The Pope of Pride

Longtime Ferndale Pride 'Mascot' Gordon Matson on Living Long, Proud and Out Loud

Whenever someone references "standing on the shoulders" of those who came before them in the fight for equality, they are talking about people like Gordon Matson. Today, it's simply part of local tradition to witness him, ever-changing rainbow costume and all, out and proud as Ferndale's pride mascot. However, before he could become the rainbow headdress-wearing, acceptance-spreading, veritable pope of pride, like most in his position, the Ferndale native spent a large portion of his formative years in the closet.
"Because you didn't talk about those things back then," he explained. "Ferndale was a lot different back then."
The "back then" Matson referenced was the '60s and early '70s.
In part not knowing how to go about coming out, or how his parents would react, Matson put off coming out until after he finished high school in 1977. He still remembers the talk he had with his mother at the Ferndale Elks Lodge, where he continues to be a regular member.
"We hugged each other, cried and she said, 'Don't you worry about a thing because your father and I will back you 100 percent, whatever you decide to do. Back then that was, like, unheard of," said Gordon, who was 18 years old at the time.
Now, on the cusp of 60 and soon to be married to his fiancé, Timothy, Matson can appreciate how that early acceptance from his parents helped him develop the confidence to live his life boldly and openly, and inspiring many others in the process. And part of the reason Matson's reach is so great each year, is that Ferndale Pride has been steadily growing in size since its inception years ago and this year's is no exception.
This year's Ferndale Pride is on Saturday, June 2, and it marks the largest pride the city has hosted since 2011, with more than 160 vendors. The whole festival will stretch almost entirely from Woodward Avenue to Livernois.
"And everything is sold out," said Matson. "Every inch of 9 Mile is sold out," due in large part to the volunteers and personalities that make this street fair special.
And Matson, as most mascots should, has no shortage of personality. When he met with BTL, though he wasn't in his LGBTQ-themed papal wear, the recently Home Depot-retired Matson was wearing a shirt that says "Homo Deport." He giggled over the play on words and laughed like a school boy with a secret. The rest of his outfit complemented his bold shirt, with shorts that day that were accented with a rainbow belt and wrists that were festooned with rubber bracelets, displaying sayings like, "Just be you" and, "Erase hate." Each of these were from past pride campaigns.
Matson's love of all things rainbow is symbolically tied to his self-expression, he said. "I wear it because I can, and it's my expression of who I am," he said. "That's just me."
When asked about how he got his role, he said that he was officially christened with it seven years ago, but not because he sought it out.
"It was just something that happened and I kind of fell into it," he said.
And as he fell, he happened to make a big splash — even from day one.
During his first pride, Matson marked the occasion in a rainbow toga and carried a pride flag attached to a 10-foot pole. Since then, he's added a rainbow mask, hair and a Tiki skirt to his rotating looks. Matson also said that when he first started creating his mascot costumes he said he began to feel a sense of acceptance that he had never felt before, despite his regularly bold, out lifestyle.
"It was a release that you can be who you were without being pressured by peers. You'd be yourself and you didn't have to worry about what anybody else said. It was freedom of expression," said Matson. "(That was what) started the out pride movement, the outreach to the people outside that were here and normalizing LGBTQ people."
And as open and free as Ferndale Pride is today, Matson said that he still remembers Ferndale's political environment of the '70s, and that most of the current LGBTQ community in the city was nonexistent. At that time, living as an out gay man was like having a target on one's back.
Matson noted that while his coming out experience was considerably lucky, he wasn't free from his own share of prejudice even in his family. Though with most members of of his family, "It was always, 'Gordon is Gordon,'" he said that one sister had an especially hard time coming to terms with his sexual orientation.
"It took a long time for her to come around. And that probably didn't happen until maybe 20 years ago after my mom died in '99," he said.
Matson's father died two years before.
"A lot of families I've seen go this way when parents go," he said, moving his hands in opposite directions. "Ours came together."
Now, that initially-reluctant sister will be a part of Matson's wedding.
Matson said that not only has his own struggle with visibility and acceptance helped people who attend Ferndale pride, but members of his family who are members of the LGBTQ community. Currently, he said he's helping a nephew through a transition.
"Wait," he paused to get it right, "she's coming out as a gay, transgender man."
For that very reason, Matson said that he believes it is important to keep pride festivals around like Ferndale's no matter how digital, and seemingly physically detached the LGBTQ community gets. And that there will always be a role for someone who spreads a message of love and acceptance in history.
"If pride wasn't there, we would be forgotten. If you stop doing pride, then the awareness level would drop and a lot of things that we do and don't do would be forgotten," he said. "I like to impress upon people that it's not a pride just for the LGBTQ community. It's a pride for everybody. It's family-oriented. And now that there are a lot of gay couples who have children, I like to let the straight allies know that this is who we are, and we are not any different than you throwing a party."
Matson then pointed to a memory of taking his straight brother-in-law to a pride event in California. He said that that moment helped turn his brother into an even bigger ally, because of his willingness to experience pride.
"They came and he saw RuPaul. He said, 'I really don't see a difference between you and them,'" Matson said. "That meant a lot coming from him."
He went on to elaborate about the high toll of the LGBTQ-renouncing, hostile environment he faced outside of his home in his youth.
"A lot of people still don't know the price. A lot of this generation feel that they have it so hard," he said. "You don't know what hard is."
Yet, as easy as it is now comparatively, Matson emphasized that the fight isn't over and that, "There's always going to be work to do."
"Now more so I feel that, because there's more to the LGBTQ community than what was (visible) before. Before, it was gays and lesbians. Now, we have this community that is (raising) awareness through other people to the world, that there are other people besides gays and lesbians," he said. "If that goes away then the awareness goes away. People aren't going to learn to love thy neighbor if their neighbor is transgender and they don't know what's going on."
He added, "They may still think you're a freak, but now, they have a name for it."


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