by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Kevin Toovey presided over his first Seattle Pride meeting as its new president on Wednesday, under the watchful eye of the LGBT communities' Gay media and public, as the board of directors, many of whom are new to the organization, took questions from the audience and promised that communication, public engagement, and ultimately the city's annual Pride parade would improve under their leadership.
Things were not supposed to be like this. Weeks ago, Toovey, announced that he would serve as interim president in the wake of Eric Bennett, then-president of Pride, who stepped down June 29 after a sponsorship debacle that led to public outrage over the organization's handling of a sponsorship deal that granted 'exclusivity' to one airline sponsor, Delta, and told LGBTQ employee resource group GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian, Other and Bisexual Employees) for Alaska Airlines, they could march in the parade with T-shirts that said GLOBE, but that, if asked, they aren't allowed to say what GLOBE stood for or who they worked for.
The general consensus, gained from social media posts and several letters to the editor at Seattle Gay News, was that the public took issue with anyone - corporate sponsor, politician, entertainer, etc. - being offered something referred to or resembling 'exclusive.'
Delta was quick to say that they were not asking for exclusivity, GLOBE representatives said they would play nice and march in the parade after Seattle Pride made a public apology and said that they had made a mistake and that, despite what had originally been stated by its former president, nobody had been offered any sponsorship package that allowed them to be the only corporation allowed to advertise their logo in the parade.
Of course, anyone with any kind of experience in community organizing and sponsorship procurement can tell you that the last part, the part about nobody was offered or told anything about exclusivity, is bullshit. Many people felt and quite frankly, still, feel like Bennett took the blame for something a group of people had collectively screwed up. It was obvious that some of the people at the public meeting on Wednesday, inside the Athens Room in the basement of Hotel Monaco in downtown Seattle, were there to find out who the current board actually is, why others were not held accountable, and what, if anything at all, would Seattle Pride do to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Another reason why people are angry with Seattle Pride has to do with their so-called official Pride Guide. For year's Seattle Pride printed 30 pages or more in a supplemental section of the Seattle Gay News, as their Pride Guide. Last year Seattle Pride announced they would go in a different direction and print a glossy, independent of Gay media, version and call that the official Seattle Pride Guide. The problem is nobody even knows it exists. Seattle Pride struck a deal with Seattle Weekly to carry the guide and distribute it. The question on many people's minds was, 'Why is the Pride Guide being produced and distributed outside of the very community the guide is for?' Along the same lines of communication issues, SGN publisher George Bakan (who co-chaired and was a member of the Freedom Day Committee, the group that preceded Seattle Out & Proud and Seattle Pride as the Pride Parade organizers, for many years) and Seattle Gay Scene editor and owner Michael Strangeways, and SGS co-owner Adam McRoberts (who spent nearly a decade as a member of Seattle Pride) told the board they have a communication problem that they need to fix if they want to fix the current relationship between the organization and the community. The organization hasn't issued a press release in weeks. They don't push articles or announcement out to the community through Gay media (Seattle Gay News, The Seattle Lesbian, Seattle Gay Scene), and instead of addressing issues, the standard response from Seattle Pride officials usually comes in the form of denying that anything is even wrong in the first place, scapegoating others, and more. According to Toovey, communication and more will improve. For now, the inundated board is focusing on getting the job done on Pride Sunday, June 26.
The meeting went well. In fact, I think it went a lot better than most people would've thought. It couldn't have been easy for the board to field questions and hear comments that were, at first, meant to let them know that the community did not see this set of people as capable of leadership. At first certain board members became defensive when in all reality, they did not have the right to be. I respectfully reminded them of that point. Their job, I said, was to listen and process what the community was trying to tell them. Defending yourself means you don't think you have done anything wrong when, in fact, everyone can see the opposite is true.
