Contrarian: Leave the Leather Bike Shorts at Home

Every year, Philly’s gay pride festival is the wackiest, wildest, most outrageous show in town

IN JUNE, THE city will drape itself in the rainbow flag as lots of men who seem to have nothing to do but sit-ups descend on Center City en masse for our annual gay pride parade — ostensibly to watch other men who do lots of sit-ups cruise by on floats.

In Philadelphia — birthplace of the Giovanni’s Room bookstore, Henri David’s Halloween bash, and the urban legend of hunky television personality Jerry Penacoli — the parade is meant to serve as a celebration of liberation for all of us who engage in the love that dare not speak its name. And you know, that’s fine. After all, the Irish get their own parade, as do the Italians, the Puerto Ricans and a bunch of others. (Don’t get me started on the cross-dressing Mummers.) All the flag-waving and chest-thumping serves a purpose — it’s an exclamation point on said particular group’s long journey to societal assimilation and acceptance, and an homage to its culture.

The problem is that the “gay culture” venerated in this annual event is actually, well, gross: men wearing very little shaking their asses to thumping techno, clownish drag queens, leather daddies. What was once done for shock value now has little shock, less value (at one parade I went to, the North American Man/Boy Love Association marched), and no relevance to contemporary gay life. All of which is why, after two decades of breathless progress in attaining and growing our civil rights, we’ve hit a wall.

Like a willful teenage girl tuning out her mother’s protests that her belly ring and bitch boots send the wrong message, the pride festival clings steadfastly to its state of rebellion, daring anyone to say something. That’s historical, and even understandable. It’s also pretty stupid. Because for all of the tolerance we’ve gained, there’s a lot more yet to be earned.

I want to get to a place where two men can hold hands walking down the street, not in the gay ghetto at 13th and Pine, but in Port Richmond. In Kensington. In Delaware County, for that matter. “Well, that’s your problem” is the rejoinder to those who would threaten us for attempting such PDA on their turf. But it’s not their problem. It’s ours. And at this stage of the fight, we’re not going to fix it wearing bike chains and fake eyelashes.

I WENT TO my first gay pride parade in 1995. Having been “out” for just about a year, I was suitably excited to feel a part of something, to be celebrating our sense of “unity and community,” as one piece of literature declared. I bought a t-shirt that showed a band of soldiers who looked like they were in a Sgt. Rock comic, each of whom had a pink triangle on his helmet. Just to make sure I could get as gay as possible, I bought a black-string choker to match.

It was the last Sunday in June, and by the time my friends and I settled on a spot from which to watch the festivities, half the guys around us had their shirts off. Which seemed to be in keeping with the theme of the whole parade, I discovered, as float after float of bumping, grinding Abercrombie-looking men wearing G-strings or leather bike shorts rolled by, some openly simulating sex as the spectators hooted and catcalled. There were other contingents interspersed — an exotic zoo of lesbian bikers, drag queens with names like Hedda Lettuce and Patty O’Furniture, the occasional political candidate, smiling stiffly and trying not to show his terror — but it was the men who dominated. It was like a two-hour Playgirl photo shoot without the money shots.

I stood there slightly stunned, but also energized that all of this forbidden, salacious material was not only out in public, but out and proud, celebrated and venerated.

Then my friend Dave sidled up next to me. Dave works as a financial planner in New Jersey, and though he then had a new boyfriend, he wasn’t out at work — and had made it perfectly clear that he never intended to be. The world of finance, he said, was simply too homophobic, too old-boy-network, to accept an openly gay man in its midst. So he kept his mouth shut, invented the occasional phantom girlfriend for watercooler purposes, and went to gay bars and a pride fest now and then to let his hair down.

“Isn’t this amazing?” I asked him.

“Not really,” he said, arms folded across his chest. I was going to ask him why when a group from PFLAG — Parents, Families  and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — ­rounded the corner. One of the women holding the banner was in her mid-60s; it was a minute or two before we realized she was my friend Andy’s mom. Andy leapt into the street and hugged her, and as we all choked up, Dave’s offhand comment seemed all the more puzzling. Most of our mothers wouldn’t have been caught dead at a gay pride parade, never mind marching in one. How could Dave look at a scene like that and not feel it was something ­special?

“Because this isn’t what will be on the 11 o’clock news,” Dave later explained. “What will be are all the freaks, the go-go boys, the drag queens. If we really wanted to send a message about gay pride,” he said, shaking his head, “we’d all march down the street in three-piece suits.”

