In London, I Rediscovered the Joy of Pride Month

Pride Month in New York left me feeling jaded. A hop across the pond helped me newly see the value of celebrating LGBTQ community.

London, 2022: Pride Parade 50th Anniversary

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of London’s Pride Parade.

Photo by Loredana Sangiuliano/Shutterstock

On my most recent trip to London in late June of 2022, I emerged from the Underground at Piccadilly Circus and saw rainbow flags flying high above the streets, vivid against the bright blue sky. The realization hit me like a double-decker bus: It’s Pride weekend. It was a pleasant surprise, certainly, but how could I have forgotten?

I considered why Pride wasn’t on my mind. Back home in New York, it sometimes left a sour taste in my mouth. When I first moved to the city, I loved the Pride parties and parades. But as the years wore on, as I met more people and tried to find my place in our queer community, social dynamics with fellow gays in the city began to foster enough existential doubts, anxieties about body image, petty dramas, and exclusionary behavior to resemble a high school cafeteria. Because of this, for me Pride in New York became a hit-or-miss affair. That elusive feeling of community was never a guarantee.

Maybe it was a matter of my age. Maybe it was a matter of my company. Yet as I got older and more wisely chose my friends, I began to withdraw from Pride Month wholesale. Plus, I support queer businesses year-round. I drink at Marie’s Crisis, a gay sing-along piano bar in the West Village as often as I can. I write openly and proudly about my life as an Asian American gay man. The pseudo-positive spin here is that I don’t need a single weekend or a month to shout my queerness from the rooftops. For me, I like to believe, every day is its own Pride parade.

But in London, I felt a spark of newfound excitement. Walking through Soho, the city’s famous LGBTQ district, I noticed the shine of polished fingernails, flashes of exposed skin, every gorgeous human saturated with color, everything aglow with queer vibrancy. I found I was craving the lush warmth of queer camaraderie and the ecstatic heat of sensual touch—this intense jubilation that I missed dearly, which, when I’m lucky, goes hand in hand with Pride. Maybe I felt this desire more keenly because I was in a new context. I got to shed my jaded New York mindset and, as a traveler, see everything with fresh eyes. And so, while I didn’t go to the local Pride parade on my trip, I came up with an itinerary that engaged as much queer art and culture in London as I could find.

I got to shed my jaded New York mindset and, as a traveler, see everything with fresh eyes.

To kick it off, I went to a museum exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear. It deconstructed masculinity over the course of (mostly Western) history, as expressed and challenged by the work of fashion designers and other art makers. My favorite pieces reveled in the more flamboyant expressions of masculinity: a room dedicated to the color pink as a symbol of power; a porcelain teapot in the shape of a dandy, with his left arm as the handle and the right his spout; the punk-meets-couture gown worn by Bimini Bon Boulash for the second season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.

As I strolled through the stunning exhibit (one of the great pleasures of solo travel: you can take your time), I was reminded of how queer people have long found ways to live in the seams of history, to find each other, to make art and survive. The exhibit made me reconsider what Pride can be: a chance to think beyond my own comfortable present and to remember and learn from our past.

For a dose of West End theater, I got a ticket to the new musical & Juliet. It was a delightful spin on the Shakespeare play, told through the music of pop maestro Max Martin. Think Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time” as a ballad sung by Juliet when she sees that Romeo has killed himself, and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” as a duet between a nonbinary character and their love interest. It was fitting to see a campy lovefest of a musical on the West End during Pride Month.

London’s theater district has been a home to legendary queer writers I’ve long admired like Oscar Wilde—a stage for him and artists like him to create art that flouted centuries-old censorship laws, that transgressed and challenged British conventions of “decency.” While watching & Juliet, I felt privileged to witness first-hand such exuberant queerness in a historic venue and to remember the eternal truth that joy and art are modes of resistance. I cried a lot, for sure, mostly happy tears.

The following day, I got to explore a more adult side of gay London: I went to a gay sauna for the first time. I’d always been curious about the city’s sauna scene, which I’d heard is much more lively compared to the discreet cruising spaces of New York. So I was excited when a British friend of mine graciously offered to be my bathhouse buddy, as it were, at a place called Sweatbox, which is exactly what it says on the tin. To keep it PG, I’ll just say that it was thrilling to visit that steamy underworld; to put the sex back into sexuality. There’s always pressure, I believe, on queer people to perform a certain kind of public respectability in our heteronormative societies. So it felt novel to be in that dark space, to be liberated in the shadows, to tap into the more primal parts of myself as a gay man and as a sexual human being. In London, in this place far from home, no one knew who I was, so I was free to just be myself.

Finally, to round out my trip, I spent Pride Saturday flitting about the gay bars in Soho like Ku and G-A-Y. The district’s reputation as a gayborhood goes all the way back to the 1600s and 1700s. Here, men would solicit other men for sex—and after centuries and plenty of gentrification, one can cheekily say not much has changed. I connected with locals and tourists alike (bless the young man attending his first Pride with his mother in tow!), and we all fostered such effortless, if ephemeral, connections that crystallized for me something important I had forgotten: This is what community, the pleasure of being gay, feels like.

Perhaps what made [London Pride] so special was that it was something borrowed, something made possible by travel.

Maybe queer Londoners are just more friendly than their Manhattan counterparts. Maybe my distance as a tourist relieved me of all the social anxieties that I feel in New York. Either way, I was reminded that I shouldn’t toss out the baby with the bathwater, that Pride can be a meaningful experience for even the most cynical of us—whether in London or New York or wherever I am.

All good things must come to an end, I told myself as I boarded my flight home to New York. I wanted that warm prideful feeling to last forever, but perhaps what made it so special was that it was something borrowed, something made possible by travel. I call upon these memories now and wonder how I can re-engage this spirit as yet another Pride season approaches. This June, I’ll be staying here in New York; I have a friend visiting over Pride weekend. Maybe I can be his travel companion and pass along what London gifted me, this revitalized sense of Pride, my double-decker souvenir.

Matt Ortile is the author of the essay collection The Groom Will Keep His Name. He is a columnist at Condé Nast Traveler, and was previously the executive editor of Catapult magazine and the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines. He has written for Esquire, American Vogue, Vogue Philippines, BuzzFeed News, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Vassar College, which means he now lives in Brooklyn, where he is working on a novel.
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