mask” written on them, in order to protest the blockage, leading the City to say the group needed a million-dollar insurance policy for liability. Unable to find a group willing to back up the gay community for that sum, the event ran without permits and without a sense of safety.
“People were scared,” said Doyle. “People were just scared to even be there. If you were a police officer, you were afraid you would lose your job. If you were a teacher, you were afraid you would lose your job. If you were anyone, you were afraid you would lose your life.”
Doyle was personally threatened, having received a voicemail message suggesting she doesn’t march because “someone will take you down.”
The weight of these stories shouldn’t sit lightly with anyone, let alone someone from the LGBTQ community. Whether that brave crew knew what they were creating or simply wanted a space to be themselves, they helped create “that something” that makes Pride, well, Pride. For anyone who ventures into this strange, hypnotic gathering where it doesn’t particularly matter who you are or where you come from—after all, Pride is the exclusive club of The Lack of Exclusivity: everyone is welcome and that is the point—they should do so understanding that this freedom was built upon lives that were threatened, dismissed, ignored, or deemed unworthy.
Long Beach’s Pride is the epicenter of the ideal that being one’s self and hurting no one along the way provides a fruitful life. Even better, Pride supersedes its Dionysian façade of partying and given that sexuality is not per aw the singular cog. Nor does the equation result in the fact that one must be marginalized or dejected in some fashion to fit in. In fact, there is no single cog to Pride—and that’s what makes it beautiful.
And nearly 35 years later, after these now-old men and women valiantly defied the powers that be, we live in a time where it seemingly feels like we are devolving back into the fear of it all. The fear of hearing a message saying someone will take us down.
All the more reason to head to Pride this weekend, no?
Long Beach Pride 2017 happens May 20-21. For full parade and performance schedules, click here.