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Christopher Street West faces hurdles

By Abby Dees

April 19, 2017

Despite big changes and challenges, this year’s LA Pride festival experience will be “similar to the last several years,” according to Chris Classen, president of Christopher Street West (“CSW”), the organization that has produced LA Pride Parade and Festival since 1970.

Over June 10 and 11, attendees can again expect West Hollywood Park to be filled with food, drinks, dancing and a variety of musical acts on three distinct stages, from local performers to popular stars.

But this year is not like years past, and there is a whiff of concern in the air about CSW’s ability to pull it off, at least profitably. Space for the festival is reduced by more than 50 percent as West Hollywood Park undergoes a facelift, and CSW settling on a location just last week.

As organizers of LA’s main pride events, it is inevitable that CSW faces questions from the diverse LGBTQ community. West Hollywood Council member John Duran says that for almost 40 years he has cautioned each CSW president: “You have a thankless job. You can never make everybody happy.”

But complaints about the festival’s impact became noticeably louder last year when CSW rebranded the event a music festival to attract millennials. With the LGBTQ focus of the festival erased from CSW’s website, so too was the sense of connection between the event and a city with a sizeable LGBTQ population.

In response, CSW scrambled to reemphasize the LGBTQ tradition in its marketing, but the updated version of the festival continued as planned.

With its promise of big-name musical performers in 2017, CSW appears to be sticking with that model, albeit LGBTQ branding is front and center.

That choice remains controversial, with people like former CSW board member, LGBTQ historian, and founder of the Lavender Effect, Andy Sacher, viewing the de-emphasis of Pride’s history as a loss for everyone.

“We’re in every strata of society,” he says, “and this is the one time of the year when we have traditionally come together, regardless of our differences and celebrated our freedoms and accomplishments.”

But Council member Duran says CSW was being realistic. “People my age,” he told the Blade, “we’ve done 20 or 30 of these things. We’re not necessarily going do it again unless we have friends from out of town.”  Still, history matters.

Both Duran and West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister think the criticism arises from the belief that CSW is the only source of local Pride programming, when in fact the city sponsors its own One City One Pride Arts Festival, primarily focused on LGBTQ history and culture, for 40 days each summer, including Pride weekend.

Last year, the city sponsored events like Trans Night, the Dyke March, and a West Hollywood history tour created by late historian Stuart Timmons. There is more to pride than “just those two days,” says Duran.

Issues of transparency and communication have dogged CSW in recent years, with defenders and critics agreeing that CSW could improve its community interface.

Sacher was one of four CSW board members who resigned last December, in part because CSW required board members to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Sacher said, “All pride organizations face challenges to achieve a balance between taking in what the community desires” and sustainability. But in CSW’s case, “there might be a disconnect.”

After the 2016 festival, Mayor Meister arranged two community forums to debrief with CSW. “Were they listening? I don’t know,” Meister said about CSW. “It’s up to them to provide an event that the community is supportive of. And if not, we’re all going to hear about it again.”

For the first time since 1970, there will be no Pride Parade. Instead, CSW will host a three-mile long protest march, modeled on the Women’s Marches, under the motto: “When any American’s rights are under threat, all our rights are threatened.”

With supporters like CSW co-founder the Reverend Troy Perry, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, and activist Ivy Bottini (a vocal critic of CSW), Duran describes this choice as “spot on” and in line with the LGBTQ community’s history of responding to galvanizing moments, from AIDS to anti-marriage legislation. Like others, he believes the march is pitch-perfect for our times.

Even so, CSW has made another sudden, dramatic change to what people expect from Pride. No one can know how many people will actually march and what effect this will have on the already compacted festival. To Sacher, this decision-making seems “reactive, rather than visionary or proactive.”

This week, CSW board member and #ResistMarch organizer Brian Pendleton, told FourTwoNine.com that “no corporate dollars that used to go to the parade are going to the march.”  Pendleton says he is committed to raising the money needed to fund #ResistMarch. Some reports suggest he must raise more than $400,000.  Sources say he has raised a significant portion of that.

Pendleton, when asked to join CSW’s board, pointedly refused to sign CSW’s non-disclosure agreement.

With CSW already running at a loss, the financial bottom line might bring the debates about CSW’s role as LA’s de facto leader of pride to a head.

Success now rests on robust attendance to the paid-entry festival and CSW ability to attract corporate sponsors to it. Nissan recent announced it will be a sponsor but few others have stepped forward. Wells Fargo, for instance, will not be part of this year’s celebrations for the first time in many years.

West Hollywood provides free security and sanitation services, but little cash. It recently agreed to cover up to $1 million in such expenses — doubling previous year commitments — though not yet satisfied with CSW’s transparency efforts and aware that the agency began 2017 unable to even pay office rent. The city reportedly stands to gain more than $5,000,000 in tax receipts if the event is successful.

Without the traditional parade, CSW will also forego entry fees from floats and community groups.

Given the sheer scope and diversity of the Los Angeles area, Sacher said the trend for more localized pride events, such as DTLA Proud and Venice Pride, is a sign of things to come.

“Maybe there will never be a consensus,” Sacher said, and “that might be fine.” Mayor Meister said that West Hollywood will be LA Pride’s home for a long time to come. And Council member Duran waved off complaints that other cities do Pride better. The entire city of West Hollywood becomes a Pride celebration, he says, “in everyday bars and everyday restaurants,” from one end of the city to the other. LA Pride remains unique.

For more information, visit lapride.org. Transportation and parking information can be found at weho.org.