There is this picture of me, taken at my first gay pride parade, that is one of my favourites. In it, I’m wearing a vintage red and white baseball t-shirt (ironically, of course) and a black sports cap. I must have been about twenty years old at the time, but I look years younger. I’m standing in the centre of the photo, my skinny left hand grasping the straps of a tiny blue backpack, and my eyes are closed – having just blinked the moment the picture was taken.
When I look back at the photo now, though, some twenty-six years later, I wonder if I was blinking. For all around me there is colour and commotion: balloons, bodies, faces, smiles. Perhaps it wasn’t a blink. Perhaps, as I stood there in the centre of all that raging chaos, I was blinded by brilliance. Joyful, beautiful, brilliance.
I had arrived.
I say that this was my first gay pride parade, but it wasn’t. I had “passed by” on my own the previous year. I had read about the Divers/Cité parade in the Montreal Mirror, seen the photocopied route at the cash of a bar I had darted into the week before. Almost on autopilot, I woke up that Sunday morning, got dressed and left the house, not admitting to myself where I was going. I rode the subway into town and then got off one stop before the departure point. Once outside, I walked towards the noise. I headed north along Saint-Denis Street and then west along Mount Royal to the escalating sounds of music, microphones and motors. I had never seen these streets closed to traffic before, but here they were, a concrete carpet that had been rolled out, and lay waiting, for the city’s gay community. I walked the route in reverse and came across more and more people as I did. People with props, wigs, costumes, friends, all heading in the same direction as me. Afraid to go too far, I stopped at one of the corners and, emboldened by the men and women beginning to gather on the sidewalks, waited with them to see what all the fuss was about.
Little did I know how much was about to change.
I am no stranger to parades. I grew up on Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, the cold green pageant of the city’s Irish and Irish-for-a-day. Every year, my family would gather on the corner of Sainte-Catherine and University with spiked coffee and apples, and watch the marching bands and horses pass by. There would be many photos taken here too: of friends and family, of strangers and shamrocks. Montreal is a city that loves its St. Patrick’s Day, and that included my family. Even my father – a proud Italian – would happily sport a green Derby Hat and a Kiss Me, I’m Irish badge as he cheered from the sidewalk.
But even though I am half Irish, I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand a city’s (or a person’s) love of all-things-Irish. How could I be proud of how I was born? And what about this parade and all of its clichés: the green, the gold, the leprechauns? It felt like being made to sit through church. Like I was being forced to take part in the rituals and sacraments of a congregation that was not my own.
This other parade spoke to me. So strange, yet so familiar, it was as if I had come upon my likeness in a window and watched as that boy sat down to eat with another family. Everything was so loud, so tall, so large, that I felt dwarfed by it all. How could I have lived in this city for two decades and not known this was going on? And how great it would be to be one of these people. One of the proud ones walking down the street before all of these onlookers.
When the parade had finally passed me by, I followed it the rest of the way down. I wasn’t bold enough to walk in the street with the rest of the contingents, so I walked alongside it, on the sidewalk. I followed the parade as it snaked through town, down Mount Royal Street to Saint Denis, down Saint Denis to Cherrier, and then along Cherrier to Parc Lafontaine. At that point the trucks broke off, but everybody else kept walking. I followed them into the park, still very much a “passer-by,” and watched as they arrived at their final destination and began to break off into groups to drink beer, eat hotdogs, listen to music, and dance.
I looked at my watch. I was late. I was scheduled to meet my friends at a pub downtown for our Sunday afternoon ritual: cheap chicken wings and deep bowls of sangria. But as I stood there, in the wake of what I had just witnessed, I found that I couldn’t move. I stood immobile in the grass, in the centre of this park we had all ended up at and watched as everyone celebrated. My watch felt heavy. I didn’t want to leave, but I had no reason to stay.
There is a photo of me that was taken a couple years later. In it I have blue hair (Jeannie, one of the people in charge of parade security, helped me dye it the week before). I am sitting outside on the grass, and my head is resting on the shoulder of my best friend Eric. Around my neck is a laminated pass that tells people who I am: My name is Christopher and I am the publicist for Divers/Cité.
Thinking about this now, it does seem remarkable. How in just a few short years I went from wanting to be the proud person on the float to the man whose job it is to throw the party. I still look young in this photo. I’m twenty-three. I’m out. And I’m proud. I tell people that every day during the five-day celebrations: it’s my voice on the radio, my face on the TV, my name in the paper. And somehow, now, that doesn’t frighten me.
I got the job through my university professor who had been asked by organizers to recommend a student looking for a summer job. Immediately, I said yes. How great would it be to be part of something so life-changing, so transformative? For the parade had changed my life. That day years back, after I had finally dragged myself from the park, I went downtown to meet my friends at the bar. “Is everything alright?” they asked as I stared into my cocktail. “I’m fine,” I said, usually the talkative one. “I’m just tired.” Rather, I was distracted.
