Pride Abounds for Strength in Numbers
BY HIV Plus Editors
August 01 2008 12:00 AM ET
Strength in Numbers, a social network for HIV-positive gay men that has 34 local chapters across the United States as well as groups in Canada, South America, Europe, and Australia, reached a milestone in late June -- the New York City chapter became the first SIN group and possibly the first HIV social network ever to participate in a local gay pride parade.
About 25 SIN members joined in the New York City LGBT Pride Day March on Sunday, June 29, says SIN NYC manager David Llewellyn, who organized the parade contingent.
Llewellyn offers the following personal recap of the day's events:
I'd never walked in the parade with any group, much less organize and lead a group in the march. The extent of my previous experiences included giving a hoot and a holler from the sidelines and then running off to the pier dance.
Questions came running through my head. Who will march? What do we have to offer the march? Are we ready for this? Will the guys have fun? Will we make an impact? And finally ... Will I regret this?
The funny thing is that the nervous pit in my stomach, the doubt, and the questions were very reminiscent of the feelings I had before I held the very first SIN NYC event. When something means that much to me, the end result either feels like a complete disaster or it unfolds as one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
I'm happy to say the latter is true of the march.
The first sign that things were looking good was that we had marchers! Members were signing up, friends of members were walking with us, and one special friend of SIN was getting his makeup case ready. We had enough marchers to make us a real presence in the parade.
The next signs of hope were the rickshaw drivers. I went along with Rob, David G., David B., and Chris G. to their training, and I was so jealous that I couldn't drive the pedicabs with them (they only rent out to people with driver's licenses, which I don't have). They were having a blast learning how to drive these things. And although I envied them a bit, it was a great sign that joy was coming to our march.
So there we are, the day of the march, and I have not had any sleep. I was at the office all night making posters and side cards for the rickshaws. Everything was moving along smoothly, though --marchers were arriving, rickshaws were in place, we had posters, we arrived in formation on time and ready to go!
Then ' there comes that anticipation that kicks in the adrenaline, which is better than 10 cups of coffee. Aside from a promotional truck that entered later on in the parade, Strength in Numbers was the first group to march in our section of AIDS organizations. There we were, up front. I've crossed Fifth Avenue thousands of times in my life, but there is nothing like having the street open up for you like a red carpet. It's like that little bit of horizon at the top of a roller-coaster hill right before you rocket down.
A-a-and, we're off!
The sun is shining and SIN NYC is marching down Fifth Avenue! I just started taking it all in, as we all did. I was surprised how many spectators showed up. And like meeting any group of people for the first time, you don't know how they're going to respond to you. So I decided to give it a shot and test the waters. I shouted 'Happy Gay Pride, everyone!' And we got a big cheer back from the crowd.
I look behind me and all the guys of SIN NYC are beaming -- this cheer was our 'on' switch, and there was no turning back! The guys started marching with their chests out, waving posters, and carrying our banner, with others running up to the crowd to give out candy and SIN NYC promo cards.
Now, let's see some personality!
As we settled into the march and got our bearings, it was so great to see some personalities come forward to shine. Take Jefferson, who has been a member of SIN NYC but has been painfully shy. I remember giving him pep talks via e-mail because he would be so nervous about attending SIN events. Well, Jefferson decided that since he had just turned 30, marching with SIN NYC was going to be a turning point for him.
He showed up at the march with black boots, the cutest little red plaid skirt, and a great big leather whip in his hand. While we were stuck waiting for the parade to keep moving, I was in awe as I saw Jefferson strut in front of the SIN NYC banner, pose for the crowd, twirl that whip over his head and snap it. The crowd ate it up! Work it out, Jefferson! When that boy turns a corner, he turns a corner. I think some walls broke down that day.
Then it was time for Anne Chilada, our resident drag queen and self-proclaimed 'Miss SIN NYC.' Up to this point, she was waving from the back of the rickshaw driven by that daredevil himself, David B. I think she wanted to stay in the shade so her makeup didn't melt!
I don't know if she thought it was just time to strut or if it was just motion sickness from all of David's rickshaw spins, but she hopped out of that pedicab, walked up to the front of our group, looked into the crowd, popped her hands on her hips, and struck a pose with all of her 6-foot 3-inch frame. The best way I could describe it would be like Tyra Banks stomping to the front of a catwalk, stopping and shouting 'What!' at the crowd.
The parade spectators hollered for her as she posed, pranced, preened, and danced for every clap and shout.
The energy was flying! Hector and I started to bombard the crowd, running into them, slapping hands, and screaming like banshees. Jason from SIN Philly was carrying a sign that said 'Putting the 'Hi!' in HIV,' and was shouting out 'Hi-i-i!' to the crowd, with the SIN boys backing him up. The crowd was waving back, also yelling 'Hi!'
David B. was zipping past the crowd in his rickshaw, Ms. Chilada in tow, spreading his arms out like a winged creature. Then the rickshaw boys decided 'f*ck formation' and started circling around our group toward the crowd at full speed. It was awesome!
