We have a funny old relationship, you and me.
Sometimes, I adore you. I want to fling open my arms and drink you in; cover myself in glitter and dance in your sunshine (or rain, as it so often is in this country); hold you tight and close and proclaim to the world that you are mine, and I am yours, and nothing can ever come between us.
And sometimes, I hate you. I want to throw my hands over my head and scream until you leave me alone; shield my eyes from the glare of your colour; turn my back on you as you have turned your back on me, stomping off in a huff and leaving you in the arms of the ones you truly love.
I have deep, wonderful, disappointing memories of my very first Pride.
It was a sunny day in Cardiff – not something we were particularly used to – and I was a naive and idealistic university student. I sprang out of bed that morning with a rainbow glint in my eye, excitedly pulling on my ‘Keep Calm, It’s a Bisexual’ t-shirt (these were the days when the ‘Keep Calm…’ print was actually a somewhat fashionable decision on my part). The pride in my own identity, the adrenaline at the knowledge of my audacity in being so open, was puffing out my chest and trilling in my veins. After a year of working with the university’s LGBT+ Association on their campaigns, and having never been judged or excluded by my fellow officers for daring to inhabit the ‘B’ rather than the ‘L’ or ‘G’, I was ready for my ‘public’ appearance.
I was bisexual. I was proud.
As we got to the park where the festivities were in full swing, however, I felt my fingers gripping the edges of my jacket and pulling them together. I felt a flush rising on my cheeks. My friends in the Association were accepting of my bisexuality, yes, but other forums had not been quite so progressive or inclusive. I can still remember reading comments online about us being ‘dirty’, ‘untrustworthy’ and demanding that we ‘make up our minds’. All of a sudden, a creeping doubt began to enter my mind. I found myself wishing I had chosen another shirt, if only so I could blend into the community I so desperately wanted a part of.
The ‘gay’ community, as it is so often called, had already provided me with many obstacles when it came to acceptance. Not only was I not ‘fully gay’, being one of those imaginary bisexual unicorns, but I was also desperately autistic (although at the time we called it ‘socially awkward’). I felt out of place in gay clubs, hiding behind a friend or consigning myself to a corner, avoiding the bright lights, raucous noises, and casual touching. When people spoke to me, or the night’s drag act caught my eye and pointed me out, I shrivelled in on myself. I could see that many people felt so at home in this environment; I actually know many autistic queer people who feel at home in this environment. But I was not one of those people. I felt like an imposter, a fake gay, an outsider to this exciting communal party.
I instead found my place in coffee mornings and campaigning. Every Saturday, I would drag myself out of bed at a time unbefitting of a first year student, and wander down to a local bar to have a breakfast with a group of regulars from the LGBT+ Association. I would often stay for hours. I felt safe and at home as we chatted, laughed, drank coffee and ate copious amounts of fried food. It was soft and quiet, and I could quite happily squirrel myself away in a corner with a select group of people on the same wavelength of me. I found myself surrounded by what I saw as an extraordinary rainbow – gay people, bisexual people, pansexual people, trans people, non-binary people, undecided people – all casually bonding on soft cushions and rickety sofas.
From this, I joined the LGBT+ Association. I stood at cake stalls, handed out flyers, negotiated gender neutral toilets, wrote articles, and began to campaign. My pride and my confidence grew. University was difficult, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on (when I replay these years, the words ‘AUTISM’ flash neon over my head), but I felt myself emerging from this particular cocoon.
Move out the way, people, I said to myself in the mirror on the morning of Cardiff Pride. You will have this bisexual preening proudly in your midst and you will have to deal with it.
Despite the sudden surge of anxiety that caused me to spend the whole day pulling together my jacket or crossing my arms in front of my chest, I enjoyed Pride. I loved the stalls – lots of food and badges and a rainbow ring, yes please! – there were rides, there were amazing musical performances, and I got to hammer a nail into a piece of wood to make my very own placard at the Amnesty International tent. I was there with my mum (who actually came out herself a few years later, but that is a different tale for a different day) and a friend, and I watched as people, individuals, families, children, milled around in the sun with an ease of being that made me want to weep.
The performer on stage – a drag queen in an utterly fabulous get-up – suddenly decided to do some shout-outs to the crowd.
“Give us a cheer if you’re gay!”
“Give us a cheer if you’re a lesbian!”
“Give us a cheer if you’re straight and just here for the alcohol!”
In that moment, my stomach flipped. I wanted to cheer. I wanted to raise the roof. But I couldn’t. I turned to my mum and said in a quiet, almost waif-like voice: they didn’t let me cheer. The straight people at Pride got to cheer. But I didn’t. And my heart was broken.
A few years later, some friends and I went to a one-off comedy and music show in London to celebrate Pride. Two of the performing comedians were relatively big names, and I was bubbling with excitement to see them on stage. One of them decided to indulge in a bit of ‘give us a cheer if you are…’ shenanigans, and, to my racing heart’s delight, he asked for the bisexuals in the audience to cheer. When my friend and I (the only ones) whooped with joy, however, he immediately made a crack about making up our damned minds, and the audience hooted with raucous delight. I, on the other hand, sank into my chair, hoping desperately that the scratchy old velvet seat would open wide and swallow me whole.
This is the pain that taps at my chest during this season. This is why, sometimes, I just want to draw myself into a duvet burrito and pretend that the rainbow doesn’t exist.
But then I peek out from my fortress, and I see my wonderful siblings, of all sexual and gender identities, organising and marching and proclaiming their validity and their joy at being themselves. I see my friends fighting for a place in the march, and carrying aloft a massive banner proclaiming their bisexuality. I see youngsters defining themselves as non-binary and carrying themselves with certainty. I see a pansexual flag flying as the parade continues onwards. I see disabled queer people taking their rightful place in visibility. I see people, particularly queer people of colour, fighting against the gentrification and commercialisation of Pride, taking a stand to reaffirm it as the protest it still needs to be.
That is why, oh fickle and wonderful Pride, you will never be rid of me. Our relationship has not always been healthy. In fact, sometimes it has been downright terrible. But you are me, and I am you, and we need each other. You need all of us – the outsiders, the not-quite-fitting-into-the-mold resisters – as much as we need you, as we are what brought you into existence. We will take you in our arms, and we will shout and yell and bring down the house with our self-love and our love for each other. You have a special safe place in my heart, decorated with glitter and rainbows and defiance and rage, that will never be cracked.
And when I glance down at the rainbow ring that still sits on my finger, despite the pain, the uncertainty, and the worry, I know that this is my community and this is where I am meant to be. I am queer. I am autistic. I am proud.
That is Pride.