Appearances

“Congratulations,”

she’d trilled “it’s another boy!”

almost, anyway

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A lesson in pride

After a long walk around the infamous Lake Merritt, I wrote to a friend saying I was in town. When she replied that she needed another hour to get ready and walk up to where I was, I decided to walk to her place, instead. It was only then that I realised she lived on the other side of the lake, another half a mile away. Not wanting to go around the lake again—the sun had come out stronger than I expected—I took a path through the streets observing the buildings flanking the sidewalks.

Oakland was quiet even for a Sunday. Having experienced flabbergasting activity in the streets of San Francisco, Oakland was such a contrast. Walking down empty streets I realised that Oakland was more of a residential town. It helps that Oakland has far fewer attractions than San Francisco. Tourists don’t spend five days sightseeing Oakland. Although there’s plenty to see and do in Oakland—not much interests typical tourists. I was glad I was atypical that way. Spending hours on Oakland streets was great for me.

After a cinnamon coffee and a lengthy catching-up conversation, my friend suggested we hit the Oakland Pride Festival. It was the day after my visit to Castro and so I was all in for another such experience. What I wasn’t sure of, however, was the meaning of pride festivals.

Oakland Pride Franklin Street

It was mid September, and according to my friend, Oakland always has its pride festival in September or October, unlike the rest of the US does in June. I listened in polite silence. What she said meant nothing to me. I had no idea what a pride festival was, how it’d be, or what people would do there.

I was curious, though.

Perhaps that’s why she suggested it in the first place. She knew I wanted to learn and understand and visiting the festival would be a good way to start. And so we walked a little more. The festival took up two entire streets and traffic was re-routed. Even as we walked towards the end of a long line, we heard music and singing ring through the air. The queue moved fast enough and before long we had our own pride bracelets. Everywhere we turned were people sporting multicoloured clothes, waving flags, calling out hellos to each other, and drowning bottles of water and soda—it was a warm day.

I made a quick observation: Oakland has a massive LGBTQ community. The moment we walked in, high-energy music and excited voices hit us that it was hard not to join in. It wasn’t crowded, though, for which I am thankful. The pride festival of San Francisco, according to my friend, attracted thousands of people every year. Oakland contented with a few hundreds. There were stalls on every side and people walking from one to another buying pride merchandise or just saying hello to each other. Everything imaginable was shaded rainbow—bow ties, flags, t-shirts, scarves, jewellery, fancy costumes, and even eye masks. It was a congregation of all things bright and colourful. Pride festivals are for the allies and the LGBTQ community to flaunt their existence at the same time. Not only is it a way of declaring their rights, but also a celebration of it.

It wasn’t all happiness and laughter, though. Pride festivals bring out so many emotions, I learnt from my friend. Most LGBTQ people have a rough time coming out to the world. Parents shun children, and society gives ill treats them every where they go. This was even more dire during the 60s and 70s. That’s when pride festivals took root. That’s when all these people whom society disregarded came together to share their stories and to encourage each other to stay strong. Nowadays, though, pride festivals have transitioned as a more lighter gathering. Nevertheless, the price scene still invites everyone who’s been hurt or hurting and embraces them with encouragement. After all, everyone should be proud of who they are.

Oakland Pride was a lesson I’d cherish forever.

Outside the box

Marcus paced the living room. On the couch, his mother stared into space while his father flipped a magazine. They weren’t too happy with his engagement. They preferred Jessica to Jose. Marcus, however, had decided.

“Would they like me?” José had doubted. “I’m marrying you, and I love you.” Marcus had replied every single time.

“José—weird name for a girl.” His father broke into Marcus’s thoughts. “Jecintha,” his mother responded.

“Oh.”

Marcus paced faster.

When the doorbell rang, he ran. His transman fiancé, José, looked as smart as ever. Together they walked inside, Marcus eager to release his burden.

The Castro

Having spent a couple of hours in Haight Ashbury, I moved on to the next place on my list: Castro District in San Francisco. Although I had had a peek at Castro during my hop-on-hop-off tour, I hadn’t spent much time there. And so when a colleague suggested I spend some time looking around Castro street, I was happy to oblige.

I grew up amidst people who don’t discuss gender as anything aside male and female. Where I’m from, we have an isolated gay community. Sure, I’ve heard there’s a strong vocal presence and representation for the gays in my country, but I’ve never seen it or heard about it. As a result, I walked into San Francisco’s Castro without any previous interaction with the LGBTQ community.

Castro 3

Although I do have friends from work who identify as LGBTQ in the US, and it was with their guidance that I found out about Castro. To find out more and to experience actual gayness, however, I had to explore the streets on my own.

Oh my, what a day that was.

Castro 1

I can’t recall the first thing I noticed. Everything seemed new and grand. Right from the sloping streets to the rising flag poles, everything vivid caught my eye. It was even more exciting to see cable car lines over my head and street car tracks under my feet. I saw the gigantic rainbow flag, fluttering in the warm September afternoon. And I saw plenty of smaller flags swaying along. It meant only one thing to me: declaration. Never before have I seen someone asserting their identity with such pride. It was the ultimate claim of authority, although far from authoritative. It was welcoming. Walking into such a neighbourhood, I felt no discomfort or fear. I saw people being themselves without the fear of judgement. I saw Castro and its people emit a sense of belongingness that anyone could relate to. I didn’t have to dress a certain way or wear make up to be a girl. I could walk around sporting short hair and shorts if I want and people still smiled at me from the bottom of their heats. It was all obvious from the way people walked and conversed.

Dancers in Castro

As I walked further I noticed a group in the middle of the street, dancing. Every street lamp in the area housed a flag. It could because it was pride week, but it could also be Castro’s characteristic. The dancing men spun about as the DJ played in the corner, and older men sat around chatting yet making meaningful conversations. A banner on the DJ table told me it was an organised celebration. Talking to one of the men in the cheering lot, I further learnt that gay organisations in Castro rent out public places and often set up celebrations — just for the hell of it.

I smiled. Then lingered, wanting nothing more than to linger longer. But I continued. There was more of Castro to see.

Trying to balance between the map on my phone and the splendour around me, I found myself standing at a crossing, staring at the crossing. While fellow pedestrians crossed the road onto the other side, I looked with wide eyes at the lines that stretched out from my feet.

Castro 2

And at that moment, I concluded that Castro is one hell of a place to live. It’s not only for the lesbians, gays, the bisexual, transgender, and queer who know how they identify themselves, but even for those confused souls bordering in-between. Who’s to say, perhaps there are more, better, gay villages in other parts of the world, but from my sample of a gay village, I’d say it’s worth cherishing such a vibrant community.

I discovered a marvellous face of San Francisco that day, and it was a discovery I had to make on my own. I already feel like I’ve grown up a little. And that’s always a good sign.