by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On Thursday, just weeks away from Seattle's Pride Parade (June 26), Seattle Pride president Eric Bennett stepped down as the head of the organization that plans the annual event after a sponsorship debacle first reported in a column in the Seattle Times.
Kevin Toovey, the current Vice-President of Seattle Pride will serve as interim president.
On Wednesday Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat wrote that Delta airlines had just secured a three-year sponsorship deal for Pride Parade 2016 that would exclude Alaska airlines employees from marching if they were identified by the name 'Alaska Airlines' or branded with any corporate logos. He called the news the 'Great Airline Gay Sponsorship Skirmish of 2016.' And some would reluctantly agree, I think.
Not just for the obvious (the icky truth that, at times, sponsorship money seems more important than the event itself) either, but that in an effort to save face Seattle Pride organizers first alleged that Westneat had reported inaccurately, only to come to an understanding Wednesday night that nobody really knew what was going on from within the organization. The only thing that was clear, it seemed, is that, according to Alaska Airlines Vice President for Activation and Logistics for its LGBTQ employee resource group GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian, Other and Bisexual Employees), Kevin Larson, that they could march in the parade with T-shirts that said GLOBE, but that, if asked, 'we could not say what GLOBE stood for or who we worked for.'
Larson explained that they were also told that they would not be able to carry a banner or drive a car with Alaska branding, like they usually do, as they have been longtime supporters (financially as well as publically) of the annual event.
GLOBE represents about 300 workers at Alaska.
Colin Bishop, a public-relations spokesperson for the Seattle Pride Parade told the Times, 'We can't have them promoting Alaska Airlines when Delta bought the category sponsorship. That would be free marketing. When T-Mobile's in there, we don't have groups marching from AT&T or Verizon.'
Perhaps Bishop has never been to the Pride parade or just doesn't remember, but, as Bobbie Egan, a spokesperson for Alaska, said, when Alaska was a sponsor in the past it had arrangements for placement in the parade's marketing materials. But it didn't bar rival airlines from being in the parade. Additionally, in the past, employee groups from both Delta and Alaska have marched in the parade (marketing n' all) without incident.
And so, as of Wednesday evening, Alaska had officially decided, as Egan put it, 'that given these restrictions, we would celebrate that weekend in different ways, at different events.'
Bishop also told the Times that the parade had offered an exclusivity deal to Alaska, but then 'Delta swooped in and got it.'
If all of this is turning your stomach you aren't alone. To be fair: Seattle's Pride Parade is huge. It's also expensive. Over the past decade it has grown in both size and cost. Nobody expects that a parade the size of the Seattle Pride Parade be done free of sponsorship. But when sponsorship becomes more important than the community the parade honors, well, that just doesn't sit right with the community-at-large.
We all know that Pride parades around the nation began as an act of defiance and political statement to show the world that our numbers were perhaps far greater than the majority had thought, that we were ready and willing to stand up for our rights and to be counted - as a community.
None of that has anything to do with corporate sponsorship. Stonewall was not a riot between corporations for who would one day get to march at the front of our behemoth of a parade. We did not fight for hate crimes legislation because Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. died in a war between corporate airlines. Tens of thousands of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual folks did not lose their careers and benefits for violating DADT because it was important to them that Seattle Pride - or any Pride Parade organization for that matter - offer exclusivity to corporations at annual pride events.
While it would be juvenile to think that this parade can be done without generous sponsorship from some corporations, it is downright disrespectful to our history, turning our backs on our ethics and values, and just plain greedy to put those same corporate dollars in front of our community and what we stand for.
I say 'what we stand for' because I refuse to believe that a majority of LGBTQ folks would agree with any 'exclusivity deal' being offered to anyone, let alone, corporations. The LGBTQ community is inclusive - not exclusive. We are, as so many of us joke, the growing acronym that keeps on adding letters. Why? Because that is who we are. That is what we stand for. And no Pride Parade planning committee will ever take that away from us.
So now it is time for some accountability.
Delta was quick to distance itself from what Seattle Pride officials told GLOBE. The airline released a statement saying it had no intention of restricting the attire or participation of Alaska during Pride events.
'As a partner of Seattle Pride and Pride events around the world, Delta celebrates the inclusive spirit of Pride and all members of the LGBTQ community,' Delta spokeswoman Liz Savadelis said. 'While our sponsorship allows us to display Delta branding and signage at the event, Delta has in no way restricted the participation or attire of any individual or group participating in Seattle Pride events.'
