Monday, June 04, 2012

Feeling Such Pride

Today was an incredible and spiritual day.  I mentioned that last year instead of going to Pride, I instead went to church and ended up having a negative experience due to a couple of judgmental members making unkind statements about gay people.  To me, church is where you ought to feel the love and Spirit of God the most, and on that day it failed to do so.  On the other hand, I did appreciate the kind words that were said repudiating those other two members’ words, and in that sense, church did what it was supposed to do.

This year I decided not to make the same mistake I made last year and decided to attend Pride.  When I heard that a local LDS woman had decided to organize a group of LDS members to march in the Utah Pride parade in support and love for their LGBT brothers and sisters, and when I was asked on Facebook to join that group, I felt very inclined to do so even though it meant essentially snubbing co-workers, who was also marching in the parade.

I had never marched in the Pride parade before, although I have been invited to do so twice previously.  I’m not much of a parade guy, either watching or participating.  I don’t like crowds or getting up early or standing (or in this case, marching) in the heat.  Yet I felt so drawn to be a part of this crowd, which called itself Mormons Building Bridges because that is, after all, what I have tried so hard to do as a gay Mormon.

Part of me wondered if it was right to march with a crowd who, as far as I know, is a majority of active, straight members of the LDS Church.  After all, I am not straight and, according to the LDS Church, I am not longer officially Mormon.  Yet I do know that there was at least one other gay, semi-active man in the group, and even though I am no longer on the rolls of the Church, I still consider myself very much a Mormon.  The bottom line for was that if there is anyone who has tried to be a bridge builder between two groups of people who often don’t understand each other or get along, it is me.  I’ve tried very hard, too, to straddle the line between my sexuality and my religious upbringing, and so I felt I belonged to this group.

I ended up getting downtown about 15 minutes before I had originally planned to be there.  I was fortunate to find ample free parking and parked my car.  We had been asked by the organizers of the group to wear our Sunday best.  I really wanted to look as Mormon as possible (whatever that means_.  I shaved and combed my hair nicely and wore a Sunday shirt, tie, slacks, and dress shoes.  I also brought a jacket, but ended up not wearing it because it was so hot.  That was a good move on my part.

I also brought my scripture case, but took my scriptures out and instead filled it with some sunblock (which I applied three different times and still got a bit red – I think it was 95 degrees), water (ah, sweet water!), a book to read while I waited, my camera, wallet, checkbook, iPod, and eyeglasses case.

We had been told to meet on the corner of 400 E. and 300 S., which was a block from where I parked.  I recognized my group right away: a nice gaggle of finely-dressed, but typically-styled Mormons.  I introduced myself and received a list of instructions.  Basically, the group was really careful not to identify itself as a political group or associate itself in any official capacity with the LDS Church.  The purpose of the group was simply to show love and support, not to advocate a political position or parse doctrine.  The instructions said to keep moving while marching; to not talk with media during the parade because we didn’t want them slowing us down.  If approached by the media, we were simply to tell our own story and why we, personally, we’re marching.  We were to stay away from arguments or speculation on official LDS policy.  We were told if there was any antagonism from anybody in the crowd to not engage them.  And, mostly, we were told to spread love and have fun.

As I hung with the crowd of Mormons, I did get the feeling that there were some in the crowd, understandably so since they had never marched in a Gay Pride parade before, who thought there would be some gay people who would treat them in a less than favorable manner because of Mormons’ history with the gay movement.  I myself did not feel that way.  I’ve known enough gay people to know that our group would likely be treated respectfully.

The organizers of the parade were happy to have us, and the Grand-Marshall of the parade, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who himself is gay and grew up Mormon and won his Oscar for the screenplay of the movie, Milk about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk) specifically asked that our group be put right behind him, thus making us the second group in the parade.

Actually, shortly before the parade began, Troy Williams and Dustin Lance Black came and chatted with us and Dustin got his photo taken with our group, and I got my photo taken with him.  I found him incredibly kind and supportive.  In interviews I’ve seen him do, I’ve found him to be somewhat of a bridge builder himself. 

We waited in the hot sun for about an hour before the parade got under way.  I didn’t know anyone there except a couple from my mom's ward and their daughter.  It was a friendly group of people, though.

We had been offered signs to hold such as “God Is Love,” “I’ll walk with you, I’ll talk with you, that’s how I’ll show my love for you,” “Jesus said love everyone, treat them kindly, too..,” “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” “LDS ♥ LGBT,” etc.  I didn’t feel like holding a sign for the whole parade, though, so I passed.   

Before we even started the parade, we had several people come up to us and thank us for marching.  People said how honored they were to have us; told us how happy they were that we were marching; and we even had a group of male cheerleaders cheer us for our efforts.  People were so touched that we were marching.

I loved the sight of a couple of Mormons, dressed in their Sunday best, posing with the boys from the Queer Utah Aquatic Club, who were wearing just bow ties and Speedos. 

