This weekend is LGBT Pride Weekend in my hometown of San Diego, California. Even though I haven’t gone in years, I think about it every time it rolls around. San Diego Pride was my first—and only—LGBT Pride festival. It helped define who I am today, and why I will always stand up and fight for LGBT rights.
Let’s step into the Tardis, and dial in the year 1999. I was visiting home for the summer after my sophomore year of college. I had left my boyfriend up in Northern California, and was back with my loving tribe of misfit friends. At the time, I was was struggling with my identity as a young bisexual woman, and I was longing for a sense of community. So, when my good friend, Bert, invited me to join him and a couple other of my friends at San Diego Pride, I eagerly accepted.
The festival was located in San Diego’s primarily gay neighborhood, Hillcrest. I loved Hillcrest when I was in high school, the heart of which was a few square blocks of indie music and book stores, art house movie theaters, brightly-lit sex shops, and trendy cafes and restaurants. It was an urban mecca for an eccentric suburban teen aching for the big city.
For Pride, the hip little ‘hood had morphed into party central. I’d never seen so many people there, lining the sidewalks. Not just shirtless young men, either. There were people of all ages, races, sizes, and genders. There were even families there. This wasn’t just a hook-up scene–this was for everyone.
“Everyone” also included a small cluster of protestors, unfortunately. We saw them on the way in, sour-faced and waving signs with the usual anti-gay slogans. We didn’t pay them much mind. What harm could a couple dozen haters do, when there were so many of us here?
We were about to find out.
We found a place to stand and watch the Pride Parade on University Avenue, right in front of our favorite coffee house. I’ll admit, I’m not a parade person, but I could appreciate our position close to the grandstand, where we could hear the drag queen MC as she announced the floats and contingents loud and clear. I settled in for a long watch, enjoying rainbow-festooned cars, gyrating men on floats, and—my favorite—the Dykes on Bikes.
The Family Matters group appeared shortly after the start of the parade. I was moved to see so many LGBT families walking openly and proudly. Remember, this is 1999, before the fight for Marriage Equality really gained traction, before Modern Family and other mainstream portrayals of gay families. It was revolutionary. There were pregnant mothers, fathers with strollers, grandparents pulling wagons bearing kids with hand-drawn signs saying, “I love my 2 dads.” It was so sweet and fun, and we enjoyed waving back at the kids from the sidelines.
Then the world turned upside down.
It began with a wisp of smoke that quickly turned into a billow. As it reached the families in the street, shouts rose up. The adults grabbed their children, frantically running away from the spreading gray cloud. My confusion grew as a light ocean breeze blew the smoke toward my section of spectators—and a sharp, chemical burn raced up my nostrils.
“Tear gas!” The MC shouted from the stand, her tall, black wig bobbing madly as she waved. “It’s tear gas! Everyone stay calm! Everyone get inside!”
I don’t remember what else she said. I was too focused on the acid scorching my tender sinuses, the fire in my lungs, the burning in my watering eyes. The crowd around me had churned into a frenzy, like a beehive struck by a stone. It was chaos.
Bert’s hand latched onto my wrist like a vice. I grabbed my friend’s, who grabbed her friend’s. A human chain of four links, Bert dragged us through the crowd and into the café behind us. It was only about eight feet, but through the teargas, it might as well have been eight miles.
Inside the café, we could breathe again. My vision began to clear as we sucked in clean lungfuls of air, though I still felt like there were fire ants crawling around inside my head. The four of us hadn’t been hit badly, thanks to Bert’s quick action. Other people weren’t so lucky.
My favorite spot for drinking coffee had become the triage unit of a war movie. Baristas threw bottles of water over the counter to frantic hands, not bothering with the register. Patrons poured the water over the teary, red faces of parade-goers gone prone on the floor, debilitated by the gas. I could only imagine what the families with children were going through.
Finally, when the madness subsided, we filtered back onto the street. Faces that had been joyous only minutes before were twisted in pain, confusion, anger, and fear. People milled about, uncertain whether to pack it up or stick it out. It seemed that the parade was ruined.
I don’t remember when the MC started speaking again, but I remember hearing her voice rise over the murmur of the crowd.
“…and we’re going to keep having this parade! Because we’re not going to let their hate shut us down!”
A cry rose from the crowd. It was different, though, then the cheers that had greeted her words before. This wasn’t the merriment of festival-goers—this was the roar of fighters. This was the shout of those who would not be silenced, who would not slink away in defeat.
You hurt us, you hurt our families, and yet we still stand here.
I have never been more proud in my life to be part of something. In that moment, it didn’t matter who I was sleeping with or what my number on the Kinsey scale was. What mattered was I was there, standing tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with other survivors of hate. For the first time ever, I truly understood what Pride meant. I was a part of something bigger than myself–a movement, a history.
So, Happy Pride, San Diego. May it be a safe and joyous celebration this year.
If you’re interested in seeing better pictures than these old scans, and reading an AP article about the tear gas, you can here.