I’ve never been to a Pride parade. I’ve never danced in the street in June, my arms open wide and swirling like a technicolor tornado. Rainbow is one of my least favorite colors. Those stark, saturated colors induce a bit of panic. Does this make me less gay? Or even more gay because I’m being finicky about a color palette? This eye for color and cohesion comes from my graphic designer mom. I spent so many hours in the backseat of her white Mitsubishi Galant flipping through the pages of her heavy design reference books absorbing the aesthetic wonders on the glossy pages. After days at work, she’d bring home mockup sheets with dozens of variations on the same logo. Mom always let me give some input. She knew I understood the big difference small decisions could make.
Parades were a constant in my childhood. With each season there would be another to attend; strutting in the Halloween parade, shivering in the March snow as my dad played bagpipes in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, dashing into the street for stray tootsie rolls at the Memorial Day parade. Mom was by my side at all of these. Our arms filled with the folding chairs and scratchy baja blanket she always kept her trunk, meandering down the street until we found a solid curb on which to stake our claim. Waving American flags, catching beads flung from back seat beauty queens, spritzing our sweaty faces with the mist of a water bottle/fan combo. But in June? We didn’t go to any parades.
Mom and I developed lots of rituals and traditions beyond parades. Our most sacred was spending nights at Red Robin when my dad was at work.
“I think we get a free burger this time,” she’d say as she flashed her plastic Loyalty Card.
We cruised down the Parkway with the sweet, greasy memories of steak fries flashing through our minds. There were times throughout high school we’d be there more than once a week. Instead of hanging out with my friends on a Friday, I relished in our little ceremony. We’d catch a movie or stop by Barnes and Noble to flip through magazines together while sipping on Starbucks.
By college, these mother-son excursions mostly ended. I was busy with classes and a boyfriend. My phone dinged every so often. Red Robin tonight? A simple text with a wide smile emoji. I ignored the message or sent a hasty can’t tonight or maybe next week. No emojis. My boyfriend, who has a lovingly close relationship with his mom, started to feel bad for mine. He urged me to say yes the next time she asked.
It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with my mom, but we entered a vague territory. She liked my boyfriend and they got along well, but it was the small things I noticed. She never introduced him to anyone as my boyfriend. Rather, “And, uh, this is… this is Steve!”. And maybe that’s my fault. I’m the one who brought Steve over one night for a Sunday dinner. I never called him my boyfriend, but I just kept bringing him over again and again to my parents’ weekly Sunday dinners. I am the only gay man in my family, so I never had a blueprint for how to navigate all this new territory. Things were stilted and cyclical. I felt cringey speaking about my relationship with her, and then felt closed off when she spent most of the time talking about religion and saints she was obsessed with. Steve was right. I should be a good son.
The next time she messaged, I responded with every emoji ever. Unicorn, balloon, hamburger, salsa dancer, heart eyes. Burger night was on. Even in 2018, the restaurant hadn’t changed since our last visit. The same nostalgic, tchotchke-filled decor. The menus were redesigned (mom couldn’t help but to notice) yet still perpetually sticky.
“I think I have a free burger on the card.”
“You say that every time.”
We placed our orders and snatched sugar packets to play table hockey. According to our ancient rules, the loser paid for the onion ring tower. The Sweet & Low soared back and forth across the booth. Our conversation was tepid and aimless. With a slick flick of the finger, mom scored another point and cleared her throat. “I’ve been working on this new project at work.”
“What is it?” I had accepted the fact I would be paying for the onion rings.
“They’re looking for designers to help with Thermo Fisher’s Pride celebration stuff.”
My body slipped back into high school suspicion mode. I felt like I was back in the car the time she almost pushed through and asked me the big question outright. Tears were in her eyes, the “G” hanging in the back of her throat. She was panicking because my aunt had found suspicious pills tucked in between clothes piled on my desk. She told my mom and sister, who started to spiral thinking my good performance at school was all because I was addicted to Adderall. The stack of clothes wasn’t even mine. They were my dad’s and the pills were his gross men over fifty multivitamins. Her pill breakdown broke down her walls and everything was one burst away from cascading down. I wanted to hear her say the word so badly, to finally puncture the balloon that wouldn’t stop growing in my heart. She couldn’t do it. Neither could I.
“Oh, that’s cool.” Stupid answer. I was intrigued but didn’t want to come off as too congratulatory. It was a similar feeling to when someone tells you they know a gay person and that they want to set you up. Did my mom think I instantly cared about everything that was gay? She’s trying to connect with you Drew, be grateful. All I wanted was for her to talk to me like the Drew I always was and still am. I assumed coming out would have eliminated the invisible barrier between us. It didn’t make it disappear but finally made the barrier clear to see.
“The float I’ve come up with is awesome. I submitted a design for the t-shirts to wear during the march and everyone loves them.”
“I can show you some pictures!”
She pulled out her phone as the server dropped off the baskets of our food. The moment faded. Mom brought me here to our special place to share something she thought I would care about, and I sloughed it off. I treated her small act like it was meaningless to me. I wanted to share all the contradictions I was feeling. Tell her Don’t you realize a reason I don’t deserve the happiness of that parade is because of you? Or ask Do you want to go to Pride together? Instead, I took a bite of my hamburger. It didn’t taste the same.
