…in which the author attempts to figure out where he fits on the spectrum, er, rainbow.
New York City
I insist that I had an awful Pride Parade that year. Sure, we were all supposed to be happy about the Supreme Court striking down DOMA. But the ruling came down in the middle of the week. That Wednesday afternoon, I had a Stoli Oranj and soda at Stonewall on Christopher Street and then a burger and another Stoli at Julius, a gay bar even older than Stonewall. Got my gay history on. But by the time the Parade rolled around on Sunday, it seemed all the DOMA decision meant was that “couples” –the kind that always have to remind you that they’re a “couple” –could make out with a leaning impunity, slurring things like “Our love is legal.” Because before Wednesday, the feelings you felt for this person were subject to a $50 fine and a summons. I, in turn, made plans to die alone in a bizarre DVR mishap.
Not everything was bad. I did get to boo at that mayoral candidate I disliked as she rode by looking like Cleopatra on her way to open a PathMark in Luxor. And I got to boo at that other mayoral candidate for his inability to take a decent junk shot. But after a while, it just felt like I was being pandered to by politicians and corporate outreach programs.
And the centerpiece of the Chipotle float was a skinny twink in a cowboy outfit riding a bucking foil-wrapped burrito. That appealed to many of my baser instincts involving jack cheese and bucking. But on every other float, the standard issue twink was provided with a whistle with which he could toot along to the Katy Perry vibrating out of rental loudspeakers.
And, it’s always nice hanging with friends at the Parade. My friends and I have a great place that’s not jammed up against a building, goes into the shade early, and is only a block from Julius where it only costs you the price of drink to use the bathroom. But one of the things about hanging with people is punctuality. People all need to be at the same place at the same time in order to hang. Texting does not count. Two friends, a “couple” crashing their way quickly from casual acquaintances towards being blocked on Facebook were over two hours late because of “train problems.” We all have “train problems,” but when I have “train problems,” I don’t answer a “getting close?” text with “stoped 2 get a beer.” No, you better show up winded and apologizing profusely for ruining the gay.
When a drunk Lesbian-of-a-Certain-Age tried to choke me with my Pride beads, I decided it was time to go.
But at least I got to actually watch the parade, which is a far cry from what was afforded me when I showed up in Budapest in September 2009 on their equivalent of Pride. In NYC, we like say our parade is a “march,” with all the attendant meaning that goes with that word, but twink riding burrito. In Budapest, it’s so much a “march” that they don’t call it a “march” –it’s the 14th Gay Dignity Procession! Two years earlier, in 2007, far-right unfortunates attacked the 12th Gay Dignity Procession. Police then tried to cancel the 13th Gay Dignity Parade in 2008, citing “traffic.” The gays sued. They marched. Far-right unfortunates attacked the 13th Gay Dignity Procession. So for the 14th Gay Dignity Procession, the police came up with the perfect plan….
Now you need to understand at this point that I prefer to travel alone. It’s a control issue. If I want to frogmarch myself in the rain from Oxfam shop to Oxfam shop on the off chance I’ll discover a used compilation CD that includes both Jesus Jones’ and EMF’s second singles, I’ll frogmarch. Or I’ll stay somewhere so out of season that I’m the only person in a two hundred-seat dining room at breakfast. “WHY are you here?” mutters the poor girl who’s been waiting two hours to put a rack of toast and marmalade in front of me. Or I’ll stay up all night in the room watching European TV because there’s always the chance there will be boobies. When you travel by yourself, only the laws of physics bind you.
But there is a downside to traveling alone, and it is the tendency to get hopelessly, dangerously stuck in one’s own head. When the vaguely rasta girl behind the counter at the only coffee shop that doesn’t roll its joints with tobacco AND will also sell you a beer takes one look at you and says, “Maybe try something that’s more of a body high instead of head high?” you shouldn’t look past her and respond with “The Amstel is deeper than a regular canal, right?” This will cause concern among the help, and when you’re traveling alone, it’s best not to cause concern among the help.