Community politics is a dicey and messy thing sometimes. People seem to like complaining online but rarely 'show up' when the real conversations are being had. The same could be said for this meeting. The room, you would think, would be full. It wasn't. And although some were there to support the board (members of PFLAG and a few others praised the board for their work) the fact remained that although people are hopeful, the trust of the community has been lost. Toovey and others say that they will work on regaining that trust back and then some.
After the initial few rounds of frustration and anger were over, we all got down to some good brainstorming and ideas began to flourish. A representative from Verizon Wireless and Brian Daniels Peters, the man behind the drag sensation Mama Tits (a former host of the parade), proposed that corporations help community organizations and nonprofits that don't have a huge operating budget by sponsoring their fee to be in the parade, helping to build and make floats, and partnering together to make change. George Bakan said that Seattle Pride should remember that pride parades are a political statement and that the board needs to support the campaign to stop the bigots from taking away important rights for Transgender Washingtonians by supporting and donating to Washington Won't Discriminate and also by signing up voters at the parade. Egan Orion, who oversees the operations of the massive PrideFest at Seattle Center and many other events throughout the year, proposed that after this year's parade is over, PrideFest and Seattle Pride commit to working together and collaborate more in the future. Other comments included shortening the length of the parade by making it more about quality and not quantity; a request for Seattle Pride to announce when they would be accepting applications for new board members; and for Seattle Pride to look at ways to work with other existing nonprofits to better the community more than just one day out of the year.
Some of the board were more receptive than others when it came to listening to people voice grievances and concerns. David Hale, director of sponsorship and Seattle Pride vice president elect, was not one of those people. Time and time again he acted as though people were out of touch with what sponsorship was, who pays for the parade, and was quick to defend decisions made by the board. On every board, however grassroots or corporate the board might be, there are individuals that really personify an 'executive' attitude. Hale fits that role perfectly. During the meeting he delivered a sponsorship update to the community that included his thoughts on the issue at hand and he was less than pleased that people thought that, despite Seattle Pride saying they did not, Delta was offered an exclusive contract. This is confusing to me and anyone that is paying attention because we know that it happened, the outgoing former president says it did as does Alaska Airlines GLOBE officials, and yet Hale still insists that it did not and it's all just business as usual. I respectfully told him that he comes off as being condescending and that the public is uninterested in hearing its Pride Parade board of directors give excuses about any wrongdoing; instead, I said, it's time to fix what is broken and move on. While I will readily admit that I do not personally know Hale, professionally or otherwise, so it's hard to say if he will or will not hear what people are saying when they express the desire for a Pride Parade that is less about corporations and more about the community the parade is actually for. I, along with many others, are hoping so.
The current leadership as of press time, is as follows: Interim President and Chairman of the Board Kevin Toovey; Vice President Elect and Director of Sponsorship David Hale; Treasurer and Director Christine Lyon; Secretary and Communications Director/Editor in Chief, Seattle Pride Guide Alex Nugent; Director of Outreach Melissa Celia Garcia and Directors at Large Anne Melle, Jeff Cornejo, Álex Baña, Julia Lacey, Christopher Nichols, Mitchell Moczulshi, Stephanie Bailey.
Another person, Colin Bishop, with Northwest Polite Society, is involved in sponsorship acquisition and according to former Seattle Pride board members that have either moved on to other things, quit early or were asked to leave, who spoke to SGN on conditions of anonymity to avoid possible backlash from either Bishop, his company, or the current Seattle Pride board, is making quite a bit of money off of getting sponsors for the organization, but in many ways calls the shots behind the scenes. Seattle Gay News will investigate these allegations for next week's edition of the newspaper and will find out what it means in terms of ethics, conflict of interests and just exactly how much Pride sells itself for in 2016.