  Or the Mormon woman with her arms around a guy in drag.  I just thought, “This is how it ought to be.”  Just people loving and supporting one another.

Since we were at the beginning of the parade, we were asked by the Utah Pride Interfaith Coalition  if we might help them carry the giant rainbow flag at the end of the parade.  I decided I probably would.

Five minutes before we began marching, Erika asked us to sing “Love One Another” together.  Singing those familiar words with this group of Mormons made me feel the Spirit so much.  “As I have loved you / love one another / this new commandment / love another / by this shall men know / ye are my disciples/ if ye have love / one to another.”  I’ve sung those words practically all my life – as a child in primary and in countless meetings – and yet they struck me with a truth and meaning that hit me in a way that was so strong and profound: that is what we are commanded to do – love one another.  God is all about love, above everything else.  The first and greatest commandment is to love Him with all our mind, might, and soul, and the second is to love our fellow man.  It seems to me that anything that isn’t about love is not of God.  Judgment, fear, hate – these are not what God is about.

A very nice prayer was given.  I wish I could remember all the words because it was really good, but the main message was about love – the love this Mormon group wanted to convey and the love with which they hoped it would be received.  During the whole parade I felt such a spirit of love, and I thought to myself, “Of course the Spirit is testifying…because there is such a spirit of unity and love here, and that’s what God is about.”  And I felt sad that there are so many who are too self-righteous or ignorant to even think of attending a Gay Pride event and felt sorry that they were missing this powerful feeling of love and closeness that was present.

We had been told to put a fairly good-sized between us and Dustin Lance Black’s car, but Troy Williams, who was driving, kept stopping, and finally a parade organizer told us that Dustin Lance Black wanted our group closer to him.  As we got closer, he kept pointing at us and smiling at the fact that we were there and encouraging the crowd the cheer for the group.  I think in his eyes we symbolized the very bridge we are trying to build and wanted the crowd to support that.

We received such an outpouring of love.  I saw so many people crying.  I know there were many in the crowd who grew up in the Mormon faith and have been deeply hurt, and I think this group represented something maybe they longed for but never received or something they longed to see but never thought they would.  One lady came out of the crowd weeping and just kept saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  The lady who was doing the commentary for the parade was brought to tears.  

A little boy walked a few steps in front of us, and I don’t think he realized he had gotten ahead of the group.  He was carrying a little satchel and held his fingers together to make a heart.  It was beautiful.

While many around me whooped and hollered, both in the crowd of spectators and in our group, I was mostly quiet.  I thought about how far I’ve come in my life.  Ten years ago I never would have imagined marching in a Gay Pride parade.  I never could have imagined how incredibly happy I could be in my life, with myself, with a significant other, and with my Father in Heaven.  But I was so proud to be who I am, so happy and fulfilled, and that’s what I think Pride is all about – being happy and proud of who you are.  I think there are a lot of damaged people in the world.  Their experiences and backgrounds and upbringings and social interactions have caused them to feel “less than,” and that isn’t what God is all about, in my opinion.  If I could wish anything for my fellow man, it is that he (or she) could feel the kind of contentedness and fulfillment and love that I felt today.  I belonged there today.

                     Yes, I am in this photo.  It's like "Where's Waldo," but harder.

Another thought I had was that while I thought it was great that this group of Mormons was marching to support gay people and while I was equally grateful that many in the gay community was so grateful we were there, I also thought it unfortunate that it was considered so momentous that  we were there; that it was such a pleasant surprise we were there.  I thought, “Shouldn’t we as Christians “be there” anyway?  Isn’t that our job?  Why is it such a rarity to show love and support to the disenfranchised?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing anyway?”

The crowd was so responsive and welcoming.  After we finished walking the seven blocks we walked and finished the parade route, I walked back to our starting point.  It was so, so hot, and I was tired.  I wasn’t sure I could handle walking the same route again holding the rainbow flag.  But I just felt compelled to do so.  I had time to go to my car and remove my tie, ditch the scripture case, which had gotten heavy, and change from dress shoes to tennis shoes.  

The flag was about 300 feet long (about half a block long).  It was massive, and when we began, there weren’t as many of us, so it felt heavier.  The older lady behind me was struggling a bit.  People would throw money into the flag, which I guess goes to the Interfaith Coalition.  We would ask spectators to join us, and by the end there were actually so many that it was hard to walk without tripping on the person in front of you.  The wind blew a couple of dollars off the flag, and I went to retrieve them a block before we stopped, so after giving the money to one of the Interfaith guys, I ducked out because it was too hard to get my place back, and besides, that flag was heavy.  I had been bracing it on my shoulder, which had started to hurt.  It was all worth it, though, and was a nice lesson in unity.

I made the long trek back to my car and grabbed an egg-salad sandwich and a cold water from 7-11 on my way.  I was amazed at how quickly the line moved for as many people as there were in line. I estimate with my double parade duty as well as walking to my car and back to the Pride Festival, I probably walked about 4.5 miles today.  My knees, hips, and feet were feeling it, too.  I also made the mistake of wearing low-rise briefs under my slacks, which caused some chaffing, so that was no good.

