The year is 2016. The place is Kentucky. I’d been out for about nine months, maybe 10. I envisioned many things when I thought about what my first Pride festival would be like. In one scenario, I saw myself, my close gay friends, and even my girlfriend together there, walking around, drinking beer, being a little rowdy. My girlfriend and I hold hands and kiss. In another scenario, we’re at one of the local gay bars on the night of Pride, and we dance. I dance well. Our bodies are close to each other’s, to everyone’s, as it should be. Another scenario and I’m bold enough to make out with my girlfriend. Another and I’m bold enough to make out with someone at the bar. The point: I’m bold enough to make out with someone. The point: I’m bold. The point: I’m enough.
I thought I was prepared. I planned my outfit, which was nothing special: shorts and a V-neck tee. Pink shorts. The shirt was black and made my boobs look good. In a move of accepting my gender fluidity, I ordered TomboyX pride boxer briefs. Of course I was wearing those to Pride. I even shared a carefully cropped photo of the waistband on my private Instagram.
I swam laps that morning, showered, and shaved my legs. I had a brand new bottle of my favorite hairspray, so at least my short hair would do right. I had a pixie cut, but mostly I parted it to the side to accentuate the layers. No mohawks. No pompadours for me — not then, at least.
I parked in the helix garage, close to the public library so I could drop off some books I had finished. I could tell the crowd was heavy. It was hot out — over 95 degrees.
My pulse picked up almost as soon as I crossed the street and stepped onto the festival grounds. Half a city block around the courthouse had been designated for Pride, and parts of a couple of streets were closed. On the side facing Main Street, there were bounce houses and amusements for kids. One of the first things I saw was a small, kid-sized trolley selling sno-cones.
There were so many people. Later, I would hear the crowd was only half its normal size. I passed booths selling jewelry and t-shirts, many of them from sponsors like local businesses. There were gay-friendly churches. The Democratic Party was set up and helping people register to vote. There were people everywhere, of all sizes and backgrounds in all varieties of dress, undress, and displays of their queerness. Men in tight shorts, make up, a mixture of drag. Women in dresses, cut off tees, shaved heads. Skin showing or not showing. So many of them were coupled. All of them looked so obviously out.
I kept thinking, I can’t do this. I shouldn’t be here. I bee-lined to the performance stage and got there in time to catch the final round of the local karaoke competition. I managed to find a spot where I could stand, enjoy the singing, and people-watch. I wanted to cry.
I felt it coming on as soon as I arrived. I texted my friends; I told myself I was on sensory overload. I thought standing still would help. I watched people walk by, holding hands with their partners, their friends — so happy. They cheered the contestants, sang along, danced, and made their way on through the festival. I fought back tears. I did not belong.
I am not queer enough to be here.
I stood there, hoping my tears would blend in with my sweat. Who was I kidding? For all of my bravado, for all the game I talk, I wasn’t out and proud. I wanted to run and hide. In what world would I ever kiss anyone in public? In what world was I worthy of being kissed? F*ck my rainbow wristband. F*ck my tomboy underwear. I was a fraud. And surely these people could tell.
The only thing I could do to keep from breaking out into a full-on panic attack cryfest was walk. I circled through everything once and made it back to the stage area before I realized I was going to have to go somewhere, at least for a little bit. I was so depressed and doing everything I could to keep anyone from noticing how panicked I was. I scanned the crowd for anyone I knew, because if I saw someone I knew, I would burst into more tears as soon as we said hello.
Then I heard someone say my name. Why, there’s Savannah. Oh god. Who is it? How well do I know them? If it’s even remotely well, I’m going to cry. I turn around and realize it’s a couple I’ve met through my work — they’re both wonderful people and incredibly kind. And when the wife went to hug me, I managed to keep it together — until I got to my car.
It’s called the helix garage because it has a winding curlicue drive on the back end down which cars have to exit. It had been lit up in rainbow colors at night ever since the Orlando shooting. I cried so hard in my car, all the way down the curlicue, all the way to a local bookshop where my friend was working. He has been, among many other things, so loving and supportive of my coming out. He’s a seasoned queer, and the very best thing about him is he never judges me for my ineptitude or my hesitancy or my ignorance. He simply lets me be myself and loves me for it. I went to the bookshop because I knew I could sit there and calm down. I also knew I probably wouldn’t keep crying once I was there. I knew he was going to Pride when he got off work. He said I was going back with him.
So I did.
An hour and a half later, we crossed the same street from the parking garage to the courthouse square. It was evening. The crowd had thinned a little. Everyone was still having a good time, still so out and proud. I was slightly less overloaded. At the very least, I knew more of what to expect this second go-around. We browsed a few booths and decided to grab dinner at one of the local restaurants on the street that was closed to traffic. I was fidgety and kept playing with the utensils, kept fiddling with my drink. He just let me be. At some points, I prattled on nervously. At others, we were quiet. We talked about drag, about what it meant to be queer, about the kickass food we were eating. We also people-watched. I talked about some of the women who reminded me of the lesbians from my childhood — they’re usually of an athletic build, dressed in chino shorts, tennis shoes, crew-neck t-shirts or polo shirts, sun glasses, and frosted/colored hair.
We ended the evening at the stage. There was a drag show followed by the event’s headliner, Billy Gilman. We’d missed my favorite drag queen, but that was okay. There were so many people gathered at the stage to watch the show, a whole lot more than there had been that afternoon. We people-watched and commentated, but mostly we just enjoyed the show. There was a moment during one of the queen’s performances where I started to get it. Armani Devine was on stage dancing her ass off to J-Lo’s “Live It Up.” There’s a point where the song says We can do anything we want, so live it up, and the beat picked up. Armani jumped, waved her arms up and down to get the crowd moving, and they started jumping, too. All those bodies jumped in unison — bodies who didn’t conform. But here, they belonged. Here, they fit in. Here, they’re part of the everyday normal. In my weakest moments, I’m scared to death I don’t belong anywhere, that I’ll never be enough of anything. I’ll never be enough for a girlfriend to want to come to Pride with me, never butch enough to wear boxer briefs confidently, never brave enough to get the fauxhawk I want. I can’t picture myself at Pride the following year, where folks will compliment my hair and I’ll be single but sharing drinks and food with friends who love my whole queer self, where a woman who’s been toying with me for a long time will text You LOVE me, don’t you? and I’ll text back Yes, I do and decide right then I’m done with being played.
Armani kept jumping and the tightness in my chest didn’t leave. It wouldn’t for a while. But I managed not to cry, or run.