A Question of Pride

As the gay pride movement has grown, both in size and influence, so has the fight over corporate sponsorship of pride events.

| Fri Jun. 28, 2002 2:00 AM EDT

As thousands gather in New York, San Francisco and dozens of other cities around the world to celebrate Gay Pride this summer, a small but growing number of activists are saying the gay community should take no pride in the events themselves.

What began four years ago as a small protest gathering in Brooklyn has grown to become an undeniable -- if not exactly coordinated -- backlash against the growing presence, and importance, of corporate sponsors at Gay Pride events. Alternative 'Gay Shame' events are being held in dozens of cities. The common theme: Corporate sponorship is leading to the crass commercialization of the pride movement.

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Held in late June every year, New York's pride march commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots, three nights of violent street protests during which hundreds of gay and lesbian New Yorkers demanded an end to decades of police harassment. Over the years, however, the protest march has become a parade, the events surrounding it a rollicking, colorful, multi-day celebration of contemporary gay culture. Increasingly, that celebration has been underwritten by corporate advertisers eager to reach gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers.

Organizers of pride events in New York and other cities say the evolution is natural, reflecting the changing nature of the gay community. "It's an evolving event. Is it changing? Yes it is," says David Schnider, media director for New York City Heritage of Pride, the volunteer group which organizes the city's PrideFest events. "It's probably changing to reflect how our community is doing."

For some members of that community, however, the changes have gone too far. In 1998, objecting to the increased prominence of corporate sponsors and the diminished profile of political activism at the New York event, a group of gay rights activists decided to create a forum for their frustrations. The group staged Gay Shame, held on the same weekend as the pride events and billed as an alternative venue for those who felt alienated by the larger celebration.

"It was a lot of people who are all activists who do work on a variety of issues that we felt weren't addressed by the mainstream gay pride celebration," says Dean Spade, a poverty lawyer who co-organized the 1998 event. "We just felt like, when we go to the pride events, we didn't see our politics and our activism really presented."

What Spade says the organizers did see at the pride events was an ever-growing level of corporate involvement. The pride movement, they charged, was becoming over-commercialized and losing its identity in the process.

Today, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Shick, Miller Brewing Company, United Airlines, Bank of America, and Smirnoff are sponsoring pride celebrations in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Toronto. Anheuser-Busch contributed $81,000 to the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Pride Celebration committee and was the largest contributor to New York Heritage of Pride.

Teddy Witherington, the executive director of the San Francisco organizing committee, says corporate sponsorship has become vital to the financial viability of the pride movement.

"I think a lot of people forget that it's a free event. A lot of people also forget that, five years ago, it was also a bankrupt event," he says. "The corporate support that we do have allowed us to put on a world class event and it allows us to put on a free event. It also allows us to give money back to our community. Last year, we gave back $114,3888 to over thirty community groups."

Still, the Gay Shame backlash is finding new support in virtually every city that holds a pride march or celebration. Chris Hannssmann, who is helping to organize Seattle's first Gay Shame-inspired event, says the 1998 New York gathering was a catalyst for other activists.

"That was an inspiration to the extent that the pride parade seemed like a good ... venue to begin a dialogue about consumerism within queer communities and gay communities," Hannssmann says. "Absolute Vodka, Bud Light, Coors Light are prancing around, singing about diversity and acceptance and equal rights without having to worry about being held accountable to provide meaningful evidence as how they will strive for those things."

Four years ago, a group of gay rights activists went so far as to disrupt San Francisco's pride parade, chanting "it's a movement, not a market." Deeg Gold, who help organize that "Crash the Parade" campaign, charges that corporate sponsors are being allowed to cash in on the success of a rights movement despite never supporting that movement during its nascent, difficult years.

"I'll be the first to say the Stonewall rebellion saved my life and I think it saved the life of many, many other queers," Gold says. "I'm not particularly ready to give it up. I mean, Coca-Cola didn't save my life."

Other San Francisco activists have taken a less confrontational approach. One such group, Gay Shame SF, an outgrowth of the group which organized the original Gay Shame events in New York, recently captured local media attention with their presentation of the Gay Shame Awards at a satire-soaked ceremony in the city's Castro neighborhood. Awards were doled out to groups and individuals whom the activists claim have sold out the queer community -- including the organizers of the San Francisco pride parade.

The backlash is also taking root overseas. At Barcelona's 2001 pride parade, a group of gay and lesbian activists blocked the processing with shopping carts, chanting "we are not for sale." In London, activists are staging La Di-Dah as an alternative to Mardi Gras, England's Pride celebration. A flier for La Di-Dah states "Mardi Gras is now a sad reflection of the triumph of capitalism, just look at the overt sponsorship and the commodification of sexuality as an image." And in Sweden, gay rights activists last year staged the first Stockholm Shame event.

"The reason for the festival was that we thought that pride had become too commercial, lame and boring," says Daniel Bergqvist, an organizer of the Stockholm Shame event. "It was just bright colors, sponsors logos and mainstream music and awful gay 'artists.' This year, organizers of Stockholm Shame are billing their alternative festival as "Like pride -- but fun."

As the Gay Shame movement has spread, organizers of pride events have tried to publicly address some of their critics' concerns. Witherington says the San Francisco celebration committee has surveyed pride participants every year for the last five years. Over that time, only one in five people surveyed said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the level of corporate sponsorship, he says. While acknowledging that pride event organizers must be careful in screening sponsors, Witherington contends that the mainstream pride movement may never satisfy some gay activists.

"I don't think it's necessarily a case that there is sponsorship, it's a case of what kind of sponsorship and to what degree," says Witherington. "There are some people who say there should be no sponsors at all, but then, I guess they have been angry since 1974."

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