After my second parade walk, I walked over to the Pride Festival on the way struck up a conversation with a newly-relocated woman who had moved here from South Carolina.  She said she was so impressed with the LGBT community here.  I guess in South Carolina, where she was from, it was very homophobic.  She said they never would have anything like our Pride celebration there.

Eventually we reached the Pride Festival and we said our adieus.  One of the most touching things about Pride to me is seeing gay and lesbian couples holding hands.  It’s just so normal, which exactly what it should be.  Outside the walls of Pride, perhaps we would be accused of “flaunting our sexuality,” but inside it was just as normal and accepted and taken for granted as it would be in the regular world with straight people.  I thought, “I wish it could just be like this.”  Because that’s all it is; it’s two people simply expressing their love for each other.  Wouldn’t it be great to just hold hands or kiss and not worry about what anybody else thinks or know that people wouldn’t care?

Before the performance I sat down on a bench because I was exhausted.  The man next to me asked if I was a hugger.  I said I was, so he just gave me a hug.  It was nice. 

After I finished walking around the festival, I left and went home.  I told Mom about my day and then called Jonah and told him.  My only regret of the day was that we weren't together to share it.  It really was a terrific day and, quite frankly, more than I think I would have gotten out of going to church.  It was like we were living what we preach in church instead of just preaching it, and I liked that.

Mormons Building Bridges made national news.  I felt a little disingenuous because several news groups reported that our group was comprised of straight active members of the Church, and since I’m neither straight nor a member anymore, I hoped that it wouldn’t reflect badly on the group.  It’s not like I was being duplicitous.  I was, after all, invited to march, and like I say, I felt I belonged.  I just didn't want to create any controversy about the group, if that makes sense.

The group was originally slated at about 160, but we ended up having over 300, I believe, which I think surprised a lot of people.  It was fun to read comments from people who had marched in our group, most of who carried similar sentiments: how amazing it was, what an honor it was, what a spiritual experience it was, how they’ll never forget it, how it was one of the greatest things they’d ever done, how they want to do it again, an outpouring of gratitude from participants and spectators alike, etc.  Some of my favorite comments were: “I can only hope the love we were trying so desperatly to show was as clear to them as the love they showed us.”

From a spectator: “As a gay returned missionary, it literally brought tears to my eyes as you all walked by, and all I could do was make the ASL sign for ‘I love you’ as I stood there feeling your love for your fellow Saints.”

“Hearing about Mormons Building Bridges and being able to participate in the parade today was one of those sweet ‘tender mercies’ in my experience not to be forgotten!”

“As a mother of a gay son and a straight one, it was the most wonderful experience of my life and so healing to be a part of the parade today!”

“I witnessed a miracle today. Thank you, Brothers and Sisters, for Building Bridges of Understanding.”

“Possibly one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.”

This from Mitch Mayne: “Sitting here in San Francisco, bawling my eyes out. The texts I've been getting, the photos, the updates--I don't remember the last time I've been this proud to be a Mormon.”

Another spectator: “As a returned missionary who hasn't regularly been to church in close to a decade, I went to the Pride Parade a little defensively, knowing y'all would be marching and not knowing what to expect. So what did I feel when I saw everyone go by and heard the loudest applause for the longest time? The love of Jesus. That's it, just Love.”

“As I reflected on the parade, and my entire day... knowing that this was not my ‘typical’ Sabbath Day... I contemplated on whether or not my day was as enriched as a typical day, going to my regular services. What I came up with was eye-opening to me. 

“While walking with the Mormons Building Bridges group, I saw one of my best friends, a gentleman that I've known for over 20 years, and that recently came to terms with his own sexuality. As a returned missionary, I know that he has been through a decades long struggle with exactly who he is, and I have seen a positive light come into his life, as we came to accept who he is. When I first saw my friend, he hadn't seen me, but was simply standing there with tears streaming down his face. THAT moment will be forever etched into my mind. I went up to him and we engaged in one of the most loving embraces that I've ever been part of. The beauty of this moment was not so much that it was a precious, loving moment... but, that it was happening all along the parade route.”

Another spectator: “I want to thank everyone who marched today. Seeing you all this morning was incredible. I wept uncontrollably. And the few women at the back of the group that came up and hugged me helped heal some very deep wounds. I love you all so much. Thank you for standing with me, for embracing me.”

                Here are some comments from Troy Williams and one of the participants, Marion Jensen, as well as some news stories.

              Isn't that what it's all about, people?


LCannon said...

I am so happy to hear about the awesome turnout and to read yours (and others) post on the wonderfulness of it all. I'm sorry that I was not able to march with you myself - our oldest granddaughter was being blessed. But I think you are wise having made the decision that you did. Thank you for sharing.

Trev said...

This is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing the detail of the setting and the emotion that was there. I'm so glad this all gets recorded on blogs and things; I think it's a great service to... well, everybody. :)