The next time we saw each other was at Sunday dinner and then the one after that. Over and over, the weeks blended and pushed me through the end of the spring semester and into summer. She gave me snippets of updates. How she wanted the balloons to look molecular and atomic. Vibrant and exuberant. My responses still came off as indifferent, uncaring. Something within me locked, and I couldn’t break free from it.
My mother would happily say she’s proud to have me as her son, but I don’t know if she could say she is proud to have a gay son. It’s not that she is malicious or hateful. My mom is gentle and observant. To her, the adjective feels limiting like I’ve put myself in a box. A box that complicates her desire for me to be a faithful, Catholic boy. I don’t need to be a PFLAG torchbearer, but I don’t want to feel minimized in my own family. Around the people I love most. I guess it stings, but it’s something I understand I must let go. I can’t live my life waiting for that validation from her. This validation is something I must find, nurture, and celebrate within myself.
A June morning. I woke up snuggled in Steve’s arms. The cats pawed at us overtop the duvet, desperate for a pet. We do this goofy thing on holidays where we turn to one another and hold direct eye contact and wish each other an ironic greeting dripping with sincerity. Steve looked at me with his blue eyes and whispered, “Happy Pride, Drew.”
“Happy Pride, Steve.” I checked my phone. We slept in until late in the afternoon. I had a few missed calls from my sister and mom. Nothing out of the ordinary for me. My phone is on do not disturb 24/7 because notifications make me anxious. I checked a text from my sister first. Mom really wanted to see you this morning. I rolled my eyes. I opened a text from my mom and saw the float she had helped create, the buildings of Downtown rising in the background. Turned out really good! Wide smile emoji. Her favorite.
“What is it?” Steve asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” I locked my phone. I didn’t want Steve to know I was playing the ignore game again. He would be the wise one and make me respond and offer kindness to my mom. I avoided. It’s what I know best. “Whaddya wanna do today?”
I spent the day prowling through Facebook and Instagram. The timelines were filled with Pride snapshots. Friends in sunglasses and bright colors, their smiles beaming down Liberty Ave. I found a group of people wearing the t-shirt my mom designed. I was impressed.
I remembered her telling me she didn’t want to do something too obvious or expected. Her design was simplistic and fit the brand of a scientific instrument and software corporation. The shirt was a riff on the periodic table. A single square centered on soft, gray cotton. The square wasn’t outlined in white, but in multicolor. It didn’t feel rainbow, but like a sleek, illuminated visible light spectrum. Inside was the symbol, “Pd” and underneath “Pride.” There were numbers in the top left and right corners of the square. 628 and 1970. June 28th, 1970. The date of the first gay liberation march to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Underneath the square of Pride was a simple phrase, “It’s elemental.”
I couldn’t help thinking about my mom researching all of this to inspire her and inform her decisions. What did she feel when she read about Marsha P. Johnson, of Sylvia Rivera, of horrific police brutality? Maybe she didn’t focus on anything except the number she needed and clicked out of the page. I’m frustrated she learned this history through a lifeless screen, rather than through me. I should have used that Red Robin date as a great moment for me to share my knowledge, my heart, my pride in our shared history. I wished I was wearing one of the shirts next to her, posted to the feed, so everyone could see the two of us.
The next day, another Sunday dinner. We all ate outside on the patio.
“I really loved the shirts,” I said.
“Everyone was very happy with them. I thought they looked really good, too.”
“Tell me about the parade?” I asked, and it hit me that my mom had been to a Pride parade before I have.
“Oh, I just stopped down to do some finishing touches on the float and then left before they started marching.”
“Why does everyone have to run around and dance in nothing but their underwear?”
The classic, cheap cliché. I doubted that the then corporate-sponsored Pittsburgh Pride was filled with guys in Andrew Christians before 11 a.m. I sighed, “That’s not what it’s about. And plus, what does it matter to you if people are?”
“I just think it’s a bit much.”
I took my plate inside and washed it in the sink. Avoid. My sister approached with her own.
“Mom did all that for you.”
“Shut up, you know what I mean.”
“Yeah. Okay. And?”
“She just wished you were there to support her. She wanted to make you happy.”
“Me support her?” I huffed. “There’s always next year.” I ran up to the bathroom. Exiting another conversation. I stared at myself in the mirror I watched myself grow up in.
I wished my mom would have just told me her feelings about how much she wanted me there at the parade. Open dialogue has never been our strong suit. Every time I write something that mentions our relationship, she always lets me know after she reads it that she isn’t great with words like I am. She thinks I’ll judge her for not being eloquent and articulate. Mom sees me as her brainiac baby who set his own bedtime in grade school so he could have an hour of downtime before sleeping to read his chapter books. I want her to know that talking is hard for me too, and that’s why I turn to a blank Word document. Mom, even though I write, I’m silent when I do.
The language my mother has given me is that of creativity. It’s how we both express ourselves most clearly and happily. It’s something invaluable. An immeasurable gift of the soul. Is this how I can make you proud, mom? My writing is how I force myself to not avoid my feelings or you.
When I see a Pride flag-waving, I shouldn’t think of the rainbow. But how it, too, was designed with meaning, with intention, a creative eye. Each color, a symbol. Sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic, serenity, and spirit. Maybe we will never march together, but I know we can still find something beautiful to share.