Fifteen years ago today, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, a friend and I walked out of a London nightclub. A middle-aged drag queen was slumped against a wall, clearly distraught. She was flanked by three other club-goers, all of whom looked equally upset.
"That poor girl never gets a break."
As we neared the group, one of them told us that Princess Diana had been injured in a car accident in Paris, and that her lover, Dodi Al Fayed, was dead.
When I arrived home I immediately switched on the television and watched as the reports of her injuries became more serious. In a chilling moment, the newscaster looked unsure and a little shaken. After he gathered his composure as best he could, he announced with a shaky voice that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed and was dead at 36 years old.
I wept in utter disbelief.
That may seem to be a strong reaction over someone I had never met. But for me - and millions of Britons - Diana had been a constant presence in my life.
At the time of her wedding to Prince Charles, I was six years old. I wore a paper crown, waved a tiny Union Jack flag, and cheered childish nonsense at the television. I didn't really know what was happening, all I knew was there was a pretty lady on the screen and everyone was celebrating and happy. It was my first experience of "national euphoria," and there was a joyful atmosphere that everyone seemed to share.
Almost every day for the following fifteen years I saw Diana's face in a newspaper or magazine or heard her voice on the TV. She was so ubiquitous that we had no choice but to get to know her. I witnessed Diana reach glorious highs as she married her prince, welcomed her children into public life, danced with movie stars, and charmed heads of state and entire nations with her wit, style, and disarming smile. We were all mesmerized when she occasionally was caught off guard and let out a cry of laughter that delighted any room.
Over the years, she of course also had her critics. In the space of a week the press could label Diana anything from an "unintelligent foolish girl" to a "devious manipulator" masterminding a scheme to bring down one of the oldest and most venerated institutions in the world.
But we still loved her, and I believe one of the reasons we loved her so much was because we didn't romanticize her. She was cherished not only for the way she represented our nation to the world, but also for how she represented us as a people. She faced the world knowing that her faults and foibles had been plastered across every newspaper and magazine in the world. After the divorce, she was a single mother balancing her new-found freedom with the care and protection of her sons.
There was no rule book for how a divorced princess should behave, so she made the rules that suited her personality. She shaped a role that would encompass her compassion for the disenfranchised, and her work with the charities of which she was patron was far too genuine and hands-on to be considered an act.
In the days between Diana's death and her funeral, Britain was overtaken with an atmosphere of numb sadness. The scale of the sadness was a thousand times greater than the national elation on her wedding day. Even the hardest and toughest men were more respectful, often giving a small compassionate nod to strangers in recognition of a shared grief. People were especially considerate of young families. After all, millions of parents had to heart-wrenchingly explain to their young children that, despite all the promises of fairy tales, this princess could not be saved, that this princess had died.
I joined the millions who made the pilgrimage to London on the following Saturday to pay respect to our lost treasure, to the woman who had been bestowed so many different titles in her life: Lady Spencer, Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, The People's Princess, and finally, "England's Rose."
I added my bouquet and note to the avalanche of flowers, mostly roses, cascading from the gates of Kensington Palace. I saw none of the police officers manning the barricade refuse a single person from laying their tribute. I joined the thousands that lined Kensington Road as a silence descended over one of the world's busiest cities. The stillness was broken only by the striking hooves of the horses drawing the carriage.
As her coffin rolled past, draped in the Royal Standard, I cried once again. My tears initially were triggered by the sight of the card laying on the wreath atop the coffin that simply read "Mummy." But I also cried at the thought of how much I would miss her and how much I honestly thought that Britain never would be quite the same. And now, fifteen years later, that remains true.
The crowds followed the end of the procession and were diverted into Hyde Park Corner, where two massive screens had been set up to enable thousands to watch the funeral being held in Westminster Abbey.
I remember a lot from that day. I remember being in awe of the bravery of the two young boys as they followed their mother's casket through the streets of London. I felt a kind of guilt and wondered whether they viewed the crowds as an intrusion, as mourners that had no right and shouldn't be there to share in their grief. But I also had a sense of comfort that they might regard our presence as genuine support on what must have been the worst day of their lives.
I remember the images of the Queen, a woman who bows to no one, as she tilted forward at the waist and tipped her head as Diana's coffin passed. We will never know whether it was out of respect to her grandchildren or if it was a kind of penance to a nation that slowly had begun to turn against her for her apparent refusal to acknowledge the enormity of her subjects' grief.
I remember the spontaneous eruption of applause and thousands of people standing as the Earl Spencer reminded the world that his sister hadn't needed her royal title to show her particular brand of magic. I remember feeling like he spoke for us all.
But what I remember the most, what always comes back to me, is that I could still smell the strong fragrance of the roses that lay outside Kensington Palace, even from the far side of Hyde Park.
The day ended with Diana's coffin being driven to Althorp House, where she was laid to rest on an island on the grounds of her family home. Her exit was heartbreaking as mourners who lined the route out of London cried and threw flowers in front of the hearse in a desperate, last minute attempt to pay their respects. Such a public display of grief had never been seen in Britain; that kind of public emotion was reserved for the likes of Eva Peron.
As an Englishman, Diana meant many different things to me. But as a gay man she meant even more. Her marriage began to break down publically around the same time I was coming out. The tide of criticism, scrutiny, and humiliation she faced every day would have been overwhelming to most. It may not seem that you can compare the public collapse of a royal marriage to a young man's coming out, but I watched her brave endurance and the way she silenced her critics eloquently and with such gusto and honesty. Her dignity, composure, and self-confidence in the face of such tremendous adversity taught me one hell of a lesson - a lesson on which I continue to rely.
Today, I encourage you to read fellow Huffington Post Gay Voices blogger, David Allison, as he writes about Diana's legacy in the gay community. The importance of the work she did to raise awareness and visibility of the gay community cannot be overstated. While things are far from perfect in America or Britain, you can't deny that we have come a long way. Much of that progress is owed to the groundbreaking work of people like Princess Diana.
Gay advocates in both of our countries continue to battle against people, organizations, and political parties that try to silence our demands for equality and slander us with lies in order to brand us with whatever evil they choose. Gay advocacy work is immeasurably important and deserves all of your continued support. The work and dedication of Dan Savage, Michelangelo Signorile, David Mixner, Noah Michelson, and Peter Tatchell, to name just a few, should be recognized and applauded every day.
But on this inauspicious anniversary, I encourage you to take time out to remember those advocates and activists that went before us. They are the ones who championed our cause and went against the tide, regardless of their constraints or expectations. Remember people like Diana, who never shied away and practically flaunted her acceptance of gay men and women, who changed opinions for the better, and helped us live easier, more open lives.
In short, take time today - even if it's just for a moment - to smell the roses.