We might not have had a float, but our SIN boys were engaging the crowd -- and it was loving us for it. I agree with Tim's sentiment: We felt like we were a boy band. I would run up to the Latina lesbians with my candy basket and scream, 'Ladies! Now, who wants some candy?' They squealed and pulled down their tank tops and bras so I could sprinkle pieces of candy down their chests.
Then the march changed and became something significantly different for all of us.
It was 1:55 p.m. and the cops stopped our group. I looked down Fifth Avenue and saw the rest of the parade in front of us still proceeding on, already at least five blocks away. Why were we stopping? The cops told me the moment of silence was coming up.
I almost forgot!
I told the guys to be quiet. I remember being a bit impatient, snapping at someone because they were still talking, and then someone whispered to me, 'I don't think everyone knows what exactly the moment of silence is.'
So a calm came over me, and I stood in front of SIN NYC and told them that every year, at 2 p.m. during the parade, the entire march stops for a moment of silence to reflect and mourn for our brothers and sisters lost to AIDS. Now remember, we were now at the front of this part of the parade; no one was in front of us except a few cops and an empty Fifth Avenue. We were setting the tone for those behind us.
I watched the clock as the guys waited, and the moment came.
What do I do? Say it's 2 p.m.? Pray?
Instead, I stood in front of our guys, reached my hand up, and extended two fingers. I didn't know if it was to say that it was 2 p.m., if it was a peace sign, or if it just felt like how my fingers could project an AIDS ribbon. I just went with it.
I nodded to Hector, and he held up two fingers. We looked at the guys, and then all of SIN NYC held up two fingers. And it swept back through other groups -- amfAR, GMHC, others -- as far as I could see. Hundreds of people were holding up two fingers in complete silence, remembering those we have lost.
It truly overwhelmed me and I wept (I'm still shaking when I think about it as I type this). I saw tears in some of the eyes of our guys. I turned around at some point to have a private moment, but the empty Fifth Avenue with the quiet crowd at its sides was also so overwhelming that I just turned back to my SIN brothers and cried.
This easily was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
And then it was over. The SIN boys cheered to signal to the rest of the parade and the crowd that it was time to get back to the festivities.
Now we had a lot of catching up to do, and SIN NYC bolted with cheers to fill that empty Fifth Avenue. The crowd had been waiting and was happy to see us coming and bringing back the fun. The rickshaw boys were circling furiously, Tim and Johnnie were both jogging with the SIN banner, David C. was shooting his Super Soaker at the crowd like a machine gun, and all the boys were moving like a well-oiled machine!
Then came the first drop of rain. You would have thought it would dampen our spirits, but it actually energized the whole group. We became a bunch of kids stomping in the puddles. The thunder clapped, it poured, and we all looked into each other's eyes with a grin, knowing that you just can't re-create a moment like this, so embrace it.
We all started hugging, wishing each other 'Happy Gay Pride.' I remembered Chris G. telling me how he had always wanted to be kissed in the rain, so I went right up to his rickshaw, leaned over the handlebars, and locked lips with him. And I give it all I had! The crowd felt the love too and gave it back as we danced in the rain, looking up the sky and taking it all in.
As the rain started to break, I saw a mom in the crowd holding her little girl, motioning to Anne Chilada to come over. This little girl couldn't be more than 2 years old, and her little face beamed as Anne Chilada pranced over, bent down, and kissed her on the cheek. It's a beautiful world that it's becoming, folks.
Then the rain stopped and we were soaking wet, but it was time for the grand finale -- the end of the parade and Christopher Street. The crowds at 34th Street, 23rd Street, and 14th Street treated us all like rock stars. But Christopher Street was as good as it gets!
The love we received from the crowd was amazing. It was pure craziness and joy. We were wrapped in the arms of the crowd with acceptance and pride. The sun was out again and creeping through the trees, creating a tunnel with thousands of people at the sides. I looked up and guys were hanging off the fire escapes, waving back to our group (and flirting with some). Ms. Chilada started getting the crowd into a cheering competition, so Hector and I followed suit, waving our hands up, sprinting back and forth between each side of the crowd with Anne Chilada pointing, competing to see who could cheer the loudest.
I think we all won.
SIN NYC received a hero's welcome home at the end of the parade route. We were done, wet, tired, and filled with pride, wishing we could do it all over again.
The festivities continued throughout the rest of the night, but not through this SINner's eyes. As the remaining boys were joined by others, still excited from the day's events and making plans to grab a celebratory dinner, it hit me that I had not slept in more than 24 hours yet had run around for 60 blocks like a man who had 60 Red Bulls.
We had gone to Chris T.'s place for some dry refuge and to change clothes, but I couldn't keep my eyes open and I went to the next room to lie down. As I closed my eyes, I fell asleep with a smile on my face to sounds of giggles and laughter from my SIN brothers after a job well done.
To all the members of Strength in Numbers everywhere, I hope we made you proud.