At first Seattle Pride maintained that the column by Westneat was wrong and that they had not set any restrictions on the Alaska group due to the Delta deal. That, of course, was the only untruth. Perhaps Seattle Pride might next time think it better to find out what had actually transpired between the organization and the airlines before jumping to their own defense because, when presented with emails showing Seattle Pride had, in fact, set restrictions for Alaska workers saying they could not wear any logos, the nonprofit was forced to apologize.
Bennett, still acting as President of the organization said he had misinterpreted the contractual obligations of the deal with Delta. He apologized 'for my miscommunication and any hurt feelings' he may have caused, adding that he hoped Alaska Airlines would 'accept our invitation to proudly march in the parade, wearing whatever they wish, just as they have always done in the past.'
'It was not my intention to exclude any groups or individuals, regardless of their company loyalties, employer, and group associations,' Bennett wrote.
The email that Bennett had sent to a GLOBE official was crystal clear, however. Entitled 'Next Steps for GLOBE Group Marching' it read, in part, 'Participation in the Seattle Pride Parade is simple. GLOBE cannot march under any Alaska Air Group branding (e.g. banners, tee-shirts, signage, vehicles, etc.) or distribute any Alaska Air Group materials ...'
After saying that GLOBE could march as GLOBE only, he went on to say that Seattle Pride would need to approve any shirts, banners, etc., to ensure 'they are in compliance.'
'I don't think this should be difficult,' Bennett concludes the email, adding, 'We would also need to speak directly with a representative of the GLOBE organization to register them.'
Seattle Pride's Board of Directors called an emergency meeting Wednesday because of growing controversy, and, at that meeting, Bennett apologized and resigned, according to David Hale, a member of Pride's Board of Directors.
Seattle Pride told KIRO 7 that the organization now wants the focus to be on the annual parade and not on the misunderstanding. Hale said the organization wants to move forward with a message of inclusion.
Well isn't that convenient?
Seattle Gay News does not want to kick a community organization when it is down, but the recent actions of the group do not seem to align with the community's best interests as far as the Pride Parade is concerned. Proof of that could be found in what Hale said as he addressed criticism that Seattle Pride has 'sold out' to corporate greed.
Hale explained to KIRO that the nation's fourth largest Pride Parade wouldn't be possible without that sponsorship, which is news to no one and completely not the point of why so many people are upset.
'Those are major companies saying that they value LGBT Americans,' Hale told KIRO 7. 'That is a departure from what we have had historically in this country.'
This is simply not true. The Seattle Pride Parade has enjoyed corporate sponsorship money for nearly a decade. And guess who has been one of those sponsors Seattle Pride conveniently keeps not mentioning? That's right - Alaska, represented by GLOBE. The issue is not that corporate money has helped pay for the parade, it is simply that Seattle's Pride Parade should not have a corporate sponsorship bidding war over exclusivity so it can be branded Delta Pride Parade 2016. Why doesn't the current board at Seattle Pride understand this?
Seattle Gay News will follow-up on this story in the coming days. It is clear the Bennett took the fall and did, quite frankly, what any responsible president of an organization should do when caught making such a mistake. However, by the statements made by Seattle Pride during and after the confusion of who said what and to whom, Bennett is not solely to blame. Bishop's statement to the Seattle Times is in complete agreement with what Bennett told GLOBE officials. He was attempting to justify the decision.
As Seattle Gay News goes to print, perhaps it would be worthwhile for our community (and I mean the whole of our community, not just the executive million dollar nonprofits and out elected officials, but each and every one of us) to ponder what we would like to see our Pride Parade stand for and then make it known. There is no way possible to reach, due to the sheer size and beautiful diversity of this community, one perfect answer. It is possible though, to demand that from here on, Seattle Pride does no further damage to the very core of what the Pride Parade - which is and should remain a political action - stands for: Inclusion in place of exclusion, equality instead of oppression, and a united front in the face of bigotry and hate.
Lastly, I hate to break it to Seattle Pride, but no board of directors (and some have tried, in vain, but have failed) will ever be able to regulate what shirts people wear to the parade or what logos are on them when they march; what banners people march behind and signs they hold; the messages they chant or anything of the sort as they walk the parade route. Organizations like Seattle Pride ask that people sign up and pay to be an official contingent in the parade, and mostly, folks comply and pay the fee. But make no mistake about it, if that 'ask' becomes the demand of a group of organizers, and those same folks begin to dictate what people will wear (we are talking about a parade that historically and famously features Dykes on Bikes, the kink community, half-naked and sometimes all the way naked people, drag queens and kings, and so on) and what logos are approved, then they are in for a surprise because the beauty of it all is that we can all just line up and march if we want to (and for free).
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