Essay from Tony Longshanks LeTigre


Or, How I Learned to Stop Hating and (Sort of) Love the Pride Festival

By Tony Longshanks LeTigre

For my first five years in San Francisco I talked shit about the Pride Festival, without ever once attending it. This past June of 2014, during an inspirational phase of getting back on my feet after a long spell in limbo, I decided to give Pride a chance & accepted an invitation to march in the parade with a protest contingent led by ceaseless agitator Tommi Avicolli Mecca. An epic day ensued; it turned out to be tons of fun, enough to make me rethink old prejudices.

My distaste for Pride came second-hand from friends of the more radical persuasion. I’d heard much criticism of the festival, and its governing body, the Pride Committee, whose heavy-handed refusal to grant honorary marshal status to the conscientious objector formerly known as Bradley Manning in 2013 resulted in a firestorm of controversy. This year we had something to celebrate, for the Pride Committee had apologized & belatedly honored Chelsea Manning (as she now prefers to be known). This victory was enough to overpower doubts & premonitions I had, in the weeks leading up to the festival, that a terrorist incident like the one at the Boston Marathon might disrupt Pride.

My cousin, whom I call Cousin, had graciously agreed to put me in hair & makeup for the big day, being a professional makeup artist & more gifted in these areas than my poor self. Sunday morning I arrived at his fab flat in Pacific Heights & we spent two glittering hours transforming ourselves into creatures of glamor. We were assisted by Cousin’s charming, civilized Persian lover of many years, who took the pre-makeup photo of the two of us together on this page. (Am I really that tall?) Girl drag hadn’t been my first impulse, I’d wanted to put together a sort of sexy super hero-meets-glam rocker outfit of my own design, but that didn’t happen in time, so I went with the path of least resistance: trying on things from Cousin’s magic closet, finally settling on an American flag dress & wig. I managed to punk-ify the outfit by pinning the dress up scandalously high, then decking my lower body in torn fishnets & old Converse sneakers sprayed with green paint. I was marching with protesters, after all; it would be unseemly to appear happily patriotic.

As you can see from the pics, Cousin did a marvelous job on my hair & makeup!

At 1045am, having bid Cousin adieu until later in the day, I arrived downtown at the appointed location, where all the different groups were slowly coalescing into parade formation, including Tommi’s group. I was happy to join a group of people who were not afraid to shake shit up a little bit in the time-honored tradition of civil disobedience, by forming a counterspectacle in the midst of the mainstream/assimilationist spectacle (can you tell I’ve been reading Guy DeBord?); this was the perfect way for me to enjoy Pride actively for the first time without sacrificing my principles. We were a ways back in the procession, number 92 or something, so there was a long wait before the march began, so to amuse ourselves & get our anarchist juices flowing we squatted the Google float—I can still hear in my head the sweet chant: “HOW DO YOU SPELL MONOPOLY? GEE OH OH GEE ELL EE (GOOGLE)!”—& harassed Supervisor Scott Wiener’s camp with fliers in support of Prop G. The fliers bore quotes from former SF Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had sponsored a similar measure shortly before his assassination in a previous cycle of history. Wiener, a venal enabler of the moneyed interests currently making such a killing (in more ways than one) with the SF real estate market, has grossly claimed Milk, a populist humanitarian & grassroots activist, as an inspiration; so it was with some satisfaction, & a hint of venom, that I approached The Tower of Evil (my nickname for Wiener, who stands six foot seven) & handed him a “YES ON PROP G” flier. He took it without comment, read it over stoically; afterward I caught him eyeing us warily. We were giddy as schoolgirls, high on our own audacity: an early high for the day.

Finally, somewhere between noon & one o’clock, the summons came to march. We took the street with red flags flying & banners declaring “EVICTION = DEATH!”, augmented by a marching band in full costume playing “I Will Survive” on the accordion, plus two anti-Wiener guys dressed as cocks (in both senses of the word), & last but not least, Tommi Mecca, our stalwart veteran of many protests, speaking truth to power through his megaphone as he had done since the days of Harvey Milk (when Scott Wiener was a little boy living in New Jersey). Tommi had rehearsed with us beforehand a street theater routine that we would go into, on his cue, at several strategic moments during the march. The first was when we approached the judges’ tables. Tommi started talking about evicted tenants forced onto the streets, falling into homelessness, dying in poverty….at this point we stopped marching, dropped our flags & banners, & slowly sank to the pavement in unison (or as close to unison as one can expect from a herd of anarchist cat people). There we lay, still & silent, a field of slain warriors amidst a roiling sea of spectators, while Tommi went on shouting slogans of resistance. When his call to arms grew strident again—”RISE UP, FIGHT BACK, EVICTION IS DEATH!”—we came back to life, slowly rose to our feet, hoisted our flags & banners aloft once more, & marched fiercely onward!

