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I went to my first and only PrideFest in 2011. I bought a hot pink shirt, ironing on huge letters that spelled out “LIKES BOYS.” Admittedly, I copied Kurt’s shirt from the Glee episode where they sing “Born This Way.” I entered Civic Center Park, gawking at the colorful folks surrounding me and realizing this was my community, seen en masse for the first time.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I fully realized that the open space full of LGBTQ people I marveled over almost a decade ago is a short walk west of my current studio apartment in Cap Hill. Years past, I worked weekends and lived more than an hour away in Northern Colorado, but really, I just poorly planned and never secured a group to go with.

I still work weekends today, and I have yet to reach out to any friends or family interested in attending Pride with me this year, but that’s not stopping me.

The email to my boss asking for June 15 off reads: “I haven’t gotten to go to Pride since 2011, and I need to go now that I live here.”

Everyone at work knew I was gay day one (though I immediately brought up my other gig as a staff writer for OUT FRONT, not exactly subtle). It’s rarely hidden in my 2019 life. Looking back, the teen wearing a bold shirt outing himself was clearly not entirely comfortable with the wardrobe choice after leaving Loveland.

Surrounded by queer folks at Pride? Easy. The feeling shifted when we walked around 16th Street Mall later in the day, or stopped by a Longmont Tex-Mex spot on the way home, and I was still wearing that shirt, away from the security blanket of LGBTQ strangers.

I came out twice as a teenager.

The first time was in 2007 when I was almost 14. Once I came to the realization, I was desperate to be open and explore this part of myself, as if being gay was some kind of eclectic quirk that everyone would love. I got support from my friends and my parents, which is far more than many can say, and stayed out for about a year-and-a-half, but I gradually learned that not everyone was as accepting.

The vast majority of the U.S. at the time didn’t allow people like me to marry. We could serve in the military, just couldn’t tell anyone about our true identities. My friends celebrated me, while boys I didn’t know (but who clearly knew me as one of the few, out boys in my high school) called me a f*ggot and shoved me in the hallway.

I called take-backsies on my sexuality for about a year. My friends and family told me later on that they figured it wasn’t true, but they wanted to give me the license to figure it out for myself. I continued high school as “straight” until the beginning of 2010 when I started at community college. After my first semester, I came out for real.

My more accepting peers in college and slightly matured brain were better equipped for my homosexuality, but I still think back to my faux-confidence at 17, wearing a shirt screaming to the public, all caps, “LIKES BOYS.”

A lot has changed since Pride 2011. I had my first real boyfriend about a year-and-a-half later and gripped his hand tightly as we walked around in public the first time, despite the lurking feeling of dread that someone walking by would have something bad to say about it, or worse.

Last Pride Month, maybe against my better judgment, I halted a conversation to call out and tell off a stranger next to me at a familiar bar for casually dropping the f-bomb several times, loud enough for me and my friend to hear.

I’ve been proud to grow into a queer-and-proud adult today, though this comes with its share of asterisks.

One: I’m a white, able-bodied, tall, cisgender man. Two: In my life, I’ve only lived in left-leaning, Colorado cities. Three: I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded with people who help empower me and all parts of my identity, including my sexuality.

Most LGBTQ folks aren’t awarded so many benefits, and even these don’t guarantee your safety or comfort as a queer person. While I still have times and places when and where I am more cognizant of my behaviors and presentation, it is a privilege to feel like I generally don’t stifle the expression of my sexuality, that I don’t have to censor the inflections in my voice, sometimes flashy fashion and mannerisms, the publication I write for, or who I’m attracted to and the community I’m part of.

That comes at a cost, for those who often wear their identity on their sleeves, just as I sported that hot pink “LIKES BOYS” shirt to PrideFest all those years ago. So many folks within the LGBTQ community, especially those who are not cisgender, go outside every day knowing that their very existence and presentation in the world is still political. It’s dangerous; it’s not always pleasant, and we still do it.

In a country where same-gender couples can marry, but an episode of Arthur depicting the act is banned from public television in Alabama, or trans people are banned from the military, or our country’s VP thinks the gay should be shocked out of me, we must keep fighting, staying visible and vigilant to ensure we don’t regress as a community and that our livelihood is protected and celebrated.

If I could go back to my 17-year-old self, I’d tell him that he doesn’t need to force himself into confidence he doesn’t yet have in his identity. I would’ve said, “Don’t worry about your outfit. Just enjoy being with your community today.”

Soon enough, wearing that hot pink shirt unapologetically would happen every day, without even a second thought, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo courtesy of Keegan Williams