So, for this trip, I decided to relinquish all control. I would let someone else take the reins. I would become a Hungary bottom. My traveling companion on that Berlin/Prague/Budapest trip, Christopher (always Christopher) was a leather dom top. I believe he was into leather because of the extra-ordinary amount of pre-planning and organization involved in convincing people that someone who looked like he should be riding a burrito in a parade was gonna make you his bitch.
For the most part it worked, but there were slight glitches at points, however. During the Berlin stage of our journey, for example, we went out to the “fancy” leather bar, Mutschmann’s, because that’s where there were folks in leather for Christopher to both dom and top upon. Leather bars are really not my scene. Not that I don’t appreciate the sleaze, but the thought of putting ON clothes to have sex strikes me a somewhat silly, and I am prone to giggling. Yet, Christopher’s dom top confidence was infectious. I put on jeans, a black t-shirt, and a cheap-ish leather vest I bought that afternoon when Christopher told me that Mutschmann’s had a strict leather dress code. After three minutes of getting ready, I was back in front of the TV, flipping absent-mindedly thru the channels on the off chance of boobies. Getting ready for Christopher was a three-hour, multi-venue affair. First, Christopher had to make a detour to Berlin’s largest department store after a day of trying to figure out where the Wall used to be. “I need to swing by KaDeWe to get a set of 220-volt hair clippers.” His hair looked fine to a philistine like me. “Do you want to borrow mine? I have a voltage adapter,” I asked. He looked at me like I had suggested he take his dirty blonde high-n-tight down the riverbank and beat it on a rock. “Oh, I have a set of 110s and voltage adapter, but when you step up the voltage on a pair of clippers, or anything with an electric motor, it no longer runs at an optimal rate. The haircut will be uneven.” I ran my fingers over my now-deficient scalp and followed him to the sixth floor of the KaDeWe. Then he spent 90 minutes ironing a t-shirt; choosing between the leather pants with the blue stripe, the leather pants with the yellow stripe, and the leather pants with the grey stripe; evening out the skinny suspenders after banishing the wide suspenders; and finally adjusting a little leather hat that covered the clippers’ handiwork. I think I saw some side-boob in an ad for a coffee-maker.
But, you know what? It worked for him; his ass looked amazing. The last I saw him that evening, he and Mr. Montreal Leather, who was in Berlin on an official visit and wearing his leather pageant sash, were downstairs in the bar’s sex maze, standing a yard apart and looking at each other’s color-coded pants and gruntily nodding. Meanwhile, I sat on a bar stool upstairs with the rest of the girls no one asked to dance. I split my time between muttering the only German I knew, “eine Faßbiere, bitte” to the bartender and being threatened/seduced by a horrifyingly average looking gentleman. I mean, the aggressive red lighting in Mutschmann’s is professionally designed to make everyone look porn-y. So’s the Faßbiere. And yet he still insisted on looking average. I was surprised he wasn’t wearing a pageant sash that said “Herr Average.” We had just struggled through a “name/hometown/major” conversation, which left me with the slight notion that he was only slightly more comfortable with his native language than I was. Then he stood up from his stool. I had six inches and 120lbs on this guy. He walked over, put his hand on my forearm, and announced, “So now I take you home and fist you.”
“Ahhh, what?” I wish I had just taken a swig of Faßbiere because I live to do spit-takes.
“We fist.” He moved out of a red spotlight, and I could see that he had red piping on all his leatherables. All those little colors mean something, and red meant someone was going to get a Mack Truck driven up their butt at some point in the evening.
“I’m… I’m not into that.”
“But I am wearing the armband!” He pointed to a black and red armband on his left bicep. Left meant that he would be the one driving the Mack Truck. I muttered some more apologies. He grumbled and walked downstairs into the sex maze, hopefully to stand under a light source that doesn’t cancel out red piping.
I most certainly did not follow him down there. Besides, I’m sure I didn’t want to accidentally see what Christopher was getting up to, as I was not sure what the grey stripe on his pants entailed butt-wise. I downed the rest of my Faßbiere and shuffled outside to currywurst from a street vendor. I spilled mustard on my new leather vest, rendering it unreturnable. As I sat there enjoying the rest of my €89 currywurst, I thought to myself, “This is exactly why I travel by myself.”