Simple but effective theatrics, I suppose. The crowd ate it up, even if they didn’t really get our point. The judges liked us also, for we received word of their approval almost immediately, while we were still marching. Moreover, we were nominated as best contingent in the entire parade in the post-Pride awards ceremony, a month or so after the event. It was a public poll (I voted for us!), but I never heard who won, which probably means we didn’t. To be sure, it’s flattering to have been considered among the five or six best contingents in a pageant of such size; not too shabby for my first Pride outing! Flattery, however, usually puts me on guard. As soon as I heard the judges had given us love within minutes of passing their tables, I wondered if their enthusiasm was genuine or staged. Likewise, when I learned of the award nomination, suspicion arose again that this sudden congeniality coming from the Pride establishment was political, designed to make up for the Manning debacle & win back some of those pesky agitators they’d alienated. Who knows enough about the inner workings of Pride to say? Not I.

During the march, which seemed to last long enough for glaciers to move across the earth, I tried to curb my natural impulses to smile & wave at the crowd, since we were supposed to be angry & discordant, but it was hard to resist when I saw how reactive the crowd was. Never before have I witnessed so vividly the effect that smiling can have on other people: every time I broke character & sparkled for the crowd, they returned my love a hundredfold: smiling, waving, screaming, reaching out their hands. A heady taste of what life must be like on the curious pedestal of fame, I suppose. A taste is all I want. Mass emotions, whether on the light or dark side, unsettle me.

When it was finally over, I hugged my comrades, met a friend who had come to watch me in the parade, & then collapsed on the street, all passion spent. That’s when my friend took the photo on this page. That dress just barely goes far enough…in all the day’s excitement, I had neglected to wear panties, & my junk did in fact make several unplanned public appearances throughout the course of the day, as people were happy to point out more than once; but I took it all in punk stride, for I was feeling fierce that day, too fierce to fret over ladylike modesty!

Somewhere, scattered across the internet like stars across the galaxy, there must be millions of photos of me from Pride Sunday. Sassy fruit flies from all over the Bay Area who had come to the City for the festival loved me in my glamorous drag & I had countless requests to pose for photos. I offered to pick one black girl up & hold her in my arms for the picture, & that was a mistake, because when her friends saw me do it, they all wanted the same. I had to do a lot of picking up & holding people & smiling for the cameras. I’m not vain enough to spend time tracking down those photos online, but I am vain enough to hope that some of them turned out all right!

I saw police seize a case of beer from brazen hustlers trying to sell it on the sidewalk. The officers dumped the bottles out into the garbage can, one by one. Despite my decision to abstain from drinking that day, the sight of alcohol being wasted so flagrantly was hard on my heart.

Then, free to roam, I joined the swelling ranks of street revelers in the civic center. I’d earned a little indulgence & rolled a joint with a MUNI transfer, for lack of rolling papers. I had decided in advance not to drink, unless later in the evening & in moderation, so that I could enjoy the whole event with a clear head & steer clear of trouble. Instead, I got a kick out of pretending I was drunk, stumbling through the milling crowds, falling down on piles of garbage bags or crashing on a bare patch of grass with limbs askew. For some reason I found this liberating, a way to reference grim chapters of my drunken past playfully, then break out of them into the brighter present. I found by pretending to be drunk I could tap into the more extrovert persona suitable for a massive party like this one. I met people, talked to strangers, rather than remaining aloof as usual. I danced, at Faerie Camp, for the first time in years; I’d almost forgotten what that feels like! Everyone had told me to check out Faerie Camp, that it was the best part of the civic pandemonium, but it took me forever to find it, because it was intentionally unmarked to avoid overcrowding. Once I did find it, though, I was able to skip the terribly long line at the main door & slip in through a side door immediately, thanks to a friend I’d run into earlier who had given me a password for quick entry!

