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Guest Essay

Guest Essay: This Pride Feels Different

  By Jonathan Wetherbee
  Thursday, July 27, 2023

Jonathan Wetherbee waves a rainbow progress flag at the Rochester Pride Parade.

Whether you’re talking about International Pride Month in June, Rochester Pride in July, Rochester Black Pride in September or the UR Undergraduate Pride festivities in April, the events are often understood in popular media as euphoric celebrations of LGBTQ identities. Politicians, local shops and corporations as diverse as banks, retailers and manufacturers of jeans and vodka have jumped in to sponsor the revels (and sell their politics, goods, jeans, vodka, etc. to queer folks and their allies). Pride celebrations have been getting bigger, louder, and more accessible to straight allies with each new iteration, as hard-fought battles for acceptance are won and our lives as queer people inch ever closer to the mainstream. For a long time, this felt like an inevitable way of things. LGBT+ folks would move out of our closets and dimly lit windowless bars and into the bright light of a new day where we would be fully embraced and courted for our votes and dollars like our cisgender, straight peers.

That feeling has been starting to change in the last few years. For me, specifically, this year feels different. The first difference is political and increasingly familiar in all aspects of life. Those at the extreme ends of the political divide have been digging in deeper to their entrenched positions. From one side, homophobic and transphobic movements have gained a foothold by demonizing trans people and their families, spurring legislation to criminalize the existence of some of the most vulnerable members of our population. Heartened by this, homophobic rhetoric that had seemed to be slowly fading from the national discourse has been emerging again under the same thin disguises of religious freedom and protecting ‘family values’ that we have seen through the decades. On the other side of the divide, in reaction to the corporatization of Pride and the hateful legislation that threatens queer lives, I have heard the oft-repeated reminder that the first Pride wasn’t a parade, but a protest. It was a riotous explosion of anger and frustration. A refusal to be kept down, ignored, humiliated and pushed to the margins. Somewhere between these poles are folks at dance parties finding it increasingly difficult to rejoice in their shared community and shut out the growing sense that our identities, freedoms and rights are under renewed attack.

The other reason this Pride feels different is that it is my first as a father. You may be tempted to cue the sit-com audience “aww!” sound effect, but that statement is far more loaded than you might realize. Becoming a father has already been a journey, and I’m only four months in. All of the usual parenting moments apply: waking in a panic to make sure a newborn is still breathing, the truly spectacular mishaps during diaper changes, the endless stream of well-wishers bringing blankets that we never seem to have enough of, and stuffed animals that I’m already concerned we have far too many of but are too cute and full of promise to give away. The bad advice that makes you want to tear your hair out and the words of wisdom that can save your sanity. It’s all there and it is all in its own way glorious and lifechanging. Woven into all of this has been our unique experience as fathers who are gay men. We don’t know many other gay dads, and none of the highly rated books my husband brought home from the library for new parents made substantial mention of this unique experience. We were fortunate if they even discussed surrogacy, which is the path we eventually took to parenthood. I’ve found myself being a bit of an outlier in my own community of outliers. The dynamics of how we navigate the world have shifted, and not only because it takes an extra thirty minutes to make sure we have everything we need in the diaper bag to venture out of the house.

Walking down the street with an adorable child (I won’t be modest. Our kid is CUTE.) has had the effect of making us suddenly approachable to neighbors with children who had never even introduced themselves before. Maybe because a cooing baby is a great icebreaker, a perfect focus for attention to start conversations, and maybe because being parents makes us suddenly more relatable to the world of straight people around us. We are somehow less threatening and more wholesome. Or maybe this is because having children is an expectation of married couples, so joining the ranks of fathers has made us the peers of our suburban neighbors. Somehow, we have become the image of gay acceptability that organizations like the Mattachine Society promoted in the 1950s and 60s: a seemingly typical American family with one little twist!

The inverse of this is also paradoxically true. Let’s ignore for a moment the screaming throngs who believe that anyone who isn’t straight and cisgender is evil and should repent. Those views are so extreme most gays find them scary, but ultimately laughable. More needling to me is those, gay and straight, who don’t think queer men should become parents. Straight folks who believe it’s alright to be gay and keep it to yourself, but raising a child in a house without a mother and a father is evil. Queer folks who think we are selling out and re-creating the heteronormative patriarchy that is our oppressor. Or those, gay and straight, who would like us to know that surrogacy is morally reprehensible in light of the number of kids needing parents who already exist in the world. Or those who believe that having children at all is somehow selfish or irresponsible given the state of the climate, politics, humanity’s many failings, the eventual heat-death of the universe [fill in the blank with your choice of horror or atrocity].

I stumble across these rejections of our worthiness online in forums about sleep regression; or in the pregnant pauses when explaining to whom this baby in the stroller, belongs. Or why I’m applying for a social security number, or that no, this baby swaddle isn’t a gift for someone else. I see it in the pointed refusal to make eye contact from neighbors pushing their own kid in the opposite direction down a narrow sidewalk.
Becoming a father as a gay man means fighting for it. Whether through adoption or surrogacy, it requires a bevy of lawyers and a decade of savings. After two years of that fight, with my daughter finally in my arms, I see these things in the world around me and realize that I’m still going to be fighting. Now I’m not just fighting for my rights and my husband’s rights when demanding that we be seen and recognized. I’m fighting for the right to be a family. Fighting for my daughter’s right to someday, speak openly and without hesitation in school about her dad and her papa. Fighting for her right to see families that look like hers in the books she reads, the TV shows her friends are into, the future she sees for herself and those around her.

Ultimately, I want to believe for my daughter’s generation that Pride will still be a celebration of the many victories that have been won plus new victories for trans folks and queer people of color. I hope it won’t have had to revert back into a protest against the continued abuses and indignities of an antagonistic society against people who just want to live their lives with the people they love and as they people they are. This year, though, as I look at the weather forecast and wonder if it is too hot for a four-month-old to stand in a crowd, I have to be realistic that we are not yet in that brighter future. This is a celebration not of victory, but of making it as far as we have without forgetting how much more work there is to be done.

Jonathan Wetherbee is a staff diversity officer and information analyst at the Center for Employee Wellness. He is heavily involved in training, mentorship and advocacy for historically underrepresented faculty, staff and students to experience a sense of belonging throughout the University. This essay appeared in the School of Nursing Council for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion's (CoDEI) July 2023 newsletter.

Categories: Diversity

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