New Orleans during Pride Week, 2016. Photo: Tony Webster
It was Pride Week in New Orleans. The parade had just ended. I spent the evening getting blitzed under a balcony, stepping through polyrhythms in tandem with seventy thousand other men and women. Afterward, the audience broke off, in various stages of undress, to porches and curbsides throughout the French Quarter, until the road was strewn with beads and condoms and go-cups.
It happens every year. New Orleans has a ton of queer households on the census. It’s a pretty colorful city. And inevitably, those colors deepen in June, when Pride Week comes around: the clubs host parties funded by globalized sex apps, tiny drunken congregations bloom all over the Quarter, and the week climaxes with a march the final evening. And then brunch, or, depending on your persuasion, maybe a little more.
But even if the city moonlights as a Babylon of the South, it can also be a dangerous place to go out. Loads of murders go unsolved annually in New Orleans. At least two this year have involved transgender women of color. Assaults in the loop of gay bars by Bourbon Street are hardly unheard of, and the city isn’t at all removed from the South’s virulent thread of hatred. But when the parade turned the corner of Conti Street, those facts hardly diminished its tremors; and, in a town that isn’t terribly diverse, you were suddenly as likely to find yourself grinding on some Canadian kid as a flock of Iranian bears.
There were more than a few Mexican flags flying high. A Microsoft float blipped the logos of various sponsors into the dusk. Middle-aged softball teams vogued through traffic, and on the way from one bar to another, I passed a porch full of stragglers, sipping gin, blasting “I Would Die 4 U” and singing along. I couldn’t not join in. When we finished, some people clapped. This homeless guy smoking by his dog caught my eye. He looked at his smoke, and then at his dog, and then he waved me over.
Are you one of them, he said, nodding at the porch, and I told him I was. He offered me a cigarette. With this smirk on his face. He closed his eyes and waved me along, as if giving me permission to pass.
Unlike its counterparts all over the country, which celebrated the increasingly political ramifications of pride parades, this year’s New Orleans event was billed as “the one weekend a year where we really can put the politics aside.” But parades are, after all, a form of movement. Whole swaths of the country and its institutions have committed to erasing open homosexuality from the culture. And yet, here we are, in a big fucking group, doing it anyway: loudly and in unison.
For the longest time, I didn’t know what the fuck a Pride parade was. Or that we had our own week. Or that queer folks congregated anywhere, ever. But eventually I figured it out—or rather, the notion finally, thankfully, sat on my face—and once the door had opened, I hit up as many marches as I could. I spend the bulk of every June touring the South’s assemblage of offerings. Not to make up for lost time, exactly, but to keep convincing myself that such a thing could be possible.
So: In Tampa, I sat through traffic as the crowd streamed by. In Atlanta, I got crushed in a bare-naked flash mob. At a parade in San Antonio, I slurped shots off the backs of otters; in Charleston, a few years later, I walked the length of the city to the fairgrounds, passing Pride-goers coasting back and forth, until we coalesced in a muddy park, where I ran into an old white man hawking handmade flags. When he offered me one, I told him I didn’t have the money; he smiled and told me I didn’t understand—that we were the flag, that the flag was all of us.
I spent last year’s Pride in Augusta, and then I drove to the clubs in Atlanta. This wasn’t long after the shooting at Pulse. The mood was somber, and bewildered, and defiant.
