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Mitch Kellaway Headshot

Coping With the Consumer Side of Pride

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"Why are you standing so far away?"

My partner Jocelyn asks me this as I position myself a good yard from the shade of a travel company booth offering a slim chance at a $50,000 prize in exchange for personal information. Or is it at the AT&T booth as her cousin heeds the siren's call to charge his phone in exchange for captive eyeballs subjected to a 360-degree panorama of ads? Perhaps it's even at a community-cum-corporate-entity confident we will sign their petition in support of marriage equality. We turn our backs to them, our hearts aching for equally enthusiastic support for alleviating job discrimination, homelessness, and suboptimal health care plaguing members of the gender-nonconforming communities deemed a detriment to successfully selling the GL("BT") cause to mainstream society.

"If I stand too close, they're going to try to hand me something," I respond. She nods in understanding, though perhaps I detect a hint of disappointment in her eyes. I cannot simply let go of my grudge against Pride for a few moments, to get caught up in the simple excitement of being surrounded by so much positive energy and such a beautiful diversity of identities, bodies, sizes, and colors.

As a transgender man, as a queer man, as a gender-nonconforming man (yes, these three identities are all distinct, yet intersecting), and as a (white-passing) man of color, my feelings surrounding Pride are fraught. Attending Boston Pride 2013 confirmed and nuanced these feelings for me, as every Pride parade I attend does. Yet I didn't offer much resistance as Jocelyn coaxed me to attend this past weekend's festivities, thus resolving her final relationship lament: that after two years of coupled bliss, we had yet to show each other off at a Pride parade.

Given that she's a woman-identified, female-bodied person, I understand her joy in being read as "queer" in Pride spaces -- a welcome change from social eyes assuming her combination of femininity and embodiment unquestioningly equate with normative heterosexuality. I, too, feel a heart-leap of euphoria as the sun emerges and I un-self-consciously allow my chest binder to peak out above my tank top.

My stature, my gestures, my bared chest-compression efforts read "trans man" to knowing glances -- and I bask in being seen. And for a duo who finds great meaning in actively maintaining a loving partnership, being read as a queer couple is the crowning pleasure to this day for Joceyn and me. Pausing to stand still and take in the queerly delightful beings around me, I do them the honor of looking without presuming they represent a normative anything, careful to not read too far into any of the jumbled gender signifiers that adorn them.

But we have to keep moving. As we trail through the festival booths and parade crowd, disentangling only so she can peruse wares and greet friends, she returns my gaze to her whenever she can sense clouds gathering on my brow. As if reading my internal, misanthropic monologue -- Why are these companies trying to sell me their merchandise in my space? Why should we consider it a victory that we've become another niche market to sell to? These politicians are marching for votes, but who knows which ones would overlook the trans* community the minute they took office? If I see one more pun on the word "out," I'm going to bolt! -- she turns to me with a compassionate look and a soft command of "look at me," "hug me," "kiss me." Oh, yeah, this day isn't about them, no matter how hard they try to make it so. It's about us.

Hours in, we exhaustedly embrace in front of Government Center: a short, round trans man developing a thin patina of lipstick and rainbow face paint transferred from his bouncy, cis-femme sweetheart. My mind turns to the countless couples before us who may not have felt so comfortable or celebrated in performing this simple act, even if it is only within the limits of a holiday time-space. The experiences of other queer couples are inextricably different and inextricably the same as ours -- I couldn't and wouldn't say that we represent all, or even most. But I do know that being surrounded by thousands of queer individuals and lovers heightens my self-awareness as one of a billion points in our intersecting histories.

When I block my ears to the voices demanding that I reduce my queer self simply to a queer consumer, I adore Pride. There aren't adequate words to express how my heart swells with that word when I see our elders and youth, parents and babies, friends and allies, partners and new acquaintances alive with a communal fire, despite sometimes significant personal disparities. I envy Jocelyn's ability to shield the core of this feeling from the affronts of insatiable food and clothing retailers, alcohol brands, and travel websites -- to brush off their booming techno floats to focus on the grassroots organizations marching stalwartly behind them. Instead, I becoming increasingly deflated and distracted as they draw energy and eyeballs away from the lives and struggles this whole day is supposedly about. I chalk this up to something about the extrovert in her and the introvert in me, those aspects that uniquely inform our coping strategies.

Every other year Pride re-entices me with a chance for the experience to be different, if not in the expanding waves of rainbow-covered products -- so vexingly alienating and welcoming at once -- then at least in how I process the bitter taste lingering in my mouth as I board the subway home. This year, I engage in a practice of being aware that for every cheer and clap the scantily clad vodka-cellphone-clubnight-webstore go-go dancers garner, there is an equally enthusiastic roar greeting the next civil rights group, church, or gay/straight alliance, albeit deafened by their inability to afford speakers and "swag" to launch into the grasping crowds, and lessened by the audience's lack of those vocal advocates who are often the ones marching in front of us.

2013 offered a chance for me to reimagine Pride through the joy it gives others. This is a gift my partner offers me daily, from the mundane to the monumental. Even while she remains committed to the feminist and queer causes that first ignited our passions for each other and community events, she does not sink under my black cloud. I feel it descend upon me whenever I come up against hard instances of what is and what I so strongly feel should be -- for instance, how queer communities should be able to gather without being reliant upon or unable to halt the intrusion of companies trying to separate us from our hard-won incomes.

It's not that she can't see this. We're both burdened by a seemingly irreconcilable need to avoid capitalist co-option of queer spaces and a need to support queer community gathering. Less altruistically, we revel in the human joy of seeing and being seen by peers. At Pride, I imagine that this brew of rebellion and guilt is never far from boiling over for her, as I know it never is for me.

Somehow, though, she has learned, and is unknowingly guiding me, to avoid it becoming toxic -- so that we can still enjoy ourselves amongst our people, even knowing how imperfect the forces that gather around us may be. By her side, I look over and over out into a crowd of so many lit-up faces and hands thrown skyward in pure excitement. In my better moments, I can feel myself relax into the sheer pleasure of being so blessed to be a queer person, of being positioned outside so I can critically peer inward, of being connected meaningfully to some of the most beautiful souls this planet holds. Pride feels, once again, all wrong and all right.