It’s been more than 40 years since the first Gay Pride parades set off in honor of the Stonewall riots. Prior to Stonewall, the LGBTQ movement was just starting to gather steam. Starting in 1965, an LGBTQ group of activists from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC known as the East Coast Homophile Organizations began a series of quiet, annual protests in Philadelphia known as Annual Reminders. 40 people picketed at the first Annual Reminder, then the largest public demonstration for LGBTQ rights in the world. Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings served as the primary organizers for the first protest, becoming known to some as the father and mother of the LGBTQ rights movement.

After the Stonewall riots, things changed. A small, polite demonstration with a conservative dress code and rules against PDAs no longer seemed appropriate. A year after the Riots, during the last weekend of June, 1970, the first Pride marches took place in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, then referred to as Gay Liberation and Gay Freedom marches.


The first ever Gay Liberation Day March in NYC

Much has certainly changed since then. Many states now offer protections against discrimination for the LGBTQ community. The US Supreme Court affirmed the right for people of the same sex to legally marry. After those first tense but exciting marches of protest, Pride celebrations, as they are now most commonly known, have significantly grown in size, and have spread to more than 200 countries around the world. It’s unlikely, though, that the organizers of those first events would recognize the Pride celebrations of today which, especially in larger US cities, have become bloated, corporate sponsored affairs that show little resemblance to their forebears.

Seattle’s first Pride events were held during the last week of June, 1974, including a Pioneer Square celebration attended by a reported 200 people, and concluding with a “Gay-In” at Seattle Center. The event grew over the years, becoming both a parade and celebration that grew so large that in 2006 it was moved downtown from the Capital Hill neighborhood. One year later, the organization responsible for managing the Pride parade and festival, Seattle Out & Proud, was $100,000 in debt and nearly disbanded. Only because Egan Orion, now the Executive Director of the non-profit Seattle PrideFest, stepped in and took over the Seattle Center festival at the end of the parade was the parade saved. The financial mismanagement exhibited by Seattle Out & Proud, now known as Seattle Pride, is hardly unique to Seattle, though.

The 2012 San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2012 San Francisco Pride celebration. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2010, the San Francisco Pride Celebration Committee overspent their $1.8 million budget by nearly $400,000. Pride had turned into a big business in San Francisco by that point. In 2004, the year that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom legalized same-sex marriage in they city, an estimated 1 million people attended the city’s Pride celebration, providing and estimated economic impact for the city to the tune of $125 million. But the Committee was operating free from any community oversight, and was seemingly unaware of their dire financial status. It wasn’t until Controller’s Office report was released that the details of financial mismanagement became clear, and by then it was almost too late to save San Francisco Pride.

In 2000, Christopher Street West, the organization that puts on the Los Angeles Pride Parade and Festival in West Hollywood imploded under allegations of serious financial mismanagement. The organization shed board members like rain that year, as local media outlets combed through decades of newly released financial documents showing board retreats to Big Bear that ran into the tens of thousands of dollars, while ticket sales to their Friday night Pride events were nearly nothing.

As recently as this year, Christopher Street West came under fire again for changes to the Pride events that were intended to cover the increasing costs of putting on the festival. CSW President Chris Classen announced that this year’s celebration would be transformed into a 3-day music festival with a $35 ticket charge. Local non-profits complained about being left out of an important outreach opportunity, with requests for vendor applications going unanswered. To accommodate the shift in programming, the free trans night programming was reduced, and rescheduled to coincide with evening rush hour, limiting the ability of many to even attend. Only after fervent protest from the community were some of these changes rolled back.

Sponsorship rules were also updated for this year’s L.A. Pride, though, including limits on media sponsorship. Exclusive media sponsorship opportunities were offered only to the L.A. Times and Frontiers Media. Like many of the proposed changes to L.A. Pride, these were done behind closed doors and without comment or explanation.

Alaska Airlines marching in the 2015 Seattle Pride Parade. Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines.

Alaska Airlines marching in the 2015 Seattle Pride Parade. Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines.

It was sponsorship rules that landed Seattle Pride in hot water this year as well. When Delta Airlines was signed as the exclusive Airline Sponsor in 3-yr deal, they replaced Seattle’s hometown airline Alaska, creating a minor media storm when it was announced that Alaska Airlines was told by former Seattle Pride Board President Eric Bennett that their exclusive deal with Delta prevented GLOBE, the Alaska LGBT employee group from even marching in the parade. While that ultimately turned out not to be the case, and Bennett was unceremoniously sent to the chopping block for those actions, it begs some larger questions about how Seattle’s Pride parade, and other city’s pride celebrations are being managed.

Looking at Seatte Pride’s Sponsorship page, you’ll see that there is only one Seattle community organization, Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA) listed as a sponsor, with no mention of any community partnerships with other Seattle non-profit organizations. While Seattle Pride announced, last year, a partnership with Encore Media and their City Arts Magazine to create a glossy, magazine-style Pride Guide, there aren’t any LGBTQ media outlets listed as Media Sponsors. No contacts from Jetspace to either Seattle Pride or Northwest Polite Society, Seattle Pride’s contracted sponsorship vendor, were ever returned.

When Seattle Pride announced their Grand Marshals for this year’s parade, representation from the trans community was conspicuously absent in a year rife with political challenges to the rights and well-being of trans people. Contrast that with Seattle PrideFest’s Main Stage schedule, which includes appearances from notable trans celebrities Candis Cayne and Chandi Moore. Also absent from Seattle Pride’s website is any mention of other local Pride activities, including Pride Asia, Trans Pride, and the Dyke March. All of these events are prominently listed on Seattle PrideFest’s site. It’s a study in contrasts, for sure.

In all three of these cities, their respective planning organizations have been accused of making decisions largely without the input of the community. Looking at these particular controversies, though, it becomes clear that Pride is all about business. Budgets have grown into six and seven figures for these events as they’ve grown, but these events are becoming less and less a part of the community. Media outlets in Seattle reported heavily on the Delta Airlines sponsorship issue, but no reports have been made by major outlets about the lack of transparency by Seattle Pride in their planning process.

We’ve clearly come a long way as a community in the past four decades, as have our Pride celebrations. But to have grown from fighting a homophobic political system just to get a permit to have a parade, to glorifying a fight between which international airline gets to be the only one to march, you have to wonder if we’ve been going in the right direction.