It would have seemed impossible to me the day before, but by the end of this night I will have told everyone at the table that I’m gay. They will be surprised but they will, thankfully, support me. Eric will come with me to the parade the following year. He will also take the photo of me with my eyes closed. I will tell my parents too – eventually, before I get this job. And I will save them the trouble of having to tell all of their friends and the rest of the family by doing it myself in the pages of the Montreal Gazette. “Of course, you don’t have to be gay to come to the parade,” I’ll say in interviews. “Not everyone who goes to the St. Patrick’s Day parade is Irish, are they? Everyone is welcome to the party.”
I loved my job. The happy faces, the scorching sun, the exhaustion. I remember the year that we first choked Sainte-Catherine Street with our numbers, how we weren’t sure how many people would show up and how we ended up filling the streets with thousands. And I remember the year that I came across the AIDS vigil as I walked home at the end of the night: people had moved the shimmering candles from the park to the middle of the street and sat by them, staring into them, looking for their friends and former lovers in the light. There are no pictures of these memories, but the images are burned into my brain.
There is a picture that I took, surreptitiously, the following year. I took it as the parade was heading down Saint Denis Street, below Sherbrooke, right in the tight squeeze where the street narrowed and everything seemed to get thicker, friendlier. It was in that spot that I saw the boy I had a crush on. He was blond, thin and scruffy. Not like the other boys who showed off their muscles on floats. This boy was marching, holding the banner for the lesbian-owned burger joint he worked at.
I was happy that the restaurant and its employees were taking part. As the years went on, it seemed that more and more local businesses were boycotting the parade. I remember a particular meeting we had had with the bars that summer about their participation. How many of them no longer seemed to care about the parade, and how furious they were that they couldn’t sell beer on the street. As organizers and permit holders, that responsibility was ours. It was also a significant source of income for this free public event. But the bars would continue to complain to anyone who would listen about not getting their piece of the pie, despite the fact that their establishments continued to be filled till all hours with the people we had rallied together.
I found it disillusioning. Were we not supposed to be coming together? Were we not a community? I had spent money in their bars, danced on their floors, and I was a little more than angry to find out that money was more important than community spirit.
Did it stop me from going out? No. I continued to frequent their establishments, almost every week. For there was always the hope that maybe I would meet someone, perhaps even the scruffy boy. I had thought that working for pride would have given me an advantage when it came to meeting men, but somehow it didn’t work that way. So I took the photo, without the scruffy boy knowing. For if I couldn’t have him, at least I’d have his picture.
He looks a bit different in the photo we take the following year. In it, I’m holding the scruffy boy from behind as we stand in front of the vehicle he will be walking with. I am wearing another sports t-shirt (also ironically) – a burgundy one with the words Penn State on it – and he is wearing a dark blue shirt. It’s my shirt. It’s one that he has taken from my dresser that morning. I had left the apartment before he did, to fax newsrooms and make phone calls, but I met up with him again before the parade started. To give him a kiss and tell him that I love him.
That year there were more calls. Newspapers looking for scandals. A visiting priest had picked up an underage boy in the Village the week before and had gotten caught, and a journalist wanted to know what we thought. “Don’t you think events like yours attract these types of people? Make it easier for these things to happen?” However, I was getting adept at responding to irrelevant or homophobic questions from journalists looking for dirt. There were also more and more village businesses dropping out and it was becoming apparent. The media had got wind of it and that too became a story. Friends, acquaintances, all took sides and would share their opinions with me. Regardless of whether or not I agreed, I admired their passion, their sense of ownership. For it became clear to me that this pride celebration was as important to every one of them as it was to me.
And having someone to love made it all worthwhile. Thankfully, at the end of the day, no matter how crazy it would get, there was someone to come home to. That was another thing that would have seemed impossible years earlier.
The following year, the pictures are darker. There aren’t any from the parade. Just some taken backstage at the park. There are two self-portraits: one taken with the camera held up at arm’s length, the other by positioning the camera in the long vanity mirror that performers have been using all week. In them I look tired, expressionless. I’m wearing the scruffy boy’s t-shirt. I’d like to say that I had forgotten to give it back, but I hadn’t.
I’m not sure if this is fatigue or sadness that I see in the photos. I took a couple of others that evening too. Taken after midnight, they are of the park after everyone has gone home. On the ground, in front of the stage, is a sea of crushed plastic beer cups. I can still hear the sounds of them being swept up.
This will be my last year, I think. My heart’s no longer in it. With each interview I felt like a phoney. Talking about togetherness while inside I was falling apart.
There are not many pictures of parades taken after this. I do take a few shots, but not as much as I once did. After a while, all the photos begin to look the same, I don’t need any more mementos. I have my memories, and they are sharper than any pictures in an album.
Even though I no longer work on it, I still attend the parade. With my friends. With my family. With my partner. Time has made me more sceptical, harder to please. And I no longer see the community the same way I used to, the way I did on the day of that parade twenty-six years ago. But I still want to be there to cheer from the sides. And I’ll watch for the faces of the young men and women for whom we do this and look to see if I can see the wonder in their eyes. See if I can catch any of them blinking.
Originally published in Here & Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing (Longbridge Books, 2021).
Christopher DiRaddo is the author of The Geography of Pluto and The Family Way. He is also the founder and host of the Violet Hour Reading Series & Book Club.