The history of Seattle's Pride Parade is a proud one, but it is also a history that is scarred with moments that do not reflect, at times, our community's finest moments. Sometimes the disagreement is about the parade theme, while other times disagreements about parade contingent placement in the lineup flares. While most people come to 'watch the freak show' others are shocked and offended (so they say) by the near and all the way nakedness, sexual overtones, and gender play on display. Nobody is perfect and the same could be said for organizations and boards of people who plan events like pride parades. Some forgiveness is given if the intention behind the act is in the best interest of the community or even when a mistake is seemingly made out of ignorance. However, sometimes Seattle Pride, under the current name or one of the other incarnations before it, really steps in it and leaves the community with doubt in their ability to do the job at all.
Take for instance, in early 2012 when the board announced that any elected official, politician, or political organization must pay $1,200 to march in the parade, while businesses need only shell out $700. The public was shocked to learn that the people and organizations that work directly on passing and upholding pro-LGBTQ measures like marriage equality should pay $500 more than a for-profit business using the parade as a billboard. Historically, you will find, that the people who are on the board over the years have a really hard time saying they did something wrong. Such was the case with this controversy as the price was kept at $1,200, the policy was not changed, and while advocacy groups were left out in the cold, businesses were shown to the front of the line.
Then, there was that time when, again in 2012, the board ignored the fact that marriage equality would be challenged at the ballot box by popular vote and announced the asinine theme 'The Many Faces of Pride.' To make matters worse, then-Washington State Senator Ed Murray, who is credited for leading the fight for marriage equality, was passed over when the selection of parade Grand Marshals were named and the board refused to answer questions from the media about their incompetence and refusal to make a political statement during the biggest, and arguably most important fights for equality that our community has ever faced. Again, the board acted as though they had done the right thing.
Showing that loyalty and, in particular, the Lesbian community did not matter to the 2015 board of directors at Seattle Pride, the last announcement stage, founded by The Seattle Lesbian, as you round the corner towards Seattle Center at 4th and Denny, told TSL publisher Sarah Toce that they were no longer going to offer the booth to her and would, instead, take sponsorship money from someone else instead. Now dubbed 'The L Corner' (which could either be referring to the shape of the street crossing or an ode to its history with the Lesbian community) and still not offered to TSL, most of the community never heard of the decision because, you guessed it, Seattle Pride felt that they didn't have to acknowledge the change, ignored criticism by the Lesbian and greater LGBT community alike, and moved on as if nothing ever happened.
Then of course there was the great move off of the Hill and into near bankruptcy in 2006. The once small parade of the 1970s and '80s gave way to a bursting at the seams parade in the 1990s and early 2000s. A few years ago the big discussion was centered on whether or not the parade should leave its Gayborhood of Capitol Hill for Downtown. Well, we all know which argument won that time. However, as a product of its own success (it is the fourth largest Pride Parade in the nation) it is bigger than it ever was in size, cost, and attendance, and coupled with a large outdoor festival that was once under the planning and implementation of the board at Seattle Pride, Seattle Out & Proud (a former moniker of Seattle Pride) ended up owing the city more than $100,000. SO&P didn't make the payments that were expected for three years, resulting in the city filing a lawsuit against the group in King County Superior Court in 2009, alleging that it failed to pay $95,707 bill to rent the Seattle Center exhibition hall, hire security crews, use sound equipment, and employ other services. Again, the board made excuses for itself, said they would reach out and 'ask for help,' and as they moved forward, did not develop a good working relationship with Egan Orion of One Degree Events, who is the very person credited for saving the festival and in fact, has grown Seattle PrideFest into the largest free outdoor festival in the nation, always pays their bills, and works with the community and not against it.
I could go on and on as example after example - especially in these later years - where people made really bad and quite frankly amateur mistakes and the board was right on time with denying anything happened, trying to spin the facts to appear like board members are only responsible for the good things that take place and never the bad, and destroying relationships with community organizations, businesses and individuals all along the way. So how does this continue to happen? Because Pride is so big and so polarizing that when it is over people look back at the fun, the parties, and the people they spent their time with, and forget about the logistics, the (at times) betrayal, and executive attitude that dominates the once grassroots event aimed at helping the community become visible and equal. Pride is, in a sense, out of sight and out of mind. But, each and every year, it comes back around and in May, everyone is paying attention again and mistakes are magnified, scrutinized, argued over and ultimately negotiated until Pride Sunday and Seattle forgets to remember that some housekeeping needs to be done on the board and some reorganizing efforts need to be planned to fix the problem, and more. We simply go our own ways until it's time to do it all over again next year.
