“Two, four, six, eight—how do you know you’re daughter’s straight?”
Immediately after launching from Kahn Park, we started with the chants. It’s part of my job, you see, as a Radical Cheerleader brandishing a plastic megaphone. We whip out this particular cheer when Kate, one of the organizers of the annual Dyke March in Center City, spots a handful of middle school-age kids and their parents. It’s an in-your-face attempt to address people’s unthinking presumption of heterosexuality. Why should these nice Philly families give a damn about our shouting, after all, unless we make it personal?
When I was much younger, I was good friends with a very homophobic girl named Rachel. The kind of homophobic that, apropos of nothing, would say that all the gays should be put on an island and the island should be bombed. She got this idea from her parents, who sported a litany of “Catholic” beliefs.
Rachel and I were friends from kindergarten, were high school cheerleaders together, buddies who stayed the night at each other’s houses. Until I came out as bisexual senior year. Then, without any fanfare, she quit speaking to me.
“What do we want? Equal rights! When do we want them? Now!”
This is a particularly easy one to lead. Despite how shredded my vocal cords might be from screaming, I could keep this one rolling for a few minutes. Around me, the crowd is enthused, shouting at the top of their lungs, holding signs above their heads long after their deltoids are already sore. They wear everything from business casual to duct-tape pasties. The dykes on bikes lead the charge, revving their engines as if to put patriarchy itself on notice.
Every year the Dyke March gets larger. Oh, it’s nowhere near the size of the much more corporate and boy-centric Pride Parade; there are no sponsored floats, sassy drag queens or free T-shirts. The only music is what we create ourselves, with tiny metal drums that are quickly being beaten to scraps. I don’t know if anyone knows how many folks have shown up this year, but as the front of the colonnade approaches City Hall, our tail is still coming up 11th toward Market.
Years after Rachel and I had ceased speaking, her mother reached out to me. One of her sons was in the process of coming out. She knew I had gone into sexuality education professionally, and she literally didn’t know another place to turn with her questions. We corresponded for weeks, discussing not just what science has learned about sexual orientation, but why a boy would suddenly start dressing so differently, dyeing his hair and affecting that manner of speech she’d only before seen in movies.
I told her that coming out is really breaking out: shattering the closet, deciding the homophobic world can suck it and finding community with the culture that says who you are is OK.
“We’re here, we’re queer; we’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us!”
This one is harder for me to lead now. Years ago, I was angrily political, aggressively defiant in the face of anyone who wasn’t draped in rainbows. Now I feel almost rude, as though the cheer inaccurately assumes everyone has a problem with queers. As we march, we see no protesters; we get no grief from anyone, in fact. Wedding parties—whose pictures against City Hall we’re delaying for half an hour at least—cheer us on. A band of teen boy drummers in front of the Hard Rock Café decide to hop in with us and amplify our signal. Throngs cheer from the sidewalk.
We’re soaked in sweat, red-faced and hoarse, but exhilarated.
Rachel’s mom has come a long way in a manner of weeks. Tearily, she laments how it must have felt for her son to grow up in a house where gays were spoken of so poorly. She thinks about her boy, who was aware of his sexuality long ago, who listened to their vitriol on a regular basis, who understood clearly that his own family was an unsafe place. She is filled with sadness.
I remind her that this is part of the process of raising kids: constantly messing up, learning entirely too late the things that would save your babies from heartbreak.
“Oh, when the dykes come marching in—oh, when the dykes come marching in! How I want to be in that number—when the dykes come marching in…”
Somehow, an hour has passed. We’ve only gone two miles or so, but I’m sapped of energy; it’s as though I had covered the distance doing backflips. There’s something distinctly exhausting about demanding that the city recognize your humanity.
This is the first Dyke March, of course, since Pennsylvania’s courts ruled in favor of marriage equality, so there’s a tangible difference in the energy level in contrast with last year. I wonder to myself what this event will look like in 10, 15 years. How loud will the cheers be from the sidewalk when being a dyke is akin to being Italian?
I ran into Rachel at our high school reunion. She embraced me like a sister, told me all about her wedding and the babies she’d had. I smiled and shook her husband’s hand. We had lots of catching up to do.