The dance floors were packed and chilled. An incomprehensible thing had happened, a biblical calamity. It was something we would all take months to process, and here we were, out in the world nonetheless. It wasn’t that this was the thing to do; it was the fact that there wasn’t anything else we could do. (Although, in fact, you could spend today or this week or the rest of your life remembering them, thinking of Stanley Almodovar III, and Amanda Alvear, and Oscar Aracena, and Rodolfo Ayala, and Antonio Brown, and Daryl Burt III, and Jonathan Camuy, and Angel Luis Candelario-Padro, and Omar Capo, and Simon Carrillo, and Luis Conde, and Cory Connell, and Tevin Crosby, and Anthony Disla, and Deonka Drayton, and Leroy Fernandez, and Mercedez Flores, and Peter Gonzalez-Cruz, and Juan Guerrero, and Paul Henry, and Frankie Hernandez, and Miguel Honorato, and Jimmy Jésus, and Javier Jorge-Reyes, and Jason Josaphat, and Eddie Justice, and Christopher Leinonen, and Alejandro Martinez, and Juan Martinez, and Brenda McCool, and Gilberto Menendez, and Kimberly Morris, and Akyra Murray, and Geraldo Ortiz-Jimenez, and Joel Paniagua, and Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, and Enrique Rios, and Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera, and Jean Carlos Nieves Rodriguez, and Xavier Serrano, and Christopher Sanfeliz, and Yilmary Solivan, and Edward Sotomayor Jr., and Shane Tomlinson, and Martin Torres, and Juan Velasquez, and Luis Vielma, and Luis Wilson-Leon, and Jerald Wright, and anyone and everyone else who’s died at the hands of a bottomless ignorance.)
Well into the evening, while I was in the throes of some trance, the electricity in this bar shut off. Everyone froze. The DJ yelled apologies. And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that doom, however briefly, crossed my mind.
But then one dude behind the bar started singing. And then another voice broke out. And then everyone was singing a song that I didn’t know then, and still don’t know now, only that it was gravely off pitch, fluctuating in tone; just bad, simply inaudible, vibrating stupidly between several time signatures; and yet, despite all of that, we’d made a sacred, sacred thing. Even after the power and the music and the lights were back (a quick blip, a momentous nothing), it kept on going. It kept going and going.
The dawn after Pride in New Orleans, I walked the length of the Esplanade Avenue to my apartment. It wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. The humidity made the city feel like a lukewarm oven. Couples loped along patches of gravel, and the usual assortment of strangers biked by, and drunks sped through lights, and laughter skittered from open windows, and the block felt pregnant in a way it hadn’t a few hours beforehand.
It felt a lot like my first Pride, back in Houston, before they moved the parade downtown. I’d been house-sitting for some friends, and I went by myself. I had no idea what the fuck the day had in store. I gawked at the parents holding hands. I gawked at the women walking together. I gawked at the black drag queens strutting along the road in formation, and I gawked at the frat types yelling in jerseys, and I gawked at this grizzled guy with skin like bad coffee, a captain of his space, sure of himself in a way I couldn’t have imagined being, and when he finally looked back at me, I turned the fuck away.
At the end of the evening, the procession passed. We followed it with our eyes, just sort of willing it along. There are no seasons in Houston, but the sky turned a searing orange, and everything was too loud, and it was all very neat; as if we’d decided that, for the next few minutes, this was where we’d concentrate our energies. We were tired, with good reason to be. But this here was something worth working for.
There is, rightfully, a fear that LGBT rights in the States will backslide. Life could get much worse, even while it gets better. But things haven’t gone completely to shit. We’ve seen these battles before. And that is, I guess, one thing that Pride is for all of us: a necessary bubble conceived in the center of the storm. Some of these marchers have crossed borders. Some of them spring from accepting families. Some of them have bounced from shelter to shelter in search of that bubble, and others were born into it, and others tore at the air; but for a moment, we’d all agreed to pour our energies into keeping it afloat.
Eventually, it would pop. We’d go back to our lives. Our countries would determine how big it got or where it could go or what we could do outside of it. But for the time being, we’d carved it from the air. There’s nothing mystical about that. And yet, it’s fucking magic nonetheless.
That first night, the crowd moved along the partition. We were struggling to keep it moving. I didn’t know what would happen, or if anything had changed, or if anything would at all—and that’s when the brown dude I’d been staring at for a little too long turned toward me.
I flinched when he leaned across the crowd into my face. When he shouted into my ear, I couldn’t hear him, and I told him so.
Hey, he said, we love you. His lips grazed my face. He said, We love you, we love you, we love you.
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
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