I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND it then. But I do now. Let me be clear: I have complete and utter respect for the pioneers who laid the foundation for my civil rights, from the authors like Crisp and Baldwin to those feisty Stonewall drag queens. I’m not arguing that the path toward equality for gays in this country wasn’t paved with the occasional rhinestone. What I am arguing is that the tactics that won us the first round won’t work in the next.

When I was growing up, it was inconceivable for an openly gay person to appear on television or in movies. (Elton John was married, for God’s sake.) I recall one memorable meatloaf dinner at my home in Northeast Philly at which my oldest brother joked to my dad that Jim Nabors, the singer and TV’s Gomer Pyle, was gay. My father went off, so angry at such blasphemy that we spent the rest of the meal in silence. Things weren’t much better by the ’80s, when ABC was boycotted after the Philly-set drama thirtysomething showed two gay men in bed together.

Mercifully, times change. Today, gay characters on TV (Brothers & Sisters, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives) are common; until recently, suburban moms tuned in daily to hear Rosie O’Donnell blather on about what her “wife” and kids did the prior weekend. In 2003, Philly launched a marketing campaign with the slogan “Get your history straight and your nightlife gay”; in November, an “out” lesbian won a seat on the Kennett Square borough council — and nobody cared. My brother Jack and his wife went house-hunting recently, finally buying a place in Collegeville in no small measure because it was being sold by a gay guy. “Nobody keeps up their properties better,” my brother said without a shred of irony. Before their most recent Christmas party, my parents’ friends Joanne and ­Dennis — he’s a Catholic deacon — made sure to tell me I could bring a date “if there’s anyone special in your life.”

That’s progress, and it’s worth noting. African-Americans don’t have sit-ins at lunch counters anymore because they don’t have to — they won that battle, and their tactics changed as they prepared for the even bigger ones ahead. Would Barack Obama be a viable candidate for president today if they hadn’t? There’s a lesson in there for us, and it’s not found in a box of Nice ’n Easy.

I CAN ALREADY hear the screeching and howling about my deep self-loathing, my internal homophobia. Save your breath. Such remonstrations miss the point. I’ll happily defend the rights of any man who wants to pile on the pancake, or those who seek to surgically switch sides in the battle of the sexes. But I, too, have rights, and they include not being defined by being lumped in with every fringe character who feels like an outsider. Frankly, I have nothing more in common with someone who wants to switch his gender than with someone who embraces Rush Limbaugh’s politics. But I’m admonished as a traitor if I don’t embrace the would-be changees as part of my LGBT “community.” Uh, why?

It’s ironic to me that the struggle for gay rights in this country has been the struggle not to be marginalized, not to be relegated to the sidelines and dismissed as some sort of aberration that threatens to blow up the nuclear American family. And yet at every gay pride festival and parade, we do just that, balkanizing ourselves into neat little compartments — the transvestites, the bears, the twinks, the daddies — and giving a fresh new round of ammo to the small-minded people who need little encouragement to use it against us.

There was a time when such in-your-faceness served a purpose: These displays were not only valid but necessary, political polemics dressed in feathers, sequins and leather. But today, it all feels tired and  a little embarrassing, like the crazy cousin who comes to Thanksgiving dinner in tie-dye and Birkenstocks because he just can’t let the ’60s go.

We blared, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Guess what: They’re used to it. My friend Jenny, a hip suburban soccer mom, once told me she would love to take her two girls to watch a gay pride parade. But, she said sadly, “I just can’t expose them to all of that.” Which doesn’t make her a homophobe — it makes her a mom. And by now, we should have advanced to a point where people aren’t afraid to bring their kids to our parades.

A few weeks ago, I went to a baby shower for my friends Jim and Paul, who just adopted a little girl. Twenty men sat in a room and watched as the proud papas opened up baby blankets and onesies, and listened to stories of 2 a.m. feedings and how to properly warm milk. My friend Dave and his boyfriend were there, talking about work they were having done to their house and a company trip they were about to take. Two years ago, Dave came out at work and got … a shrug.

As I watched the cooing over and ogling of Jim and Paul’s daughter, it struck me that this is the next chapter toward gay equality in this country, and its soundtrack is not sung by Cher.

We’re here. We’re queer. We’re moving into your cul-de-sac, we’re buying groceries at your Shop n Bag, and we’re heading off for work in the morning in our suits.

Get used to it.