Yet, during the day, Christopher’s exactitude proved its worth. I didn’t have to once look at a map. This was a major moment of letting go of control for me. Ever since I was four, I was the navigator on family trips. I had my own guidebooks, but I didn’t have to open a single one upon reaching Europe. You know those D|K Guidebooks, the ones with all the detailed maps of neighborhoods and sites like museums and churches? Well that wasn’t detailed enough for Christopher. He annotated his copy of the book for each city with color-coded highlights and notes indicated what others had thought of the site. And into the back cover of each book, he glued a foldout spreadsheet listing every gay bar in the city along with their addresses, transit stop, hours, happy hours, clientele, and what nights were “good.”
He also had an advanced degree in linguistics and spoke German fluently, Czech passably, and had at least some idea what was going on with Hungarian. This was important because Hungarian consists of nothing but 20-letter strings of consonants punctuated by vowels being crushed under the weight of various diacritical marks, including an “e” that rated two accent marks. Its closest linguistic relative is Finnish, which is of absolutely no help.
So, this brings me to Budapest on the morning of the 14th Gay Dignity Procession. I was especially into following Christopher around that day. Not because of his dom top confidence or his linguistic ability or his annotated guidebook. No, I was following him out of gratitude. The night before was spent wandering around Budapest’s largest gay club, a basement affair that consisted of six bar stools in front and a 12,000-room sex maze in back. My evening consisted of slamming a drink then wandering through the sex maze being invisible, then back to the bar to slam a drink before making another round. On one spin I discovered to my horror that the mirror that served as a backsplash to the urinal trough was a two-way mirror and that there was a room with theater-style seats in which guys with yellow piping on their leatherables could relax and just watch. Occasionally, a gentleman with a, shall we say, healthy stream would come into view, and devotees would rush up to the glass like the guy was peeing fish food. All in all, the entire setting brought out a combination of nervousness, horror, and horniness that resulted in my being violently hung over the next morning.
That’s when Christopher found me clutching the doorframe of the bathroom. “You almost ready. I don’t want to miss the parade.”
“Dying! Go!” I swung around to face him, but that was too much. I swung back around and dropped to my knees over the toilet. Luckily the coolness radiating from the water in the bowl calmed me down.
“You take anything for the hangover?”
He went into his room, rummaged around in his bag and pulled out a passel of those tiny half Ziploc bags. Instead of the weed one normally finds in those tiny half Ziploc bags, these were filled with pills. He laid the bags out in a row on the edge of the sink. He pointed to each bag with a barely perceptible spokesmodel flourish. “This is vitamin A. This is vitamin C. B1. B2. B12. A synthetic B6. Some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory…”
“Then just say aspirin.”
“I can take them away.”
“No!” I lunged to the Ziplocs like I actually feared he would deny me pills. Christopher was anal; he was not a dick. “What’s the last one?”
“It’s a prickly pear extract. Studies show that the skin of the prickly pear cactus cuts down on hangover nausea.”
I began to swoon a bit in anticipation of him explaining to me how exactly prickly pear cactus cuts down on nausea, so I just popped them in my mouth and washed them down with some Blue Hungarian Gatorade that Christopher somehow had obtained even though he had not been out of my sight since we arrived in Budapest. The Hungarian idea of what “blue” should taste like is completely alien to what an American palate thinks “blue” tastes like. In about 20 minutes, I was well enough to follow Christopher out the door.
Now, I’m not saying I was 100%. There was no way I could navigate Budapest’s maze of consonants masquerading as street signs. I just followed three paces behind Christopher, using his butt as a guidestar. We were a little early for the parade, so we thought we’d find the start. Soon we found ourselves in a passel of folks whose grooming, posture, and lines of sight labeled them as the gays. What we didn’t see was a lot of rainbow flag paraphernalia, however. This didn’t bother me as I’ve always found the rainbow a bit confining. It’s always concerned me that it’s based on song lyrics from an old Judy Garland movie where if you’re not pretty, people drop houses on you or melt you with cleaning products. Also, I resent any implication that I must like showtunes and general flamboyance. This was Dignity Procession after all, and, to me, there’s nothing dignified about a flag that insists on using ALL the colors.
