Vogue Ball on Day One of LA Pride at West Hollywood Park on June 7, 2019, in West Hollywood, Calif.
Photo: Chris Tuite (Courtesy of LA Pride)

On June 11, 2016, Omar Mateen—armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, a 9mm Glock and an insatiable disregard for human life—destroyed 49 innocent lives while causing irreparable harm and suffering to 53 others.

The attack has lived on in infamy as the Orlando Nightclub Shooting, site of the deadliest act of violence carried out against the LGBTQ community in the history of the United States and what has been called by some the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since the September 11 attacks.

I recall being both appalled and aghast upon waking up the next morning to this horrifying news and wishing there was something—anything—I could do to alleviate the anguish and fear that threatened to unravel so many of my friends. But in my efforts to be supportive, I also realized that I was operating out of sympathy instead of empathy—much like white folks do when they feign concern for our well-being but aren’t willing to forfeit their privilege—and got called out for it.

“You don’t see yourself getting gunned down inside of that nightclub, Jay,” one of them said. “We do.”

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And they were right.

Up until that point, I had never stepped foot inside of a gay nightclub. I’d never had to worry about whose hand I held in public or which bathroom was safe to use. Or how my father would react to my first kiss. Or how Trump’s presidential campaign sowed the seeds for escalating anti-LGBTQ sentiment that would see 2016 end as the deadliest year on record for the LGBTQ community, and lead to the introduction of over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills the following year.

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None of that shit applied to me.

And it wasn’t because I wasn’t born gay, it was because I had made a conscious decision to disassociate from many of those obstacles.

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I didn’t intervene every time I overheard homophobic rhetoric at a party, I stared at gay couples in public, but my genuine curiosity could easily be mistaken for malice. I didn’t assure the safety of the timid individuals who occasionally crept into the men’s bathroom and I didn’t fully grasp the scope of how catastrophic 2016 and 2017 were for the LGBTQ community until I wrote this article.

So from that day forward, I decided to be more vigilant, more outspoken, more present. But not as an “ally”—since I believe that’s a title that’s earned instead of some self-congratulatory participation trophy—but as a well-intended, decent human being.

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And my first order of business was to attend San Diego Pride in 2016, almost a month to the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Living my best black ass life at San Diego Pride.
Photo: Jay Connor (The Root)

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It took very little convincing to persuade my homies into letting me tag along, but they knew better than to deny me the glorious day parties, garish drag queens, gratuitous selfies, and countless dance floors that awaited us. I also instituted a couple of rules:

1. It was not anyone else’s job to make me feel comfortable.

2. As a guest, I would conduct myself accordingly and recognize that the onus fell on me to not make anyone else feel uncomfortable in their own sanctuary.

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3. I would be my black ass self, live my best fucking life and have a good ass time.

I can proudly confirm that I was three-for-three that day, but for all our drunken hijinks and debauchery, I remember how incredibly safe I felt. There was no looming threat of an altercation or concerns for the safety of the women in our entourage, just an overwhelming sense of freedom, authenticity and acceptance, a feeling I honestly haven’t experienced since.

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In my subsequent attempts to recapture that magic, I’ve flirted with the idea of returning to Pride only to have poor timing or flaky friends derail my plans. But with the 2019 installment of LA Pride on the horizon, I felt a particular need to make my presence felt. Because according to the Internet—since I quite literally have yet to hear it anywhere else—“The Gay Agenda” apparently has a nefarious plan in place to drape me in Billy Porter’s finest garments, indoctrinate me with the soothing sounds of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and return my heterosexuality back to sender.

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Our very own senior writer Michael Harriot previously explained this startling phenomenon as such:

From what I can gather, they believe that there is an evil, concerted, international plot to intentionally weaken the black race by feminizing black men. According to these people, this goal is achieved by forcing black people to see gay people as human beings, thereby “normalizing” homosexuality. Somehow the simple action of looking at gayness will lead to the destruction of the black race.

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No, really. This is actually a thing.

As if my black ass didn’t already have institutional racism and people who inexplicably defile their grits—by adding sugar—to worry about, The Gay Agenda won’t let me enjoy the fruits of patriarchy and be great.

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I’m imperiled and under attack, y’all.

So to test the repercussions of my exposure to camp and other beautiful souls maligned for being their unapologetic selves, I rallied the troops and made my triumphant return to Pride this past weekend. Only this time I kept it local and crash landed in West Hollywood Park in Los Angeles.

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At my first Pride, I spent approximately 97.8 percent of the time consuming tequila and cutting the fuck up. But this time around, I wanted to take everything in—the sights, the sounds, the intent—and really be in tune with the moment.

This entailed canvassing Santa Monica Boulevard—the epicenter of all things non-binary and ostentatious in Los Angeles—to witness how invaluable non-profit organizations like the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Alliance For Housing and Healing are to our community. I was also being blown away by Diet Coke’s brilliant Unlabeled campaign, which challenged both the necessity and burden of societal labels by providing Pride attendees with stickers branded with designations like “misrepresented,” “independent” and “proud,” and questioning how these characterizations made each of us feel.

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I also learned that cotton candy nachos are apparently a thing, but one of the most insightful moments of my day came when I stumbled upon a pop-up art gallery comprised entirely of alluring artwork created by transgender artists. Inside, I met Dylan and Danielle who, after explaining that the Trans Galleria was developed in conjunction with the Trans Wellness Center, expressed why Pride was so important to each of them.

“LA Pride is a great time to connect with our community,” Dylan said. “And specifically in this climate, for transgender people at this point in time, it’s important for us to come and show face. [...] We love our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and all of that, but it’s so important to have our own little space within the community.”

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And in ensuring the needs and concerns of the trans community were addressed, our conversation then veered into the disturbing news that the ninth transgender American had just been killed this year—all of whom have been black women.

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“Even in our community, I don’t feel like our nonprofits are necessarily stepping up and addressing that issue,” Dylan said. “We have so many people here in the queer community with so many white dollars that need to step up. Whether it’s funding programs for education or public service announcements that this is happening in our community. [...] As a white trans man, I want to see more of my white trans brothers at these rallies. Where are you guys? Why are you not amplifying our black trans sisters’ voices?”

Another noteworthy oasis I found amongst all the glitter and chaos was #SIZZLE!, an alcohol-free carnival with attractions, booths and games manned by organizations like Alcohol Anonymous, Safe Refuge and the Addiction Recovery Services arm of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

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But while all the enlightenment had its place, Pride is the perfect place to grab a drink and cut the fuck up too. Ask rapper Cupcakke, who put jaws on the floor with lyrics like “I wanna blow bubbles with sperm” or Blac Chyna and Wendy Williams, who crashed the Plaza Stage to raucous applause.

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In all, while the ubiquitous nipple covers, MAC-sponsored glitter pools and rainbow thongs were enticing, I must reluctantly report that The Gay Agenda was nowhere to be found.

I know. I can’t believe it myself.

Though hopefully, that means that instead of being terrified of some insidious Gay Agenda, I lived, learned and hope to see more of you there in the future. Not only because we owe it to our communities, but because each of us owes it to ourselves.