If I went back in time 20 years to tell my 17-year-old self that I would be attending a Fox Chapel Pride event, he would be surprised. If I told him that I would be wearing a galactic romper with a rainbow boa and painted nails, he would be stunned. If I told him that I would then put on a fox mascot suit and pose dramatically along the Allegheny River, he would be speechless.

I graduated from Fox Chapel Area High School almost 20 years ago. Fox Chapel is known for its affluence, with a median household income more than triple that of the Pittsburgh metro area. I grew up in neighboring O’Hara, part of the Fox Chapel Area School District.

Growing up as a closeted queer teenager, I didn’t feel safe to express myself publicly. After graduation, my instinct was to get as far away as I could. Distance would bring me safety and belonging, I thought.

Todd Feiler wears a fox costume and holds the headpiece at chest height. He faces away from a rail bridge over the Allegheny River.
O’Hara native Todd Feiler dons a fox costume at FC Pride in the Park on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Feiler returned home during the pandemic to find out the suburbs around Fox Chapel were hosting a Pride event. (Photo by Alexis Wary/PublicSource)

To California I went when I was 18, then New York, both places I thought to be more welcoming to queer people. That belief proved to be correct; I found cultures where being queer was nothing out of the ordinary. In 2020, though, I joined a large portion of my millennial peers in moving back into my childhood bedroom as the pandemic hit. What I thought would be a few weeks turned into a year and a half.

My 17-year-old self would not have been pleased to know that he would be back in the same bedroom in his 30s. But in re-entering that physical and emotional space, I was able to reconnect with myself in ways that my pre-pandemic self couldn’t have predicted. What became clearer to me through some of the lonely and painful nights of pandemic-era introspection was that I wasn’t as different from my 17-year-old self as I had thought. The experience of growing up closeted in the early 2000s Fox Chapel area had profoundly affected me, in complicated ways that still required my attention.

Shedding a huge weight

I don’t remember meeting an openly gay person until I was 16. For my teenage self, being openly gay was a mystery glimpsed only through brief representations in mass media. I viewed the prospect of coming out like jumping alone into a dark abyss. I couldn’t imagine what would come after that jump, and I certainly couldn’t see doing it in the Fox Chapel area or in Pittsburgh. The only vision I could see for myself was somewhere else.

In school, I wasn’t teased for being gay, but I do remember it as an ever-present and existentially terrifying threat. This was a time in the culture when calling something “gay” as a pejorative was widespread. Only once was I called a faggot to my face, when an upperclassmen casually yelled at me and a classmate to “run faster, faggots” at an after-school cross country practice. I remember that I thought little of it at the time. If anything, I was surprised I hadn’t heard it directed at me sooner. That was the fear I lived with constantly: to be othered to my face and to be left alone to deal with the consequences.

I’m sad for the version of myself that wouldn’t even let himself feel angry. But I believed that latent and ever-present homophobia was just a fact of life. I couldn’t imagine that ever going away, at least not in the Fox Chapel area.

Todd Feiler stands outdoors at a pride festival in a galaxy-style romper with a rainbow boa accessory wrapped around his neck.
Fox Chapel Area School District graduate Todd Feiler stands next to a pride history walk at the FC Pride in the Park event which occurred on Thursday, June 8, 2023. (Photo by Alexis Wary/PublicSource)

But even worse than the fear of ridicule was the profound loneliness. Somewhere along the line I came to believe that this was a secret that no one could know. Even with a supportive family who I knew unconditionally loved me, something in me still couldn’t disclose my queerness until I left the area. It was a secret that was mine alone to bear and a heavy burden for a child.

I came out to my friends and family in college. I remember thinking of it as pulling off a Band-Aid. Get this over with so I can finally be rid of this huge weight and move on with my life. I declared myself gay, maintaining that I was not too much different from the person everyone had known before that announcement. But my sexual and gender identity isn’t a problem to solve and it isn’t as simple as I wanted it to be.

Compelled to get louder

Todd Feiler smiles and stretches a rainbow boa accessory behind his neck under a colorful arrangement of balloons.
Todd Feiler enjoys his time at FC Pride in the Park on Thursday, June 8, 2023. (Photo by Alexis Wary/PublicSource)

In 2023, I’ve chosen to stay close to my family in Pittsburgh. Luckily, I am no longer in my childhood bedroom. I can see what a thriving life looks like in Pittsburgh as an open and proud queer man. But as I watch the current wave of anti-trans legislation spread across the country, I feel compelled to get louder and be more visible as the queer person I am. I’m scared for the kids who may lose this incredibly hard-fought progress. I’m scared for myself and for my LGBTQIA+ friends, too. The 37-year-old me has learned that nothing is guaranteed and that sure as hell includes the basic rights we’ve had to fight so hard for.

This feeling that I need to be more visible landed me in a galactic romper with a feather boa on a Thursday evening at Allegheny RiverTrail Park in Aspinwall. My 17-year-old self couldn’t attend something like this, but my 37-year-old self could attend it for both. And attend it I did, with some gay flair that both versions of me can be proud of.

The FC Pride in the Park event, now in its third year, was a teenage dream I didn’t even know I had. It was vibrant, joyful, welcoming and diverse. Being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community was celebrated, in style and in large numbers no less. I spoke to one of the organizers of the event, Sarah Shaffer, and to a Fox Chapel Area high school senior, Clara Kelley, who shared how meaningful it was for so many in the community, in particular for the kids of the Fox Chapel area to see that being different is cause for celebration, not fear.

Todd Feiler wears a galaxy-style romper and talks with a brunette woman with colorfully painted nails wearing a black shirt.
Todd Feiler talks with the coordinator of Fox Chapel Pride in the Park which occurred on Thursday, June 8, 2023. (Photo by Alexis Wary/PublicSource)

I’m looking forward to many more years of attending Fox Chapel Pride. I’m so inspired by the organizers and volunteers who made this event a reality. The power and impact of a supportive, loving community is immeasurable. My 17-year-old self didn’t feel that love, but 20 years later, I felt it for both of us.

Todd Feiler (he/they) is a third-generation Pittsburgher and 2004 graduate of Fox Chapel Area High School. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Ringlet, a digital platform to get you offline with the people you care about. He can be reached at firstperson@publicsource.org.

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