After Christopher and I had our bags inspected by ginormous muscle bears, we entered what we soon determined was the parade’s staging area. Several hundred milled about hugging and flirting and holding hands. They had found the safety in numbers they needed to switch into rainbow swirled edginess –the 15-foot high riot fencing surrounding them also helped. I was about to grouse at Christopher about their conformity, make another lame joke about rainbow flags, but there must be some defiance in being so obviously gay in front of neo-nazis. The parade was late starting, and several official-looking lesbians stood around arguing about it (this argument sounds the same in any language). There was one float. It consisted of 2×4’s, rainbow-colored crepe streamers, and a few tinny speakers cranking Eurodisco fastened to the back of small flatbed. Near the float, in metallic hot shorts, sat the meanest looking twink you ever saw. He would sooner cut you than ride a burrito. This twink was here to dance. With dignity.
We milled around being conspicuously useless. Soon, it became apparent that the lesbians would ever stop arguing so the parade could start. We decided to walk a bit of the way down the main drag of the Pest side of the Danube, Andrássy Út so we could get a decent view when the 14th Gay Dignity Procession eventually proceeded.
As we walked down the middle of the Út, we felt the sense of solitude that comes from riot fencing. Not only were the marchers to be protected by 15ft. high riot fences, there were no spectators on the other side of the fence. Beyond that, one could see a second row of fencing a block away. The police were protecting the parade from everyone – and vice versa. This Dignity Procession was going down in a vacuum.
We had gotten as far as the Terror Museum, which was of course closed because of the threat from far-right unfortunates. I wondered for a moment what capacity the Hungarian language had for irony. A young soldier with the most amazing eyelashes approached us, Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. “English?” he asked.
“No, we’re Americans!” we beamed like idiots. And Americans.
“Huh? No, speak English?”
“Yes,” said Christopher. I was lost in the soldier’s eyelashes.
“You can’t be here!” He gestured towards every empty building and sidewalk in view.
Christopher tried to explain about wandering into the staging area, but soldier didn’t care. “No one watches this year,” he said as he gestured us across the Út to spot where the fencing wasn’t bolted together. The soldier asked for assistance sliding the fence apart to let us out. We gladly helped as he had a gun –and eyelashes.
Just as we were figuring out our way past the second fence, the Eurobeat started up in earnest. The gays were on the move. We figured that if we followed the side streets we would eventually find a place where people were watching it and, beyond that, brunch. After about five minutes, we rounded a corner and heard “cheering.” We investigated, rounded another corner. There we saw a group of young men in tight jeans intensely interested in the parade. I’d like to say that we pegged them as far right unfortunates immediately but…
God love ‘em, the dual precisions of their asses and hair, pegged them as gay. I have a feeling a straight person would see these guys and say “Holy Fuck, Nazis!” completely unaware about the subculture of dress-up gays in Europe that call themselves “skinheads.” But then we got close enough to see their tight, tight t-shirts. They were all wrong. Instead of approved “names” like Fred Perry, Alpha Industries, or Carhartt, they said things like “Alabama College Football Team” or “Newark Sport Club #1.” What is it about straight Europeans and slightly off “American” t-shirts? Needless to say, off-brand t-shirts do not a proper gay subculture make. And the only straights who a) dress alike and b) are intensely interested in a Gay Dignity Procession are Nazis. We froze momentarily, but we had wandered too close. They had seen us; if we turned away, they would sense fear, and could give chase. We figured we’d stroll right through their midst, because, as I put it: “We can pass.” And all the brunch places Christopher had highlighted in the guidebook were on the other side of these young men.
All hate, in any language, sounds moist… from all the spit. It always looks the same –veins popping, feinting at nothing, and way too much of the white part of the eyeball showing. There was this one who, every time he would see movement over on Andrássy Út, would run up to the fence and leap onto it shrieking no doubt about his distaste for “what those people do.” It’s always the same with the haters; they can’t help but picture gays naked and doing naked things whenever they see one.
