For fifteen years I was a member of a very progressive United Methodist Church. It’s what is known as a Reconciling Church which means they reject the rules set by the national conference that gay folks are living in sin, cannot get married, and cannot serve as a pastor; rather, this church has decided to be inclusive and accepting. They fight against the rules as much as they can without getting their pastor fired.
Every year, a contingent from the church marches in the OKC Gay Pride Parade representing the notion that Christian love has a place in the LGBT community. I saw three UMC churches and two United Church of Christ churches. Even though I am no longer a member of this church, my family is, and in light of the Orlando shooting and the heightened hostility toward the LGBT community, I felt that it was important that I march.
As we waited in front of the church to carpool, I admired some of the colorful costumes of the folks who I would be marching with. I was wearing a Batman shirt and a safari hat. I expressed a desire to have some rainbow on me and a young lady in bright rainbow suspenders offered to give me a rainbow lei from her car.
Before I put it on, another guy, who was wearing an identical lei, complained of “sensory issues” with it. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I wondered if he meant the colors, but when I put it on I understood. It was very scratchy, and I was very hot. Scratchy and hot is enough to cause anyone to have sensory issues, but I decided that gay pride was a good enough cause to endure it. I developed a theory that my uncomfortable nerves would eventual stop sending uncomfortable messages to my brain and I would stop noticing it. I was right.
I do not know the full number of our group, but 9 of us rode in the church van. As we were climbing in, the pastor, who was also the driver, warned us that the air conditioner needed freon and would not be working well. I felt there was a sense of small sacrifice for this cause and nobody complained despite the heat.
I rode in the front seat with the pastor, whom I did not know very well. She explained to the passengers that she had once totaled a van such as this when a car in front of her spun out of control on the Turner Turnpike. It didn’t bother me because I knew it wasn’t her fault and I suspected she intended it as levity. I might have said the same thing under the circumstances.
At some point, on the van or with my wife and son driving to the church, my she explained that there would be a lot of extra security. It wasn’t until then that I realized there was the slight possibility for violence. After all, a gunman had killed 49 folks in a gay club in Orlando just a few weeks before. I knew I had a choice, duck out for safety’s sake or take a stand. I said a quick pray and turned my life over to the care of God, resolving that I was prepared to die in the remote chance that there was a gunman. I refused to live in fear. What an odd thing to have to do on a Sunday afternoon.
It wasn’t a long trip, 25-30 minutes, and when we arrived, the pastor counted as we passed the parade groups to pull into our #18 slot amongst a few other uncommonly accepting churches. We had arrived 2 hours early, but there were many celebratory people walking the sidewalk or gathering around their parade vehicles. I saw many wondrous people in costumes and clothes intended to celebrate the LGBT community. That means trans women and drag queens in glorious dress and makeup. Men in little pink Speedo bathing suits. Hairy biker dudes in black leather. Men in leather kilts. Pink ballet tutus. Fairy wings. And all manner of bright rainbow color and funkiness. It was a truly awesome and beautiful sight.
We stood or sat under a shady tree and chatted. We took pictures with the other churches and of each other. We passed out bags of lolly pops, Safety Pops to be exact. We assembled pinwheels to pass out along with the candy. A man in our group explained that we could not throw candy, but we must hand it directly to a person. I asked if it would be considered an assault if we threw one, half in jest, and he agreed that it could be, but I don’t think he really cared to entertain my idea.
My son and I volunteered to carry large rainbow flags, and we practiced letting the wind stretch them out above us. It was very hot, but a drastic weather change occurred with cool, damp air and strong breezes. The moment it happened, a girl stretched out her arms and praised the sky for the relief. There cheer among many of our group.
And then it was time. Our banner carriers and van driver got into place, and our group step in behind the banner. The group in the two slots in front of us played disco music with a lot of bass. We lifted our flags and marched to the music. The further we walked, the more the cheering. There were people of all walks and ages, from little babies to octogenarians.
We knew that the Westboro Baptist Church would be protesting, and I was a little anxious about it, but I knew they would not violent. When we reached the corner where they were holding signs and shouting “Shame!” on a megaphone, the crowd was cheering so loud, that we were sheltered from the doomsday warnings.
When we passed them, things picked up. The mood began to shift to a high energy party feeling. There were tens of thousand lining up to cheer us and give us cold water. People thanked us, a church, for standing up for the gay community in a time when churches were condemning LGBT folks. I began to feel more and more exuberant to the point where I was waving my flag and hooting and yelling and throwing peace signs to encourage the crowd to cheer even more. What I was experiencing was beyond parties, it was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced. As we approached the grand stand, I became deeply moved by the overwhelming sense of love.
Along the way we encountered friends and gave hugs and took pictures. I never caught what the MC said about us, but our smiles said said enough about us. As we climbed into the van to leave, the rain began to poor. We shared our thoughts on the good timing. In a progressive church, some people struggle with the notion of God blessing through timing like this, because what about all the other groups getting soaked? But my response to small graces is gratitude. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if it was a “God Thing”, it doesn’t hurt to express gratitude. And there was so much to be grateful for. I enjoyed catching up with some of the folks in the back of the van.
I had known in theory what the parade meant, but experiencing it was enlightening. This parade is the one day of the year when the LGBT community of Oklahoma is joined by thousands of (attendance was 30,000) people who fully love and accept and celebrate them amidst a year and state which tears them down and seeks to deny them rights.
My daughter, passionate about social justice, said, “Now the straight people are going to start complaining that they need a straight pride parade.” And I do understand that logical, albeit obtuse, sentiment. The logic being, why should gay folks get to celebrate they’re identity and straight folks cannot? That seems unfair! To which my daughter said, “Every day is straight pride day.”
I put a picture of myself at the parade up on Facebook before I went to bed, and my wife tagged me in one as well. My church is not open about LGBT issues. There are accepting people who would like to be open with their views, but there are folks who would not welcome it, and so I was a little anxious about putting it up. I don’t want me views of the world to interfere with my ministry, but some things are too important. It’s not just a cause, it’s my friends. It’s people who I love who need my support.
There was very little politics other than a few Hillary and Bernie buttons. Although sexuality and gender identity issues have been greatly politicized, it is not about politics. It is about people trying to live out their lives in as authentic a way as possible. And isn’t that what we should all be striving to do?