Faerie camp was a revelation. I was instantaneously transported to another, superior reality within that small space, separated from commercialized conformity by flimsy, improvised walls that could come down at any minute, yet at the same time existing eternally, ever spouting anew from the fountain of inspired resistance. “This is where I belong,” I thought as soon as I walked in, “if I belong anywhere in all this.” The people looked better, not just more beautiful or stylish, but more genuine, & they had better music to dance to. The DJ was rocking out to his own set so vigorously that if the cord on his headphones had been any shorter, he would’ve unplugged himself—always a good sign at a party. I saw people on the dance floor, or rather the dance lawn, doing things that blew my mind, in a good way: fat middle-aged women bending over like beach balls to freak dance, or fuck dance, with well-oiled gay boys in bulging speedos, who were not at all sexist, or ageist, or sizeist, to judge by their enthusiastic acceptance of the dance offer! There was something moving to me about this sight of a person normally deemed outside society’s standards of sexiness nonetheless embracing her sexy self in the midst of a sea of queers who welcomed her among them without judgement.

I think that I saw Oberon, king of the fairies, dishing with his phalanx of admirers in the tented area. Even in that crowd, his appearance was arresting, grotesque & funny at the same time: long white hair flowing back from his bizarrely painted face, with pink lipstick smeared in a big circle all around his mouth, wearing a homemade-looking dress of shimmery silver material like little squares sewn together, with a matching purse, & a big fat ass that may have been fake. (Cousin showed me one of the specially designed pillows he uses to plump up his posterior as his drag alter ego, Nicole Monsoon.) He looked like a cross between a mermaid prostitute & Dee Snyder in the video for “We’re Not Gonna Take It (Any More)!” by Twisted Sister. I pointed him out to my friend Azusa, as we stood nearby smoking a bowl from her nine-inch glass pipe, & said, “That’s my favorite person here.”

But the brightest moment & the one that has remained with me most vividly from that day was when I met the Caramel Sunshine Goddess. I had left Faerie Camp & was on my way to the Castro to rendezvous with Cousin, & was a bit footsore & maybe looking down at that point, when suddenly a smiling Latina woman rushed toward me with a joyous laugh. I will never forget the lingering embrace that followed in her warm, sunkissed, caramel-colored arms. “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!” she cried in my ear, as others gathered around us to join in the group hug. She told me to smile, to be proud, to laugh in other peoples’ faces if they threw shade or ignorance my way & not to let it get me down. “I love black, I love white, I love straight, I LOVE GAY!” she shouted, refusing to let me go. She felt like sweet love itself! She was an absolute doll.

At last, waning a bit but still pretty fierce, I met Cousin at the Edge. He had gone all the way with his drag & turned himself into a grand dame of epic proportions, with a hilarious red beehive hairdo surpassing any I had seen at Pride. (He works at Gypsy Rosalie’s wig shop on Polk Street, which has been in business since 1957.) I brought a friend with me into the bar, a lesbian who had also marched in Tommi’s troop in the parade earlier, & she bought us a round of beer & talked the bartender into giving us a free shot. I could hardly turn that down, so one shot & half a beer was my total alcohol consumption at Pride. By that time it was evening, around 7pm. Cousin & his better half are experienced enough to know when to leave a party, especially the party of Pride. “We always leave early, before it turns dark,” they said, meaning “dark” in more ways than one. I recalled violent news reports about mean people from the East Bay who come to SF to stir up trouble at Pride, & decided to call it a day & go back with them.

Sure enough, we saw on the news next morning that someone had smashed their car into the window of Cliff’s Variety later Sunday night, among other bad things.

So that was my Pride experience. In many ways, it was a near-perfect day. I was proud of my conduct, of following through on the commitment, of remaining in control of myself & not losing my cellphone or anything else, of the fact I’d spent a grand total of three dollars (on a bottle of water) at the notoriously cash-draining festival. “You actually held up pretty well,” Cousin said as we defrocked at his flat afterward. I was glad of his approval, for in truth he was the main reason I’d wanted to go to Pride in the first place, to generate good memories of the two of us together while we still could. He had suffered much & been diagnosed with leukemia recently, & we’d had differences in the past, when I was in my cups, that had damaged our relationship. I wanted to prove to him, as well as to myself, that I could drop the surly non-joiner act & take part in the grand spectacle that was important to him, for once, without resorting to severe inebriation or doing anything embarrassing. That day did something to repair our relationship, & it certainly did much to raise my esteem for the Pride festival. I will participate again, but without forgetting the good lesson I learned that day: to remain in control, & get out while the getting’s good!

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