We stopped for a few minutes to take it in –because, of course, we could pass. Also, back in the States where would we go to see such buffoonery live? A drive through the South, staying off the Interstates? A time machine that took us back to middle school? FOX News? Also, it’s a bit of a kick standing there among the violently homophobic being only 9 or so hours removed from stumbling uselessly drunk around the sex maze underneath Budapest’s largest gay bar. And they don’t have the slightest idea who we were and what we would do to them in a Hungarian sex maze. Well, Christopher anyways –he’s much more assertive than me; I would just stand in the corner with my arms akimbo.
One of the skills you master when you’re a gay is paying attention to the direction in which others are glancing. In middle school, it was a way to determine when the bullies were going attack. Later, it’s because one of your friends sees something he likes, but can’t signal you overtly because you’re in polite company or a Neo-Nazi gathering. Just as everyone instinctively glances in the direction of whatever a tourist is snapping a picture of, we know that there’s usually a good reason a friend’s attention is directed somewhere. Usually it’s a butt. It wasn’t long before we noticed that we weren’t alone in ass-glancing. The only one of the guys who wasn’t yelling was a lad of around 15 who was clearly in love with his best friend. Between his stolen glances at his friend and the shade he was throwing the friend’s girlfriend, our hearts broke. It was like rubbernecking next week’s head-on collision.
In an effort to lighten the mood, I turned to Christopher and queried, “Which of our friends would get us killed right now?” We then started, for lack of a better word, gossiping back and forth about who possessed the proper Venn Diagram of nelliness, overt ass-glancing, and outrage. Now, just as hate sounds the same in any language, two homos talking shit about their friends also sounds the same the same in any language. The fifteen year-old, hearing the cadences of his tribe, looked over to us. His friend took notice of his gaze and turned.
We were no longer passing.
It was time for brunch, and we found a table a few blocks on with a view of the parade route. When the gays passed, they were around 300 yards away. I admitted to myself that, for once, I was glad they were wearing rainbow colors and waving flags because it certainly helped their visibility. The other diners took notice and applauded.
Somewhere a twink blew a whistle.
New York City, reprise
After the lesbian choked me, I didn’t last much longer at the Marchparadeapalooza. I slogged my way up Seventh Avenue in a humidity that often turned to raindrops. Revelers from the suburbs unfamiliar with the safe operation of sidewalks caromed off of me. I was a full two avenue blocks away from the actual parade, yet it was still a Mardi Gras atmosphere. Since when did the gays get so popular? And what’s with all the hoopla? Yeah, I know… “DOMA. Our love is legal! Isn’t Edie Windsor wonderful?” All I could feel was an absence of struggle. It was all very MTV’s Spring Break in Pensacola. It’s all fun. Since when is every last bit of homosexuality fun? Yeah, there’s all the buttsex and dancing, but there’s also the bullying, the viruses, and the dude who got gunned down in Gray’s Papaya on Sixth a few months previous. Where’s that?
I almost bumped into a giant drag queen who commanded me to “SMILE!” Nothing I love more than enforced frivolity. I thought back to my “coming out support group” ten years earlier in Austin. I had mentioned that I really didn’t like drag queens. “Well, that’s just your internalized homophobia,” countered some guy just “coming out” –he was also the head of the Lesbian and Gay Alliance at the huge IBM facility on the north side of town. The facilitator agreed, and we spent the rest of hour discussing what a horrible person I was because I don’t think lip-synching is a legitimate talent. In years since then, I have found that not to be completely enamored by every aspect of the gay experience is to be accused of hating it all. I don’t shrink from drag queens because of any internalized homophobia. I shrink from drag queens because a lot of them are bullies, bullies who tuck. If you want to know what I mean, try being overweight, old, or otherwise imperfect and go to a drag show. It’s just like being the one black guy at a Don Rickles show, except Rickles is funny. You’d think a dude who spent high school sashay shante-ing around and probably enduring the slings and arrows of idiots, would be a little more cognizant about the perils of singling people out for ridicule based upon superficial evidence –then not being funny.
I didn’t settle down until I got out of the West Village, back amongst folks dressed in proper NYC black. I couldn’t tell who was gay, who was an ally, or who would give me a swirlie and a black eye. I liked being one of the crowd. I felt a surge of pride. And dignity. My chest opened, and my eyes lifted. I made eye contact with folks, smiled, and dared them to judge me. I was marching.