Somehow, "what do you like to do?" is an acceptable question for strangers to ask each other. I'm not combative, and rarely defensive, but I only ever hear it as a challenge. Prove to me you're interesting. I can't. Really, I can't. Despite years of practice, I've yet to describe my life once without sounding like the dullest gay guy in the world.
I go to church. I read in cafés. I watch documentaries with my boyfriend. I don't drink, so I survive parties by coaxing conversations out of strangers about their ambitions, divorces and the novels that inspired them as teenagers. Sure, I throw a folk concert or queer dance party in there every now and then, but nine nights out of 10 you'll find me with a novel or a friend in deep conversation.
I think "lifestyle" is a ridiculous term, but technically everything I just described is mine. Technically, it's my gay lifestyle, something my family discusses when they talk about the ex-gay ministry they attend every week in Texas.
My parents and sister know many men and women who used to be in the gay lifestyle -- "for years," my father usually adds. I always prod for a definition of what that means. Because, seriously, what does it mean? Is it just admitting attraction? Just coming out? Does it require a sexual partner, or multiple sexual partners -- every weekend?
"Am I in the gay lifestyle?" I ask. They know my bookish, Christian, teetotal ways. They never give a firm answer.
Of course, I have an idea of what my family means when they reference the gay lifestyle. It's what most conservatives envision: sex parties, clubs with names like Dungeon Glory, mesh tank tops, drag queens, assless chaps and Ecstasy. Asked to provide an example of gays in their natural environment, my family would point to the closest Pride parade. There!
Before I came out, I pointed a critical finger at Pride too. Like many closet cases, I used homophobia as a beard. After coming out, I used it to distance myself from the hypersexual exhibitionists that many Christians consider gay people to be.
Really, I was just being judgmental, and I was holding on to the feeble hope that my family, if they could see what gay people were really like, if they could understand that more of us were sexually conservative and boring, would accept their gay son.
I was also being a hypocrite. I didn't like Christians denouncing my sexuality, but I was doing the same thing to Pride participants. Spiritually, who am I to judge someone's social and sexual habits? Life is too short, as they say, and I have plenty of shit in my own life. I'm not in a position to hose and towel off someone else, much less pronounce how dirty they are.
So I quit judging, and last month, when my pastor invited me to march with our church in Pride, I accepted.
Portland Pride is just big enough to offer a sampling of everything I expected: Rihanna on loudspeakers, S&M marchers with their gimps, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and a beautiful porn star dancing on a bathhouse's float. But there were families too, and elderly marchers, and teenagers from rural suburbs smiling like they'd just been liberated from oppressive homes.
Watching the parade, waiting to march, it felt like a celebration. Some shirtless men had perfect abs; some were morbidly obese and hirsute. None of that mattered. There wasn't a normal gay lifestyle on display, no pressure to conform.
I kept thinking a bookish introvert looked as out-of-place there as the Duggars would be (incidentally an incredible idea for an episode, TLC), but halfway through the march, I saw a woman on the sidewalk, holding a sign that read, "I love my gay son."
I knew about PFLAG. I knew families like mine were becoming less and less common. Still, it was so simple it shocked me. She didn't say, "I love my gay son -- but disapprove of his lifestyle," or, "I love my gay son -- because I interpret the Bible in its cultural context." Just "I love my gay son," words I've wanted to hear from my family for a decade.
I broke rank to hug and thank her. I meant to be quick, but she wouldn't let go for what felt like a minute, because she knew. She knew I lacked a family who loved me without condition; she probably knew I judged myself and the gay community for years because of it; she knew I needed a few seconds of unconditional love, which she gave me.
Afterwards, I collected myself, rejoined my church and survived most of the rest of the day without crying. It caught up with me that night, the sensation of feeling loved for no other reason than being myself. I hadn't felt that since middle school. I sobbed for almost an hour.
Moving experiences vanish as suddenly as they occur. I'm still the same person, still would rather spend an afternoon in a bookstore than in a crowd of thousands of strangers. But because of Pride, I felt loved, lovable, for being my dull, shy and gay self. And if that's what it means to be in the gay lifestyle, I'm proud to be a part of it.