What if it didn't have to be that way? What if this was the board of directors that dedicate themselves to getting it right? It's possible. It can be done. The challenge that lays before this board will not be how well they do or don't do their job later this month. The challenge is how well they make Seattle Pride known, and for the quality of work that they become associate with having completed, during the rest of next year leading up to Pride 2017. It is unfair to blame or condemn a board of (mostly) new people because of the mistakes their predecessors made. But the community is not out of line when we ask for more transparency, better ways to partner with a wide range of our community and not just executive types, and that Pride remains - as it is meant to be - a statement that celebrates the diversity and inclusive nature of our community. Much of the past is marred with bad judgment and shameful accountability practices but it hasn't all been bad, otherwise nobody would go and, at the very least, another group would've come along to challenge Seattle Pride by now. To be fair, SO&P eventually paid their bill to the city and there are times when organizers were smart about the statement the parade can, and should, make. Eventually Mayor Ed Murray was honored as a parade grand marshal and SOAP asked married same-sex couples to march together in the 2013 Pride Parade while that same year, the participation of uniformed members of the Boy Scouts of America, celebrating the recent decision by that organization to allow openly Gay boys to join as Scouts, was notable. Groups like PFLAG have been embraced by the greater public, due in part, to their visibility in each parade. Increasingly more and more organizations that are represented by LGBTQ people of color are signing up as a parade contingent. Each year there is a color guard at the front of the parade, honoring the service of LGBTQ folks in the military and Coast Guard. The Chief of Police and LGBTQ officers participate, as does the Fire Department and City Council. Still, in this world you are only as good as your last mistake and if Seattle Pride were a cat, nobody would blame it for jumping at the sight of its own shadow because it's already used up 9 of its lives. Simply put, the current board needs to get it right. They will need support and it should be our charge to support them when and where they need the community. But at the end of the day the community is saying loud and clear that it is high time we get a parade that honors our history and diversity, struggle and beauty, future and political leanings. We want a parade we can be proud of.
They seem to have gotten it right with the selection of Grand Marshals this year:
El Centro de la Raza: An organization that is 'home' for all people who are interested in building a better world, El Centro de la Raza has a mission to build unity across all racial and economic sectors, to organize, empower and defend its most vulnerable and marginalized populations, and to bring justice, dignity, equality and freedom to all people of the world.
Founded in 1972, El Centro de la Raza envisions a world free of oppression based on poverty, racism, sexism, sexual orientation and discrimination of any kind that limits equal access to the resources that ensure a healthy and productive life for all people.
Rooted in a group of diverse community members that led a peaceful and innovative three-month occupation of a local abandoned school building, El Centro de la Raza now responds to a broad range of community needs with 48 culturally and linguistically competent education and asset-building programs, child and youth programs, and emergency and human services, benefitting low-income children, youth, adults, and seniors.
'El Centro de la Raza exemplifies the concept of serving the community,' Eric Bennett, Seattle Pride President said.
Last year, El Centro de la Raza served 15,085 individuals and 8,581 families by providing a unique blend of services and advocacy that resulted in a stronger, more effective future for all people in the community.
Dennis Coleman: As conductor of the Seattle Men's Chorus and Seattle Women's Chorus for 35 years, Dennis Coleman has led the choruses to artistic excellence. With a combined singing membership exceeding that of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the choruses are one of the Pacific Northwest's largest and most vibrant and successful music organizations. The choruses entertain and enlighten audiences with a vision to see a world that accepts and values its Gay and Lesbian citizens.
