Watch the video above or read the script below.
When I was preparing for one of my first Pride celebrations in the early 2000s, I had the pleasure of living next to two gay mentors. Larry and J.R. were, by that point, highly successful contractors but, as was common amongst many older gay couples, they rarely exuded public forms of affection.
This wasn’t out of shame; they were simply from a different era—and that era included the eradication of almost every friend they knew. Sure, I learned of the AIDS pandemic through books and watched about it through documentaries, but it was Larry who showed me firsthand the devastation by handing me a small address book.
“Any man whose name has a black X next to it died of AIDS,” he said.
As I flipped through the book I was horrified to find not just a few names but page after page of men’s names marked with a subtle but clear black X.
It is heartbreaking to hear a man say, “There were days where I had to choose which funeral I was going to.”
It was a surreal moment, one that I was both deeply empathetic to and yet, still largely detached from. Pride in Long Beach—the pride I am most attached to, most in love with, the one I call home—was birthed out of devastation.
Approaching its 40th Birthday, for the first time in its history, another virus has taken ahold of humanity and halted our celebration—making it even more pertinent to tell its fierce and glorious history.
In 1983, when Long Beach Pride first formed, the LGBTQ community faced a national crisis in health, civil rights and politics—and that included Long Beach. Although AIDS was first identified in 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan avoided mentioning it for years. This ushered in a conservative turn in the 1980s that came to define queer people as outcasts and deviants.
It marked an era in which many kept quiet about their sexuality— and that especially included Long Beach, which became an enclave for those who remained, for the most part, in the closet.
“Long Beach was quiet. It wasn’t the loud, in-your-face crowd that was L.A.—and that’s what many of us liked. We kept quiet, our neighbors kept quiet. But you can only be quiet for so long before you realize that there are things happening that are just wrong,” said Vanessa Romain, one of the eldest members inside the organization that is Long Beach Pride.
Gathering a small group together, Pride co-founders Marilyn Barlow, Bob Crow and Judith Doyle attempted to kickstart the first Pride and continue it annually thereafter.
The first few years, to put it lightly, were immensely rocky.
Then-councilmembers Warren Harwood and Edd Tuttle along with former mayors Eunice Sato and Ernie Kell were outspoken opponents of the festival and parade as well as LGBTQ rights in general. Former City Manager John Denver unilaterally attempted to limit the festival’s second-year celebration to one day, drawing 300 people to council chambers, some sporting surgical masks with “AIDS mask” written on them.
Three decades later, the Long Beach Pride celebration is second only to the Toyota Grand Prix as the largest event in the city.
Pride has not only helped with creating comfort within queers ourselves but the ability to act as ourselves in a space which, at least beforehand, strictly prohibited it. Pride is the one time a year when the city becomes “queered,” both spatially and socially.
And the beauty of it all, at least for its supporters, is that Pride’s inclusivity and diversity is not just for those who are queer.
The many allies who have helped the community gain visibility, recognition and rights are also affected by what Long Beach Pride has done for their own worldly perspective.
This isn’t to say Pride is always perfect. What many call the “dark spot on a bright rainbow,” each year is a small but loud group of people who protest at the parade and spew hate. For many queers during Pride, all you can do is laugh. You either laugh because you’ve become resilient enough to know it’s a joke to use Jesus’ name to spread hate or, worse, you laugh because it’s a defense mechanism.
When you stroll by people with microphones that scream that you and your loved ones are abominations, it is rough, at least, it always was for me. Laughing was the only way I could keep from breaking down, the only way to prevent myself from settling into that guilt that was the norm for virtually every queer person during their childhood. I laughed to maintain some sense of sanity.
But, sometimes, we can’t laugh at all because we’re broken down by that point or, even worse, we face tangible danger politically or personally.
And while Long Beach Pride might have provided these hate-mongers a space to gather, what Pride has done to help us cope with such hate is really the important thing.
For me, the freedom of dancing under those tents and lights…
The freedom of touching someone.
The freedom of not thinking someone is lurking in the shadows.
The freedom of love.
And I know I owe that freedom to the people who defied Long Beach politicians nearly four decades ago—politicians who saw them as contagious, dangerous and deviant. It is their vision that has helped countless LGBTQ people, both young and seasoned, to find a space of love.
The history of Pride in Long Beach was and never will be an easy one, but it’s an essential one.
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