Why I Wrote ‘Twas The Night Before Pride by Joanna McClintick
My coming out began joyfully: I fell in love my sophomore year of college, it was springtime, and everything about it was warm and beautiful and thrilling. At long last I had what many of my straight peers had already begun, in some cases for many years: a relationship! But aside from the person I had fallen in love with, I knew so few LGBTQ+ people. This didn’t matter to me at first, but a few weeks after I came out, Judy Shepard came to speak at my college. I listened to her describe how her son Matthew was murdered and left in a field to die because he was gay. Suddenly coming out no longer felt joyful. In the darkened auditorium, I asked myself: Was I going make it as a queer person in this hateful world?
When I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, there was no LGBTQ+ representation in tv, books and movies. I did not grow up learning that being queer was something to be hated, queerness simply didn’t exist, in fiction or real life. My favorite books as a tween had protagonists who were “more boyish than girly,” before I even knew about my gender and sexuality: Dicey from Cynthia’s Voight’s Homecoming, Harriet from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, and, when I was older, Mick from Carson McCullers’ Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I read that trio of books over and over, feeling comfort in the characters’ unapologetic masculinity. These characters, who today might join the current queer discourse as nonbinary, genderqueer, or TGNC, carved a small space for me, temporarily relieving my dull worry that I didn’t fit. But these characters were teens themselves, and their unspoken fate was they would grow out of their boyish ways, not become queer adults. My impending grownup-hood was predicated on my femininity; I had no models for how to be a queer adult. Despite that, those characters became my Ring of Keys moment (from the Tony Award winning Musical Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir) when young Alison sees “an old school butch,” and sings: “Do you hear my heart saying hi-i-i-i?” Pride gatherings were for many years a necessary antidote to the loneliness and fear I carried, a resounding YES to Alison’s question. (Only much later did I find out Louise Fitzhugh and Carson McCullers were queer too).
I work at an LGBT Center, and in a group I led recently, the ice breaker question was: who is your favorite queer cartoon character? There were about 30 high schoolers in the room, and everyone rattled off a different openly-queer character! I was floored: these young people are living in a total, alternate universe from when I was a kid, thanks to so many brilliant queer cartoonists who fought for real platforms for their storytelling. What does it feel like to grow up with positive, explicitly queer content as a very young child? I’ll never know, but I feel so fortunate that ‘Twas the Night Before Pride could be a part of shifting that representation, and even the youngest children can see their family represented in a book.
‘Twas the Night Before Pride discusses the history of when queer people had no legal protections at all: being queer was considered a mental illness, you could be fired for being queer, arrested for “cross dressing,” queer people couldn’t adopt children along with other discriminatory laws meant to stamp out queerness. I wonder what that feels like, to have your survival rely so heavily on such secrecy. The effort to fight for queer rights pre-dates Stonewall, (we have always been fighting) but my book is celebrating the ground won by post-Stonewall activists that led to specific civil protections I wouldn’t have without their bravery.
Right now 35+ states are pushing laws to ban queer books, prohibit talking about your queer family in school, make it unsafe to come out at school, prohibit being trans while playing sports, make it a crime to provide trans-affirming medical care, and more. Some of these have already succeeded in becoming laws. These coordinated efforts have been in the works for a long time, but as they continue to gain more traction, it can be hard for me to feel hopeful and safe.
On top of these political threats to queerness, Juana Medina, (the book’s amazing illustrator) and I come to ‘Twas the Night Before Pride with our collective experiences of parenting while queer: being given the unsolicited advice from a stranger that my child shouldn’t have two moms because then he’ll grow up “soft,” being interrogated, “why would you bring your children to pride?” Or asking us who the “real” mother of our children is, looking at us then back at our children and asserting: “they must look like their father.”
Through these types of experiences, our children learn that having queer parents isn’t neutral or always accepted. But they also learn that Pride is a celebratory, important annual event for queer people. But why? There wasn’t a book that answered this question. I wanted there to be a tool for my child and all the children of queer people to say: this is who my family is, this is why Pride is important to us, this is why my family can exist so openly. I didn’t want the struggle to get lost in the rainbow party.
But to be sure, Pride is most certainly a rainbow party, it’s our fair Gaynation’s national holiday! Love it, hate it, or indifferent, (of which I’ve felt all three at different times!) queers all over the world gather, plan, and participate in Pride, and so do our children. I take comfort imagining queer communities coming together each June on a global scale, talking politics, recounting their first pride stories, planning their outfits, seeing right through those June corporate rainbows, dancing hard: being together is the beating heart of queer power. That imagining became the opening for ‘Twas the Night Before Pride.
I went to my first pride in 2005, and being in the midst of that queer crowd swiftly answered the question I had been holding since Judy Shepard’s visit: I’m going to make it as a queer person in this world. But I still need reminding of that. ‘Twas the Night Before Pride is my small thank you to all the brave queers that fought so I could have that reminder each June. Thanks to them, I could come out in 2004, feel terrified, and have a big beautiful pride waiting for me, to say hi to my heart– it can be lifesaving. Their tireless work makes it possible for me to stay hopeful, and to imagine a child marching at Pride, and earnestly exclaiming, “it’s great my family is here.”
Joanna McClintick is a debut children’s book author and a licensed social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. When she was dreaming about building her family, she wrote this poem to honor Pride’s history of resistance and imagined sharing it with her future child one day. It has become a tradition to read it at their annual brunch the day before the Pride March with family and friends. Joanna McClintick lives with her wife and child in Brooklyn.
This is very beautiful and inspiring!
I’m so glad you wrote this. It was so wonderful to be able to hear some of these insights and background stories in person… At Ethical NYC.