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Pride and joy

In 2000, just a few months after I began working at PlanetOut, the entire company flew to Washington, D.C., for the Millennium March on Washington. With as many as one million in attendance, the hope was that this march would be to the LGBT community what 1963 was to African-Americans: A turning point in the battle for equality. 

As we gathered on the morning of the main event, I sat in the hotel lobby, reading that morning's Washington Post. The front page of the lifestyle section's main story reflected on the state of the LGBT community. In one turn of phrase, writer Hank Steuver wrote that "the love that dared not speak its name now yawns and checks its watch," railing against the visible presence of corporate sponsorship and its dilution of political activism. He was asking the question that the community has asked itself repeatedly before and since: Do marches matter? Do we need Pride anymore?

By then I had been out for 13 years. My first Pride was in New York City, in 1988, marching with my school's gay alliance. I remember being utterly in awe of the numbers of people gathering to march. I also remember the stew of fright and rage as we marched past St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue flanked on either side with crowds of people pointing and shouting "SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!" as we passed through. 

It was also not my first march on Washington. I traveled with a group of friends in the fall of 1987 to the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. I remember standing in the mall, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people. My friend Seana stood up on a bench to survey the crowd. As she stepped down, she had tears in her eyes. "So many of us," she said. "How can we be wrong?"

It was a complicated time to come out. The AIDS Crisis still loomed heavily over the community. We still didn't know exactly how the disease was transmitted, and there were no treatments. Countless had already died. We were not just fighting for our rights; we were fighting for our lives. 

I eventually moved to San Francisco in 1991. Working freelance in the theater community, I often found myself with down time between jobs, and began volunteering with the NAMES Project, helping to receive and restore quilts that had been sent in. Each day boxes would arrive containing 3' x 6' panels, the size of a grave plot, commemorating the lost. Some were crude, others were exquisite; all were heartbreaking, poignant and saturated with love. 

In 1992, dpaul and I met, through a personals ad in the Bay Times. That fall, the NAMES Project was displaying the quilt in Washington. By then it contained panels from every state and 28 countries, and it was thought at the time that this would be the last time it could be shown in its entirety. As a gift of gratitude for my service, they offered me a free airline ticket to go. I excitedly called dpaul, who was then able to volunteer as a sign language interpreter and joined me. 

On the day of the display, I felt the odd sense of familiarity, remembering the march in 1987. This time, though, was more like visiting a cemetery. People milled around the panels, talking, crying, visiting with their loved ones taken too soon. There were blank panels with Sharpies where you could leave spontaneous messages. I tearfully left a note to a friend who was HIV-positive, but died by his own hand. AIDS didn't take everyone in the same way.

The trip cemented dpaul's and my relationship, and in 1993 we decided to make a commitment. At that time, the greatest extent of legal protection we had access to was to register for Domestic Partnership in the City of San Francisco. It had only been legal for four years at that point. It afforded us the full complement of rights befitting married couples, but only within the jurisdiction of the city. But we took that commitment as seriously as full marriage. We emerged from the registrar's office, with walls still cracked from the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, with a piece of paper that validated our relationship, at least within 49 square miles. Still, the point was made: We want what is freely given to our peers. We want to belong.

In 2004, we registered for domestic partnership in the State of California; our second "marriage" occurred in a Mailboxes, Etc. where we had a form notarized and sent to Sacramento. Then we had lunch at Cafe Claude.

In the fall of 2008, after the California Supreme Court struck Prop 22, we married, no air quotes, at the home of dear friends. And then in November, 2008, California voters passed Prop 8, defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman, leaving us in a state of legal limbo. We were still legally married — it was fully legal at the time — yet no other same-sex couples could marry going forward. It was the first time in American history that the rights of a class of people had been taken away by voter action. The day after election, I felt my face flush with the same rush of rage and horror from 1987. I could almost hear the voices shouting, "SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!"

Meanwhile, I spent eight and a half years working at PlanetOut, alternately in product management and editorial. Having merged with former competitor Gay.com in 2001, ours was the biggest platform for LGBT people on a global scale to find and communcate with each other. We would receive postcards and letters from people, often teenagers, from around the world, thanking us for helping them. In many cases we were quite literally saving their lives, either by producing content that educated them on matters of health or legality, or simply by letting them know that they were not alone, not by a long shot. It's only with the benefit of retrospection that I can see how important our work was. Even the most trivial things we did made an impact — not least including the way we brought marketers and advertisers around to selling to the gay community. We were finally able to exert our power economically as well as politically. 

For all these reasons Wednesday's SCOTUS decisions to invalidate DOMA and remand the federal challenge of Prop 8 were overwhelming for me. They mark more than a shift in the way our relationships are recognized legally. They mark a tipping point in the evolution of the battle for our community. It means more than that we can file our taxes jointly, or that we have rights of survivorship, or the other 1000-plus things that had been denied us. It means we belong. 

Many lament that, as we gradually integrate into the mainstream, we are losing what made us special, and that's true to some extent. Fighting oppression and disease, pain and loss made our community strong and cohesive. We embraced our otherness. But integration doesn't have to mean assimilation. We can still be ourselves and still have a seat at the table.

And so to Steuver and to everyone who's questioned the power of Pride before and since, I say: Yes, it matters. It matters every day, and it matters more than ever. Even as protest signs give way to corporate sponsorships at the festival, as outrageous floats and outrĂ© outfits give way to politicos and dance parties in the parade, it matters. Because until we are all equal, we are all unequal. 

  • There is no shame in being you, being who you were put here on this earth to be – love every. single. word. of this piece Sean – YOU are the bees knees – and here’s to equality – for everyone

  • This is gorgeous, Sean. I’m so glad you wrote it.

  • What a glorious week this has been!
    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Sean. The world is a better place because you’re in it… for so many reasons.