In Countries Without LGBTQ Rights, Our Parade is the Subversive Pride Within

Abigail Villarroel

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My very first Pride parade was in 2017 in the United Kingdom when I was 20 years old. I was kindly invited by a fellow gay friend to tag along with his group to the Oxford city centre where celebrations would be taking place. That day, I presented myself in the most visibly queer way I ever had with a glitter beard, makeup, and an LGBTQ flag as a cape. But as seamlessly as I had blended in with the crowd, I knew I was performing my identity in a way I never imagined I’d be able to. 

Pride was never a tradition growing up in Venezuela or migrating to Qatar. For residents in these countries, being queer is not something to be celebrated. We are making strides of course, but whilst mainstream LGBTQ narratives look to move our stories out of the closet and into the spotlight, I recognise people living proudly without fear are exceptions to the majority.

In these countries our rights are an afterthought and many of our LGBTQ siblings do what they know how to do best: survive. They thrive in oppressive structures. They look for small glimmers of hope wherever they can find it. Those who are able to travel and free themselves of the shackles of their society do so, but this takes money and resources not everyone has. So most of us settle for something less immersive, like watching Call Me By Your Name and RuPaul’s Drag Race. When in doubt, we create anonymous social media accounts to interact with the media that speaks to us the most, utilising a queer modes of knowing and speaking in ways the day-to-day grind won't allow.

The Pride parade I attended in 2017 felt anti-climatic in a way because it was like a continuation of my own internal Pride parade — one that had been taking place for years prior to this celebration.

Mine wasn't loud or attended by thousands. It was just me, listening to self-empowerment anthems deemed too cheesy by my straight friends. Quietly, I dared to read about Stonewall and the Gay Rights Movement over several years, slowly acquiring the lexicon necessary to let go of my shame and understand who I was. In this regard, I've come to consider our history a treasure trove of knowledge that said to me: “You're not alone, you never have been and you never will be.” Perhaps the history was too American and it took place too far away in more socially progressive parts of the world. Those facts never deterred me from relating and taking it as my own; even as I lived on the other side of the world, distance was a challenge easily overcome with my computer.

I had spent most of my life in Venezuela and Qatar, having only been in the UK for four short years. My queerness was folded like origami across these cultures I had learned to navigate. I did this alone. There was no immediate outside movement looking to help me; there was no effort from the government or a local “be yourself to free yourself” campaign. Whilst one country dealt with the economic turmoil of the Bolivarian Revolution, the other country drowned in its own wealth, conflicted by how to integrate Islam smoothly into its rapidly growing nation.

When there are no gay bars to meet anyone, you become grateful for the vast array of dating applications available. You use these to meet people like you and have a tangible encounter with someone who'd understand the nuances of your identity. Going to a stranger's house right off the bat isn't your straight girl friend's definition of safety, but she cares for you and she expresses her concern. You explain there aren't tons of places to meet in this small city and you both don't wanna be seen together — but you stop short of saying you'll take the risk and you don't care.

Our ability to shapeshift and hide can be misunderstood by people as a desire to stay hidden, but the truth is that we never stop looking for a moment to be authentically ourselves. The lucky ones get to come out and make that gamble. Most of us go on as best as we can, attending our daily Pride parade inside our heads. We focus on remembering we're worth it and hoping things will improve, but moving forward without dwelling too much. We diligently wait to see what new law or surveillance tactic will come up to further complicate our already complex lives.

For most of us around the world, this is the reckoning we experience before ever attending our very first Pride parade. For every one of us celebrating pride openly, there are hundreds of us learning the meaning of pride quietly, whispering words of self-love to our spirits so that one day we’ll feel more comfortable under the sun.

 
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