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Matthew Ebert Headshot

My First Pride Was So '80s

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I remember my first LGBT Pride March; it was NYC in 1984. That June, I was living in Chelsea -- not paying rent, just living there with my boyfriend on his working dime. He was 39, about to turn 40, and I was 19. Connor was a former U.S. Marine and a vet. Born in South Carolina, stationed in Camp Pendleton, he fought in Vietnam then moved to NYC after the war. I was a young punk from upstate NY with the sleeves ripped off his t-shirts, and tight, faded Levis.

Pride Day, I remember seeing kids I knew from college who had not come out of the closet. I was going to SUNY Purchase at that time -- an arty, heavily LGBTQ college in Westchester County. It was the end of my freshman year, the summer between freshman and sophomore, and this would be my first somewhat legit summer in the city. I had been a tourist since 1980 -- I had these charged days and nights then, but I never stayed longer than a weekend until 1984. I never lived that city, really lived it, until 1984. This Pride would be my first as a native New Yorker. I was heavily stoked.

The night before Connor and I went jogging down the West Side Highway. He had a huge cock, and always wore the most ridiculous, skimpy, late-70s jogging shorts. It was embarrassing in a good way and I kidded him about it all the time. I told him, "Just wear the jock strap, hooker." That evening he stripped off those red poly-satins with the white piping and ran like Achilles perpendicular to a stretch of the piers, down the asphalt with his butt flapping in the breeze, just to play with my head and make me laugh. The black and Puerto Rican queens, the young ones down by Christopher Street, they all approved -- they whistled and clapped for him as he ran back to me shinning like a knight. The rundown piers in 1984 looked post-apocalyptic, and my sci-fi action figure was running to save me from a life of never knowing what it meant to desire or be desired -- like a young Harrison Ford, he was blade running.

We ran all the way to the Twin Towers on Pride Eve, 1984. We danced around, and the clouds above our heads alternated ominous grey and brilliant sunshine. We waltzed through the grand lobby of the American Express building. We kissed and groped each other behind potted palms, the stairwells, every place we could find to touch one another we did. Then, we ran back to 20th and 8th ave. I ran back with a boner because I was 19, that is a memory you don't forget, but after the first quarter mile I didn't even care. We had a cloudburst -- within seconds we were drenched in salty Atlantic seawater. Milliseconds and the outline of my manhood spied, and it felt liberated, it felt like something to celebrate.

We ran harder and faster. Our feet pumped through pot holes the size of dead horses, and brown water parted like the Red Sea for Moses. Drenched, ripped, shredded -- me in my long, bulky dark gray sweatpants now colder and calmer, relaxed and open, with no shirt -- and he in a wifebeater and those shiny red shorts with the white piping. When we got home we made love, at first masculine and rough, but then a tenderness broke like a mind bomb over both of us -- we were in love.

We had dinner at the Empire Diner. Back then it had a piano, and a great singer who could really swing. After dinner, he saw me spying a huge chocolate cake under glass. So he ordered me a slice and a big glass of milk. Then he watched as I ate it. I can still see his face. I didn't think I could eat it all, but I did -- and I can so very well still see his handsome face as bite after milky bite I ate that cake. That night we made love again, really great love, and he taught me things about my body I had never thought about, and I was grateful.

The Pride March went down Fifth Avenue, and we stood arm-in-arm. At some point he held me on his shoulders -- and that is no small feat because I am 6'1" and 210 pounds. He was tougher, bigger, he beat himself up like a prisoner at the old Chelsea Gym. So, he carried me around that day with pride, and we cheered for everything: dykes on bikes, the radical faeries, leather daddies, politicos, drag queens, unicyclists and roller skaters -- everything.

He had a small American flag, and he proudly displayed his Marine tattoos on those massive, veiny guns. I worshiped those tattoos. I licked and fetishized them, I loved them like my own heartbeat. I was as proud of them as he was, and he loved the way I respected his Semper Fi. I was genuinely proud of this man who fought in the closet so his country could kick him in the balls. I was mixed up about war and the military, he wasn't. I was angry about the way the VA treated him, he wasn't. I was furious at America, he wasn't.

That night we danced, and we drank, and I'm sure we did coke or a new drug that just made the scene -- ecstasy. Of course we ended up in a five-guy pile-on. And by the following Monday we all had the clap -- practically passing each other, high fives, on line at the Chelsea Free Clinic for our penicillin shots. That was the first time clapping with both hands tied behind my back. As a kid, I swore "No more!" but children are apt to make mistakes.

By Labor Day 1984, he had something serious to tell me. He filled two thermos full of screwdrivers, put them on ice in a cooler, the one he took to work every day, and we rode the subway to the Staten Island Ferry. He bought two tickets, and on a beautiful, clear, NYC night ablaze with rainbow color on the red scale, with the wind off the bay feathering my hair like Sean Cassidy -- we rode that ferry one way and drank one thermos of screwdrivers, then rode back and polished off the second. He never told me what he wanted to tell me, and I never dared ask.

This was 1984. I'm not sure AIDS was an easy word for a former Marine vet from South Carolina to say to a 19-year-old. Ultimately, I think he did me a favor by not telling me. But it wouldn't have mattered, because I would have gone on loving him anyway. And I would have taken care of him the best I could. That's what he meant to me. But instead, like most men in the early days of the epidemic, he disappeared. He went away and never came back or said goodbye. This was not the age of the Internet and smartphones, this was the age of AIDS.

Then, as now, it's always good to remember what it means to celebrate pride. We celebrate our sexual self, our gender identity, the power of community and family, whatever we want. As I celebrate, I'll be inclusive, not exclusive, and I will tell you this -- despite the AIDS epidemic -- a horror show that smeared a generation with maggots and fear -- were I to die tomorrow, I would have loved my sexual life. That is who we are as human beings, we are sexual, and no matter what age we live in or how we identify ourselves our sexual health deserves this one day, spread out over 365 days, of celebration and love.

When I spy a star in the sky this night I'll think of Connor. I'll dream of red shorts and that chocolate cake. I am still proud of him, and myself, for walking through the fire with the rope still in my hand, helping to pull up the next generation of lovers. I want every new generation to rise up from the ashes of inequality and walk forward, arm-in-arm, until our community is safe, equal under the law, respected, and proudly at peace with this world. Even then, when full equality is achieved, we'll march and celebrate the accomplishments of our lives.