You are not alone.
As a child, I struggled a lot. I faced severe judgment and criticism from family upon realizing I was gay at the age of say, 13 or 14. To clarify, I knew that I was gay when I was a kid. I just knew. Fortunately, I attended my first Pride parade when I was 20 (2002), and it was the catalyst for helping me to learn to accept myself as an unapologetic, proud gay woman. I became aware of my extraordinary community and the many allies out there who support and love people regardless of sexual orientation.
Below I’ve shared my story. It’s my hope it reaches the countless number of kids out there who feel isolated for being “different.” Hang in there and try your best to be strong. It honestly does get better. People will remain homophobic; we can’t change that. As we grow up, we learn to care a whole lot less about what other people think. And that can take a lifetime for some.
I dedicate this story and the official Lizelle & Co. Pride collection to the incredible people who make PrideFest Denver possible: The Center on Colfax. Each sale from our Pride Collection will donate $1 to The Center on Colfax for as long as this Collection runs. See the whole Pride Collection, it's awesome!
Feathers and flags were everywhere in all colors of the rainbow.
Thousands of people surrounded me - all ages, races, and personalities represented. As I wove through the crowds along Colfax Avenue, I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d spent so much of my teen years believing I was alone. How did I not realize there were so many queer people? I could have saved myself so much heartache as a teenager had I discovered this community sooner. I was here now, though. That’s what mattered.
The parade in Denver stretched from Cheesman Park to City Park. There were floats traveling the route sponsored by an assortment of companies, sports organizations, and bars. Everywhere people were dancing, cheering, and chanting. It was a celebration of massive proportions.
Time froze when I spotted him. A priest stood on the front steps of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception with a large cross, loudly shouting his condemnation of the gay community. One moment, I was laughing and smiling. I was emotionally catapulted from a place of celebration to the suffocating shame I’d experienced when I was a teenager. My family had ostracized me for liking girls, and religion had always felt heavy and suffocating.
I pulled my eyes away from him and shook my head, trying to return to a place of joy. Looking up, I noticed something. The majority of the people at the parade didn’t pay any attention to the priest. They didn’t take him seriously.
Eventually, I learned to ignore him, too. A few years later, I realized he wasn’t even there anymore.
People in leather, girls in sundresses, and nearly naked women wearing nothing more than stickers over their nipples were all around me. I felt like I’d been dropped into the Land of Oz. My friends and I were at Detour, a back-in-the-day, popular lesbian bar. As was my luck, I’d managed to slip by the door person and snag a beer with my friends.
It was surreal. On this sweltering June day, I learned that these people - MY people - were always around, but this day - this special Pride day - this was when they could fully celebrate who they truly were.
Her name was Michele.
She was older than me by about six years, which was somewhat significant back then, considering I was barely 20, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t look away, and neither could she.
“The gaze” is an awesome element of the lesbian/gay/queer women’s community. It’s sexual tension through seriously dedicated eye contact, plain and simple. At Pride, the gaze was ever-present. Every few feet, people were getting hit by a bolt of that eye contact, like, oh my God. We’re just going to keep staring at each other? Ooh, maybe not. Wait, yes? No. Okay. That’s cool. Seriously. I blushed a lot. I love that the gay community is not afraid to celebrate its sexuality.
Michele and I connected and wound up celebrating together, dancing and sharing incredible moments from one spot to the next at PrideFest. We’d been hanging out a bit before with mutual friends but it was Pride where I was like “damn, who ARE you?”. You know what I mean?
Somehow, we wound up in Golden at, you guessed it, a house party. After spending the majority of the night talking and being way too cute, I finally gave in to my desire and I leaned in … and … just … kissed her. Cue the music and fireworks, my stomach was butterflies all over. It was, and will always be, one of the best kisses of my life.
Now, normally a girl doesn’t kiss and tell but here we are.
Because that night I “bunked up” with this girl and let’s just say I woke up in a pair of blue scrubs that wasn't mine and it was magic.
I cringed at the thought of a “walk of shame.” This house in Golden was full of Michele’s friends, and I didn’t know ANYONE. Sheepishly, I managed to savor a cup of coffee before slipping out to my blue VW bug.
Wouldn’t you know it - the damn car wouldn’t start.
I reluctantly found my way back into the house and found someone to jumpstart my car. There was a lot of giggling, but I managed to survive the embarrassment and eventually make it back home with a raging hangover and a shit-eating grin on my face.
Somehow, I got lucky enough to marry that girl in 2015. If you can paint a picture of a woman that is kind, beautiful, stubborn, intelligent, and has been dancing with me ever since that first Pride 17 years ago, that’s my wife Michele. She is my rock. We have attended every Denver Pride Parade since we first met, the last ten years of which have been sober. And it’s still a total blast. Each time, we’ve danced. More importantly, we’ve celebrated our love, our friends, and our community.
Pride has a really special place in my heart.
Many people don’t realize how Pride began, so I want to give a wildly brief overview. I encourage you to learn more about it to better understand it.
Back in the 1960s, the Mob created gay and lesbian bars to profit off the open discrimination of the queer community. Despite being touted as safe spaces, police would routinely storm these sanctuaries and demand bribes, as most states had banned LGBT people from gathering in groups. The Mob knew this and financially benefited from such prejudicial treatment. Eventually worn down by the constant harassment, the community had had enough, and the patrons of The Stonewall began to take action and protest their mistreatment and blatant abuse. Thus, in 1969, The Stonewall Riot was born. At its peak, more than 1000 people marched the streets of Greenwich Village. This sparked the beginning the LGBT civil rights movement. It should be noted that this crusade was instigated by predominantly transgendered people of color.
So, while it may come across as a giant party, Pride has a larger identity. It is obviously a celebration, for sure, but it is also a protest and a massive gathering of our community - our chosen families. We celebrate our love for each other, but we also mourn those we have lost to discrimination, ostracism, and hatred.
Over the years, Pride has helped me to heal from some of the harsh judgment I experienced from family members at a young and impressionable age. It helped me move past that hateful priest I saw on the steps of that church when I attended my first Pride.
Truth is, I know I’m lucky.
May we continue to fight discrimination and celebrate who we are unapologetically every year. May we persevere.
I wish you a wonderful Pride.
Here’s hoping you find love, kindness and many other surprises at Pride, as I have. If you haven’t yet checked it out, please join us at the two-day PrideFest in Denver, Colorado. It’s one of the country’s best, and certainly my favorite.
Read the stories. Wear the threads. Create some impact. Share your adventures with us on Instagram by tagging @lizelleandco and using the #lizelleandco hashtag. I can’t wait for us to learn more about each other.
Lizelle van Vuuren
Founder, Lizelle & Co.