Standing there in front of the mirror, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, or what I was doing. As I got dressed for my first American Pride parade, taking place in a small city I had barely ever heard of, I was overcome with uncertainty. “Why am I here? Am I crazy to march in an unknown place in leather? What am I getting myself into?” Steve told me not to expect a ‘big city’ Pride, and boy, was he right!
I had been invited to spend a few days in Syracuse, New York by my good friend Steve, widely known as The Leather Cook on Instagram. He welcomed me to his home for the weekend of Syracuse Pride, in which we were both set to march in our leathers, pour some coffee, and have some good chats. I was excited to spend this time with Steve, and experience a part of the United States I had never been to before. But I was way outside of my comfort zone in doing so.
I have always been fascinated by the United States. This interest grew until, well, 2016 when it became a full-blown obsession. Over the course of a seemingly endless four years, I watched the America I knew (or thought I knew) fade away, as a more brutal, dangerous America took its place. I have spent time each day since devouring bad news, forming a rather negative idea of what America has become. It’s been pretty painful to watch.
I recall an episode of Sex & The City in which Carrie experienced a break-up from ‘Mister Big’. In her monologue, she spoke of ‘La Douleur Exquise’’, the exquisite pain of craving something that is unattainable, and that may not happen. I had always thought of myself as ‘a Samantha’, but when it came to my American curiosity, perhaps I was ‘a Carrie’. If people with a passion for all things French are referred to as ‘Francophiles’, and those with a passion for the UK are ‘Anglophiles’, what do you call a guy who can’t get enough of America? In this day and age, some would say a masochist. As many of us know, experiencing the right amount of pain can be most enjoyable. But when does the American bad-news edge play become too much?
Despite a welcomed political shift from red to blue, America is still in many ways a troubled nation, suffering from the wounds inflicted by a certain former president. Under the constant threat of gun violence, entire minority communities remain the target of those seeking power, including (but sadly, not limited to) people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community – especially our trans brothers and sisters. This was the America I was about to march through. Plus, I wasn’t marching through the rainbow streets of The Castro in San Francisco or New York City in my leather. Marching in Syracuse, New York, I was stepping into a whole different ball game.
I wanted to go out in gear, yet still feel comfortable with myself and my surroundings. I opted for a ‘leather-casual’ ensemble, which felt appropriate for this new and unknown setting. I don’t go anywhere without a good fitting pair of jeans and tall boots, which I paired with a leather shirt and tie, which I topped off with my Mister B Garrison Cap, and some must-have accessories: my favorite pair of Mirror Effect Aviator Sunglasses and Leather Belt Chain. I always say you don’t have to dress in full leather, to be in leather. And this felt just right.
Once dressed, I looked up at the mirror, and saw myself in my gear. I smirked, and without thinking said “hello, me” to myself. In that moment, I remembered who I was. I remembered I wasn’t there to only represent myself, but our entire community. And I remembered I wasn’t alone – I had the whole community with me. And with those reminders, I was good to go.
Despite a small donut delay (like, how long do a dozen munchkins take?), Steve and I arrived at the parade meeting point, located at a massive car park. As various local community groups showed up, I saw our small but mighty ‘Syracuse Leather’ contingent gather and grow. This was all due to Steve and his hard work. Without him organizing it, there would be little to no leather representation in this march. True to Steve, he found a gap, and was more than willing to fill it!
Adjacent to us by the edge of the car park, I noticed a small prayer circle taking place. Immediately, I ‘braced for impact’ and a tirade of anti-gay abuse. But no, this wasn’t a form of protest against the march, quite the opposite. The Lutheran Church of Central New York, bedecked in rainbow colors, held a special prayer for those marching, sharing words of faith, inclusivity and encouragement. Holding back the tears, I turned to Steve and said to him “I have never seen anything like this before. I didn’t know this stuff happened in America.” Steve nodded and said “It does. Isn’t it great?
