I was 17 in the summer of 1969—only a few months out of high school—when police in Greenwich Village raided the Stonewall Inn. This was a common occurrence at gay bars in those days, but this time the gay community fought back with riots and demonstrations. After years commemorations of the Stonewall riots every June, this is now the month in which gay pride is celebrated around the world.
I’ve gone to Pride events a few times over the years and, despite my introversion and abhorrence of large crowds, I always feel lucky to be there. It’s also a little hard for me to believe that it’s even happening. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I knew I was different, and not in a good way. Even though I didn’t have a name for what I felt, there was a dark shame that accompanied it. It permeated everything. By the time I was in high school, I kind of begrudgingly had a boyfriend, and I was torn between feeling deeply sad and weirdly gratified that a boy even liked me.
At 67, I treasure self-pride in a way I could never have understood 50 years ago.
When we carry self-hatred with us from our childhoods, pride is an unfamiliar feeling. In my own life, that contempt I felt for myself filled in all of the open spaces, making it impossible for confidence or pride to grow. At 16, I hated everything about myself. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to be encouraged to be proud of who I was. As I watch young gay people holding hands as they walk down the street and no one bats an eye, I feel a mix of envy and enormous gratitude that things have changed.
Being gay was a secret for me until I was in my 20s, and it was a secret I didn’t even understand. I just believed that my deepest, most intrinsic feelings—of being drawn to women more than men—were wrong. I didn’t see anyone in the world who looked like me or seemed like me. Of course this also made it hard to imagine a life or a future for myself. As an adult now, I realize the confidence it takes to build our individual worlds. That confidence was non-existent for gay kids like me. For a lot of us, gay or not, no one taught us the value of feeling proud of ourselves. Sometimes I can barely believe that we have come this far—that I now live in a world in which people like me are encouraged to stand tall.
These feelings are tempered, of course, by the growing conservatism we see around us, but it means something to me that the barriers have been broken. I don’t imagine that it is possible to go back. Still, I occasionally have to remind myself that shame is a thing of my past and that pride is my right. It’s what makes me so happy that Pride events have become a thing we do.
So many of us grew up feeling ashamed of one thing or another. And we know, as we deal with each other as adults, that self-hatred leads to terrible relationships with other people. If we’d all been urged not just to accept ourselves, but to love and honor our whole beings, it’s easy to see how different our world could be. Maybe a growing emphasis on pride can heal us in a way we also never imagined.
Fifty years ago, in a summer when I was fumbling around with how I could possibly become a grown up human, I didn’t get it that pride could be grown inside me. I thought of it as something doled out by a culture that didn’t accept people like me. This summer, walking around the streets of Amsterdam, gay flags were everywhere. The street where we rented an apartment calls itself the city’s “most famous and colorful gay street.” Even as these occurrences become the norm, though, I don’t take them for granted. At 67, I treasure self-pride in a way I could never have understood 50 years ago. I am good, I remind myself, and I am proud to be who I am. I couldn’t have grasped the power of that feeling that summer when I was 17—and it makes it even sweeter this early June.