Under low-slung skies on a sprinkly June day in 1996, I held my boyfriend's hand for dear life and walked with several hundred queer people through the rain-slick downtown streets of Winston-Salem. I was one year out of the closet at the ripe old age of 32, and the annual NC Pride march had traveled to my hometown for the first time. Local right-wingers had been protesting the march for months, and they'd turned out a cadre of those charming fundamentalists who can't resist a chance to inform thousands of people at once that they are destined for hellfire. The TV cameras were out in force, too, and I could just imagine the phone call later that night: "Mother saw you kissing Phil on the 6 o'clock news," my sister would report, "and she keeled over dead on the spot."
All in all, I'd never felt better in my life. Chanting that venerable old chestnut of Pride marches--"We're here, we're queer, get used to it!"--in the city where I'd learned to stifle myself, where I knew hundreds of queer kids like me were busy stifling themselves at that very moment, was giving me the kind of head rush that bungee-jumpers and mountain-climbers live for. As we rounded one last curve, a big cluster of vociferous soul-savers came into view at the end of the march route. I wanted so badly to say something to them, and was searching for exactly the right words when a marcher in front of me broke from the pack, pranced up to a man hollering "Sodomites Burn in Hell," planted a sloppy kiss on his grizzled old mug and cried, "Honey, see you there!"
No similarly delicious moments were possible this past Saturday, when the Pride march returned for the sixth time to its original home in Durham. Only one protester took the trouble to show up, and all he brought were signs bearing such mysterious slogans as "Elephant abuse starts at home." Marchers puzzled over the possible meaning of this lonely protest, but none could decipher it well enough to come up with a witty rejoinder.
Maybe it's no surprise that the local gay-baiters have lost interest. After their spirited beginnings in the '80s, North Carolina's Pride marches have, like so many of the original marchers themselves, settled down considerably. An estimated 3,000 people turned out on Saturday--not bad, though it represents just a tiny sliver of the state's queer population. But as we shuffled up Main Street, sauntered down Ninth Street and meandered back around for an afternoon festival on Duke's East Campus, there was precious little energy. Not only were there no protesters, there were also no songs, no cameras and not even a half-hearted attempt to update "We're here, we're queer."
"Chants are passé," a fellow marcher informed me along the way. "There weren't any at the Millennium March." This was the recent march on Washington organized by the Human Rights Campaign, a nationwide lobbying group that longs to make queer people appear approximately as threatening in the eyes of the straight majority as Rob and Laura Petry. The HRC also had a hand in organizing North Carolina's Pride march this year, and its well-scrubbed charges seemed to be everywhere. All was restrained, orderly, impeccably organized--and adrenaline-free.
That's nothing new, actually. The Winston-Salem march, through marginally hostile territory, was a rarity for NC Pride. Unlike South Carolina's feisty queers, who like to startle and enlighten homophobic towns like Myrtle Beach and Greenville with hordes of marching sodomites, we North Carolinians apparently prefer a quiet stroll through relatively tolerant areas like Carrboro, Asheville or Ninth Street.
Pride marches don't lend themselves readily to militance, of course. Though they're timed to coincide with the anniversary of the raucous Stonewall uprisings in New York, the point is simply to come out and proclaim to the world that you're happy with your sexual orientation. But what's the point of that when the world isn't watching?
Maybe I'm part of a small queer minority, but I want to flush out the homophobes in Fayetteville or North Wilkesboro and strut past them with every ounce of dignity that's inside me. I want to hear what they have to say to me, and I want to kiss them on the cheek for saying it.
Or, better yet, I want to storm the Bastille--well, the state Capitol. On a Tuesday afternoon, say, when the General Assembly is in full swing. With drag queens leading the way, as they did during Stonewall, and thousands of less-well-appointed queers flanking the rear. I want to disrupt. I want to risk arrest. And, fashionable or not, I want to chant myself hoarse--not with a stale cliché, but with a fresh slogan aimed at claiming our basic civil rights. The state of North Carolina offers so many possibilities. Queer couples can neither marry nor adopt. Gay people can be fired from their jobs for being gay. And, most egregious of all, our fair state maintains the medieval Crimes Against Nature law, allowing both gay and straight people to be arrested for having consensual sex with their fellow adults.
Which suggests a pretty catchy chant for the first annual storming of the Capitol: "Don't lock me up for making love."
It's true that my idea of a Pride march might accomplish little more than a pleasant afternoon's stroll through the most liberal section of Durham. It might even, as the Human Rights Campaigners would no doubt remind me, be strategically counterproductive in the long run to be so, well, bothersome. But maybe storming the state Capitol would start something--like Stonewall did, like the WTO protests in Seattle certainly have. At the very least, it would prove there's a pulse in North Carolina's queer community. And that would make me proud.