On Happiness and Visibility
I don’t remember when I learned what it was, just the question.
“Is it Red Shirt Day when you’re going?”
I was a junior in high school in Florida, stumbling out of the closet. I’d been lucky to find myself in a group of friends that mostly — if not completely — identified as gay or bisexual (“queer” wasn’t quite the word, yet). Here I could be myself, figure out what it meant to be myself, a safe haven between classes and on weekends. I was shy, terrified of my body and what it could do and what it could be in the hands of someone I wanted. It was an amazing and terrible time and I can’t recall most of it.
I came out to my parents, finally and unexpectedly, the next November. It was on a Wednesday. It didn’t go well. The next day I got off the bus at school, feeling more naked than I ever had; I’d known that I was gay for years but now I was out, I was far gone, I was now truly the other. I told my friends and they encouraged me. My girlfriend held me and told me she was proud. I spent the morning in my guidance counselor’s office — she ran the Gay/Straight Alliance at my school (we could only host GSA meetings in the afternoon, since schools were required to tell parents why their children were staying after school, and almost none of us were out to our families). She told me that it wasn’t my fault, that my parent’s generation was different than mine. To be patient and true to myself.
I went home, and there was more fighting and crying, I went to a Dashboard Confessional concert (no, I’m not making that up, my dad picked me up that night from the nearby Krispy Kreme, and I’ve been searching the internet for hours to find the exact date of the show itself). I was held from school that Friday for a family therapy appointment to talk about what happened. It didn’t go well, either. At some point, through the painful fog of it all, my mother said:
“We are still going to Disney World this weekend.”
I called and messaged my girlfriend and my friends about it, and that’s when someone asked. “Is it Red Shirt Day when you’re going?”
It wasn’t, of course. Red Shirt Day is held on the first Saturday in June, because June is Pride month, because “Red Shirt Day” was what we, children afraid of being out to our parents, called Gay Days at Walt Disney World.
Gay Days began in 1991, with about 3,000 members of the central Florida LGBTQIA+ community going to the local theme parks wearing red shirts to “be visible” — at the time seeming like less a sign of outward pride and more a code of solidarity and safety. It grew by tens of thousands of people every year and, when I came out, was the largest Pride event that my friends and I knew of in Florida.
There are several dates to circle on the calendar when you’re part of the community: days of visibility and remembrance and solidarity. National Coming Out Day is October 11. All of June is Pride month. The only thing I remember observing as a teenager, though, was the Day of Silence in April: we wrote out cards to show to our teachers and peers that we were demonstrating against harassment and bullying. At the time, it’s all I knew to look forward to.
It’s hard, now, to explain what it was like for me to be gay in 2004. When I came out, my mother told me (among other things) that she was terrified for the miserable life that lay ahead of me: the AIDS crisis was still fresh in her memory, and Matthew Shepard, who died alone and cold in the morning of October 12, 1998, was fresh in mine. Of course, I didn’t recognize the safety of my privilege, though I was grateful that — even after the fighting — my parents let me stay in their home. For me, the eventuality of ostracization and violence was an expected part of my life; though I, in a very teenage way, was ambivalent to it. Someday the hammer would come down, and happiness would always evade me. It was the life I’d just admitted to the world that I was living.
Since I got back from Disney World a month ago, I’ve been trying to write a piece here about my experience; to unpack its beauty and strangeness and frustrations and why I care so much. Even now, in the middle of this paragraph, I’m at a pause, nagged by an internal voice that commands me to be cynical, doubtful, pulling back the curtains and tearing down the false gods.
These takes exist ad nauseam already: capitalism, exploitation, escapism, the illusion of control. All of this is true, but all of it is in the service of what it’s really selling: optimism. Here, all is well and will be well. You will be okay, you will be cared for, you will be seen and felt and safe and loved.
It’s not like that completely, of course. Florida heat can’t be controlled, and neither can humidity, and I had forgotten what a sticky mess I would be after just a few minutes outside. My feet swelled in my sandals and blisters bloomed around my toes, stinging me as I walked. I cut one day short for the pain, limping back to my hotel to soak and bandage.
I stopped in the gift shop for Neosporin, bandages, moleskin, disinfectant. When the cast member at the counter asked me if I had any discounts, I joked that I was “honored to pay full price,” and she laughed and gave me the discount anyway with a wink. I took off my shoes in the hallway and walked across soft carpet and a bridge overlooking fountains and mosaics into my room, a sprawling suite with brand new furniture and a king size bed (I spoiled myself for the trip, of course). After soothing my feet, I changed shoes and walked across the manicured lawn to the pool bar for cocktails and a dinner of baked brie. I remembered how much I love the evenings in Florida, when the humidity feels somehow encouraging in a soft breeze. I felt present and calm here in this place: with the people it employed, the buildings it erected, the simple idea of its inception: this happy place. A dream come true.
Back in 2004, my family was still going to Disney World. My parents asked that my sexuality not be shared with my little brother yet, and we vowed not to mention the fight at all, which my father upheld by simply not speaking to me for the entire weekend (it would, in fact, be weeks before he would). We were staying at the Wilderness Lodge, a relaxed resort with tall fireplaces and a balcony overlooking a little pond full of otters and herons. We could walk through cypress trees over the water to a dock where a little boat took us to the Magic Kingdom. It is my mother’s favorite place to stay.