Once the parade began, the mood was celebratory and joyous, but true to the political climate, the significance of the event was as clear as day. This wasn’t a parade. This was a march. Unlike a ‘big city’ Pride parade with thousands of participants and trucks carrying dancing hotties and drag queens through busy city streets, this parade felt different. There were far fewer people, and no big city landmarks. We marched along an open stretch of road outside the city leading up to a big park. It felt more authentic, real and important than any parade I had ever been in. It’s one thing to participate in Pride in a big capitol city, surrounded by thousands of supporters and walking shoulder to shoulder with dozens of leathermen. It’s another thing entirely to do so in a smaller city where acceptance cannot be assumed, and representation is down to every single person marching. Quickly though, I learned, it wasn’t all about us.
As we marched, my attention turned to the crowd. We might have been the ones marching down the road, but the real celebration took place on the kerbside. There they were: dozens of community members and allies in their finest political t-shirts (Americans do love their statement T’s), cheering and hollering at the top of their lungs. As I saw them lining up all along the parade route outside the city with their camping chairs, coolers, flags and pets, I suddenly realized I had gotten Pride backwards all these years. Pride wasn’t all about me and everyone else marching in the parade. It was more so about the people who showed up to watch it.
The crowd may have come to see us, but on that day, it was about us seeing them. We felt empowered by their rapturous support, and responded by marching with even greater pride. This was the power of Pride – a symbiotic exchange of energy empowering all who gathered, to see and be seen. It was like an electric jolt of hope during turbulent American times for all members and allies of our community, empowering every single person who came out that day to seek and support a better, more tolerant America. What I experienced in Syracuse was about more than gay Pride. This was about American Pride.
I saw it in the eyes of the mom wearing a ‘free mom hugs’ T-shirt who gave me a big hug, telling me she was proud of me. I saw it in the gleaming eyes of that beautiful kid standing on the side of the road, looking me in the eye as I marched. Dressed head to toe in the trans Pride flag colors, I saw tears of joy in their eyes as they cheered us on. They saw me. I saw them. And in that moment, I was reminded of why I was there. This is why we march. We march for those who need us to. We march in Syracuse, Dublin or anywhere else we can, for those who can’t anywhere else. We march for the moms, dads, and kids; we march for our friends on Instagram still on their fetish journey; we march for our younger selves who were too afraid, and for our older selves who may not be able to. We march because we can, for anyone who can’t.
Later that day, I went over to Bishop Lee Miller II of the upstate New York Synod, who ran the prayer circle that morning. I wanted to thank him. Once I did, he immediately grabbed me and gave me a big bear-priest hug, and said “God bless you, whatever you choose to believe” in my ear. In doing so, he started melting away years of hardened anti-church bias, and he showed me that faith with kindness still exists in America.
Back at Steve’s house after the parade, I realized that in stepping out of my comfort zone, I discovered an entire new place. I had just experienced an America often obscured by big headlines and bad news: where people show love in the face of hate; where strength and defiance persist in the face of political turmoil; where community activism, as simple as a single leather cook, has the power to represent an entire community; and one where even a small Pride march in Syracuse, New York is as big and as bold a political statement as it gets.
In looking beyond the bad news, I found the ‘good news’ – not only about the US, but about the meaning of Pride itself. Participating in that march, I appreciate the incredible privilege I, and so many of us, have. To be out, to have the freedom to express who we are. To love. To Marry. To gear up. To march if we so choose. We get to choose, others do not. We may find ourselves cynical about overtly corporate or overblown Pride events which resemble a street party more than a civil rights march, but let us not lose sight of the facts. Pride began as a civil rights march, and in many places around the world, remains a defiant and potentially dangerous form of social and political protest. Perhaps we all need to take a step away from ‘big city’ Pride events, comfort zone (and potentially our privilege) to be reminded of this important fact. Marching in Syracuse Pride, I sure was.
The pain I first experienced thinking about America was no longer. Instead, I was filled with hope. I might have arrived in the US a ‘masochist’, but I was leaving it an optimist. Was this march likely change the course of American anti-LGBTQ legislation? Unlikely. Did any decision makers see us marching on that stretch of road outside Syracuse that Saturday? Almost certainly not. But in marching, the crowd saw us. We saw us. And we saw them. This was the true spirit of Pride, and the true spirit of America I had all but forgotten. It might not have been a ‘big city’ Pride festival, but as we know, size isn’t everything. Sometimes, a little voice can say the biggest things. And on that day in Syracuse, New York, American Pride was seen and heard, loud and clear. That’s American Pride.