Michael Erickson is a local high school teacher and founder of Converge. In February, he united with 21 other community members to prevent Glad Day Bookshop, which has served Toronto’s LGBT community since 1970, from closing. He is a former co-chairperson of the LGBT Youth Line, and he was the youngest steering committee member of the Metro Network for Social Justice. Here, as part of a special Pride Week series of posts, he describes what Pride means to him.
By the time I went to my first Pride I was already cynical and wary. It was the late ’90s and I was in my early 20s. My lesbros had taught me well: I knew that the roots of Pride were political but that the great gay sell-out was in full swing. And as I walked down Church Street, the evidence was all around me. Everywhere I looked there were ads for big business, beer, and banks. Instead of celebration and unity, it felt like all the messages were saying the same thing: you aren’t rich enough, you aren’t fit enough, you aren’t drunk enough, you aren’t cool enough, you don’t have a place here. We had traded liberation for assimilation. We had traded playful sexuality for respectable marriage. We had traded complicated presence for conformed absence.
I watched about an hour of the parade then left. Standing in the crowd, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching the homosexuals on display for the straights. They had come to watch the strange, exotic creatures parade down Yonge Street, like an olden day circus sideshow, with the freaks allowed out of their cages for one day only.
Still, there were some things I really loved that weekend. I lazed in the grass of the 519 with friends, heard new bands in the park outside Buddies, and danced in the street for hours.
It wasn’t until I was a high school teacher that my feelings about Pride changed.
Twelve years ago, the first year I was a teacher, my students and I created a new group at the school that they named SASS: Students Against Stereotyping Sexuality. Right away they were helping organize the Pride Prom and the Toronto District School Board presence in the Pride Parade. When my students were asked to be in charge of decorating the school bus, they became a fabulous force to be reckoned with. Handmade signs, lots of pink fabric and sparkly things were bursting from the sides. To top it all off, they made a giant high-heeled shoe covered in disco ball pieces—an homage to Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a movie they’d all seen for the first time together in SASS that year.
As that yellow school bus slowly crawled down Yonge Street, a few things happened. Maybe it was the glitter, or the blazing sun, but it seemed to me that my students were radiant. I like to think it’s because they finally felt seen. For teens, there can be this overwhelming feeling of invisibility, like people don’t see them, or at least not the whole them. At Pride, with all those people watching, I think it was the first time some of my students actually felt seen as their whole, complicated selves.
The other thing that happened was the sound. You could hear the noise of the crowd change every time we advanced a little further. It was a strange mix of wild cheers and an almost mournful quietness. We didn’t have a sound system or go-go dancers or things to give away. We had a small group of staff, trustees, teachers, and teens with hand-painted signs walking with pride in front of a fabulous school bus. It was because we were quiet enough that we were able to really hear the people surrounding us, people who tended to be separated from the marchers by a wall of techno sound and steel barricades.
I noticed the strange sound right away, but it probably wasn’t until about Wellesley that I noticed something else: tears. Then I saw them on people everywhere. All ages, all genders, all kinds. Many of the people crying were also smiling and it seemed to me like their eyes also blazed with a kind of radiance.
I don’t know why each of those people cried. But there were questions I couldn’t get out of my head: What kind of violence had they faced in school? What kind of absence did they endure? What kind of healing is now possible?
At the end of the parade, my students vowed to make an even more fabulous float the following year. It was a great way to end the school year and celebrate all our successes.
The next year, no one told us where to meet or how to be involved in the parade. Our SASS group had tripled in size and the new members had heard over and over again the legend of the Pride Parade; they were all excited to get started on decorations. One of my 15-year-old students, frustrated with the lack of communication, sent an email to TDSB. She received a response that basically said, “The Board had to choose how to allocate limited resources this year and unfortunately we do not have the capacity for Pride.” It was a year of staff cuts and frozen budgets. (It was a lot like next year might be.) My students were livid, but there were only a few weeks left, so rather than mount a protest they decided we’d just organize the damn thing ourselves.
We got money from our school for the bus. Pride Toronto waived all their fees. The money for decorations came from individual teachers and staff. Within a few weeks, the students created something even more epic than they had the previous year. And they told their friends from other schools to come.
It was this year that permanently changed my feelings about Pride from jaded to joyful. I can even remember the exact moment. It was when we turned from Bloor Street onto Yonge Street, to where you can look south and see almost a million people. One of my Egyptian students, who had lied to her parents about where she was, turned to me and said: “All of these people? All of these people are okay with this? It’s so many people.” She was crying.
That’s when I decided that an imperfect presence is better than a perfect absence. Pride wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t good enough. It had lost much of its soul. Maybe it was full of consumerism, conformity, and corporations, but it was also full of possibility and wonder. It was still something—something you could name, talk about, and experience.
In a community where so much has been lost, so much has gone unspoken, and so much has been erased, maybe it’s still vital for us to come together for one day, to glitter in the sun or sing in the rain, and to be seen by millions of people.
Maybe it doesn’t need to be perfect. Maybe just being present is enough.