Stepping off the boat, I looked eagerly for red shirts, even though I didn’t wear one myself. What would I do, if I saw them? Run to them, say I was like them, that they were like me, ask them to take me in? Show them to my parents and say “look, they’re here too. This is for them, too. It is for me.” In 2004 homosexuality was still a threat to the American family, to so many things synonymous with Disney World. And yet, there they would be, uninvited but still through the gates, in this happy place. Visible.
I didn’t see anyone there for Red Shirt Day, because it wasn’t Red Shirt Day. Instead, a man passed by me and my mother wearing a shirt that said I Love Lesbians and my mother asked if I found it offensive. “I would be offended by that.” she said, and the conversation ended there.
Place is a necessary part of the queer community, and over the years, our spaces have been forged, burned down, rebuilt, memorialized. We have our gay bars, coffee shops, bath houses, ballrooms, cruise ships, street fairs, game nights. We have clinics and community centers and plaques on the sides of bank buildings where they used to stand. These spaces exist for safety, of course, like the afternoon GSA meetings at my high school where we could hide from bullies and homophobic parents and learn to be with ourselves. They exist online now, too, forums and Tumblr pages for communities to grow and engage and care for each other. They are places where traumas are unpacked and wounds tended to, where we mourn and cry and forge resilience. They are places to organize and demand equality and cry in frustration.
They are joyful places, too: the epicenters of pride, romance, exuberance. This is, I think, what most straight people see now: Pride is a month-long festival, a dance party, a parade, rainbows and glitter and drag brunch. Often they do not recognize the importance of these things as a counterbalance to decades of shame and victimhood. And yes, this should be examined, and yes, rainbow-washing does very few favors to the community it claims to represent. But I think that some will make that argument and conclude that we are above such frivolities, that queerness is only about resistance and protest and keeping the fight, that the first Pride was a riot.
I would disagree, to a point. I would say that the issue isn’t simply that our identities are being coopted and capitalized on, it’s that the groups doing so are attempting to define our own sense of joy, to say what is and is not acceptable displays of happiness from queer people. We should not allow this to happen, and our joys should be ours, sacred and good and strange and whole.
I would also argue that the first Pride wasn’t a riot, but the march, a year later, to memorialize the riot. The march on Christopher Street Liberation Day, June 28th, 1970, took place over 51 blocks of New York City, with protesters filling 15 blocks at a time. They were there to demand liberation, and they were there to be visible.
Gay Days still exists, and has grown to become a week-long convention followed by a Red Shirt Day in parks throughout Orlando. Tens of thousands of people attend, many now with their own children. It‘s evolved to be more of a social event instead of the subversive act of rebellion that I saw as a teenager, and in fact, it never really was; one of its organizers even noted that he wanted Gay Days to exist to just “be something fun,” in opposition to the activism and protest associated with Pride month. I’ve still never participated in one, though I did see them, the June after I came out to my parents. I had forgotten what day was Red Shirt Day until I got into Epcot and there they were: people of every age and gender, wearing mouse ears and cargo shorts and pedometers and every other embarrassing bit of tourist costume, but in red shirts. Some we personalized with names, honeymoon dates, raunchy jokes I didn’t get yet. I watched them all, feeling a renewed sense of belonging and hopefulness, like hearing a song that was just for me. Do not lose your joy, it said. Even here, you can find a way to make it yours. I needed, in that moment, to see them and their happiness in that place.
Despite its intentions as “something fun,” it was still an act of resilience and protest. Queer joy always is, in a world still bent on stamping it out.
They are not professionally associated with Disney, which allegedly spent the first year of Gay Days being willfully ignorant to the gathering. When confronted with conservatives, Disney would shrug and say that they couldn’t stop someone from buying a ticket to their parks. Some years, planes buzzed overhead, trailing banners offering Christian salvation. Gay Disney cast members took it upon themselves to tip off the organizers and attendees as to what behavior would be safe in the park and what would result in expulsion (holding hands is ok, frenching in the middle of Main Street, USA isn’t). In 1992, Disney placed sandwich boards outside the Magic Kingdom, alerting guests that there would be a large gathering of gays and lesbians in the park. Guests who complained were offered tickets to return at another time, or transportation to other parks. Interestingly, some gay activists saw Disney’s acknowledgement of their presence as a step in the right direction, especially as conservatives considered the sandwich boards to be an admission of collusion. Eventually, the refunds to complaining guests stopped, as Disney itself grappled with being more inclusive to its employees and their families. The CEO went on 60 minutes and said the parks were open to everybody. The sandwich boards disappeared after two years.
Now, three decades after the first Gay Day, Disney has started to share in the habit of painting rainbows on everything during the month of June — this year, they also have Mickey-shaped pins of the Philadelphia, Trans, Bisexual, and Lesbian flags along with it. LOVE appears on several items, and a shirt with Stitch says “OHANA MEANS FAMILY.” I saw these things for sale when I was there, in May, I saw guests wearing them and wondered if it made anyone’s life easier. Would my parents have been kinder, had I come out in today’s climate of profitable acceptance? Possibly. Would that same grace be afforded to those who didn’t have my affluence, my identity, my gender? Probably not. There is still so much to do, and so many other places where it ought to be done. But I was still heartened by what I saw beyond the merchandise: queer people, visible and in love, with their partners and their families and on their own, like me, in that happy place.