'It is so fitting to have Dennis join in leading the 2016 parade. Dennis and the Seattle Men's and Women's Choruses are such an integral part of our community,' Bennett said.
Active as a clinician and guest conductor throughout the U.S. and Canada, Coleman served six years on the national board of directors for Chorus America and was on the founding 10 Seattle PRIDE Guide board of directors for the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA Choruses). Conducting the choir of First Congregational Church of Bellevue since 1981, the 45-voice choir toured Europe three times, sang in churches in New Zealand, and toured South Africa.
Coleman commissioned and premiered choral works from many leading composers including Gian Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, Robert Moran, Conrad Susa, David Diamond, Robert Seeley, British composer Paul Patterson and Canadian Stephen Hatfield.
'Of Rage and Remembrance,' a 15-minute work for male chorus, mezzo soprano, speakers and orchestra by composer John Corigliano, was premiered by Seattle Men's Chorus in Seattle in 1991. A recording of this work and the companion Symphony 1, also called Of Rage and Remembrance, by the National Symphony under Leonard Slatkin was awarded the 1998 Grammy for Best Classical Album.
Over the course of his career, Coleman has collaborated with a long list of acclaimed artists which include Maya Angelou, Frederica von Stade, Judith Martin (Miss Manners), Bobby McFerrin, Tatiana Troyanos, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Harvey Fierstein, Michael Feinstein, Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz Callaway, Marni Nixon, Diane Schuur, Armistead Maupin, Lucy Lawless, Faith Prince, and Lily Tomlin.
Coleman's final Seattle-area concert ahead of his 2016 retirement will be the Seattle Men's Chorus Summer Concert held during Pride Week. The concert is titled: 'Encore.'
Seattle Area Support Groups & Community Center (SASG): Founded in 1984, originally as Seattle AIDS Support Group to provide peer emotional support services to those affected by the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, SASG offered a place to come together in loving support to cope with loss during a time of confusion, fear, and lack of knowledge of this disease.
Today, SASG carries forward the power of peer support and understanding - the support that can only occur between people with shared experience and struggles. Whether one-to-one or in peer groups, SASG addresses issues of mental well-being, chronic illness, personal development, addiction, and safe social interactions.
'Their contribution to the health of our community makes them exemplary in the role of a parade Grand Marshal,' Bennett said.
The Court of Seattle Organization (The Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle & The Olympic and Rainier Empire): The Court of Seattle Organization is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to provide funds and services to other non-profits within the LGBTQA community of Seattle and King County, Washington. The Court of Seattle annually provides educational scholarships to deserving high school or post high school undergraduates who reside in the state of Washington via the oldest LGBTQA-oriented scholarship program in the United States.
The J.C./Lady Graytop Memorial Scholarship Fund was established in 1977 as a permanent memorial to Emperor J.C. and Empress Lady Graytop. Since its inception, the Court of Seattle has awarded over $100,000 in scholarships to deserving students pursuing a post-secondary education.
The Court holds fundraising events throughout the year, which have come to be an essential part of the community. Held in grand tradition and pageantry, most notably the election and crowning of the Coronation of the Court of Seattle, the Court stands out as an organization that celebrates respect with ceremonial revelry. The Court of Seattle also elects or appoints the Imperial Princes and Princesses, the Mr. and Miss Gay Seattle, the King and Queen of Hearts and the Kings and Queens of the Seas.
'As we celebrate the crowning of our 45th Empress, DonnaTella Howe, we are honored to be acknowledged as Honorary Grand Marshals of Seattle Pride! This is the first time in 45 years that the Court has been awarded this honor,' Barry Burns of the Court said. 'We look forward to serving our community once again, this time as Grand Marshals of the Seattle Pride Parade. We hope you enjoy celebrating our organization's 45 years of Noble Deeds, and will continue to celebrate the Queen in us all far into the future.'
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