With roughly three weeks to go before the annual LA Pride parade and festival gets underway, Christopher Street West (CSW), the community organization that produces the annual event, was forced to deal with an internal board crisis that many say has been a long time coming.
On May 10 Chris Classen, the volunteer president of CSW since 2016, stepped aside in favor of board member Estevan Montemayor, a veteran of several Los Angeles area political campaigns and current Director of Communications and External Affairs for Los Angeles City Council member David Ryu. The move comes just days after the hiring of Madonna Cacciatore as Executive Director of CSW.
For critical CSW watchers, the moves seem long overdue.
In 2016, outrage against CSW nearly engulfed the organization on numerous fronts: efforts to rebrand the traditional LA Pride Festival — a carnival replete with a ferris wheel, sock vendors, cotton candy and corn on the cob — into a decidedly more expensive upscale event enraged some local community members. The new event, called LA Pride and Music Festival, was derided as a “gay Coachella” music festival and controversy escalated when structural changes to the event were announced.
Critics slammed Classen for increasing the price of festival entry from $10 to $35, eliminating free festival admission on Friday, diminishing transgender visibility and events, downplaying the historic Dyke March, changing the focus of what had been seen as a community-based festival for everyone to a festival for a younger, richer audience, being unwelcoming to seniors, appearing to remove “LGBT” from the event’s branding, disregarding the event’s place in LGBT history, eliminating LGBT leadership awards and grants, banning local community small business vendors from the festival, limiting access for some LGBT non-profits and stifling dissenting CSW board members by strictly enforcing non-disclosure agreements, anathema to community transparency.
Boycotts were threatened and at least one, #NotMyPride, went viral prompting organizers to reverse course on many planned changes. Ultimately, several board members quit in protest.
But buried among the outrages were concerns about the engagement of an
events and fundraising business called Incluence, a company owned and
operated by CSW President Chris Classen and board member Craig Bowers.
At the time, whether that arrangement constituted a conflict of interest was largely unexplored. Additionally, no kickbacks were identified by activists who pored over official financial reports and tax returns.
However, when the WeHoville blog revealed that this year an exclusive three-year fundraising contract had been awarded to Bowers, now a former CSW board member who still maintained a business partnership with Classen, CSW was forced to act swiftly. The three-year contract awarded Bowers a 20 percent commission on all monies from LA Pride paid sponsorships. WeHoville reports the arrangement could net Bowers more than $500,000, and concluded that it violates California laws prohibiting directors of non-profits from having a vested interest in the organization they lead.
Aside from any legal outcome, the optics for CSW were mind-bogglingly bad. It appeared Classen found a way to turn his community volunteer efforts into a lucrative pay-day, funding his own events and entertainment firm. Customarily contracts are issued only with board approval. Did the board have knowledge of the contract? Does the contract remain intact?
CSW is hoping that by pulling Montemayor to the front of the organization, the community might give the organization a chance to regain the community’s trust.
LOS ANGELES BLADE: What are the most important tasks you face with CSW?
ESTEVAN MONTEMAYOR: CSW’s mission is to create safe and inclusive spaces for self-expression, inspire an authentic sense of activism in the continued fight for equality, and celebrate the unique heritage and diverse cultures of Los Angeles’ LGBTQ+ community and its allies. Our most important tasks are to deliver on that mission, continue evolving our organization, create new and engaging programming, and grow our efforts while still being inclusive, transparent, and representative of our entire community in everything we do.
BLADE: Many people felt the past few years went too far into “post-gay” territory. How can LA Pride reverse that?
MONTEMAYOR: My first job is to listen. I want to hear from as many voices as possible over the next few months and throughout my entire tenure as president. I want to understand why people feel the way they do. Only then can we truly engage in a dialogue that will lead us on a positive path forward.
BLADE: One of the most controversial moves over the past couple of years was the perception that the Festival was being transformed into a Coachella style event.
MONTEMAYOR: Pride has a very special place in all our hearts and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Because of how special it is, there is always a desire to protect it and ensure that it lives on for future generations, I admire that. As an organization, we are trying to reflect a diverse community with very diverse views. CSW, as an organization, does not have an endowment and currently its only major fundraising source is the festival. The festival actually pays for the parade.
I’m very excited about this year’s festival, featuring a diverse array of artists, including two popular female headliners as well as a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender performers across all of the LA Pride Festival’s three stages. The festival is very much part of our mission at LA Pride.
BLADE: How do you see the role of elders in the community?
MONTEMAYOR: They led the way so my generation would be able to love and express ourselves as we do today. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, respect and love. CSW needs the insights of our elders who were there over the decades to educate me and my generation and help steer this organization in a direction we can all be proud of.
BLADE: How do you see diversity?
MONTEMAYOR: I’m the son of an immigrant mother from Mexico and a migrant worker father from Texas. I see my own diversity as a true gift because it has taught me so much about the world and about humanity, which led me to CSW. Diversity and inclusion are at the core of what CSW does. I look forward to working with our entire community to ensure our stories are told and our diversity is seen.
BLADE: How do you view the role of the community in planning LA Pride?
MONTEMAYOR: I would like to see the community get more involved with the organization. Once our new executive director begins, we plan to go on a listening tour. We want to hear from as many voices as possible before we start planning the 2019 festival. I encourage our community to visit us during our board meetings and have their voices heard.
BLADE: Can LA Pride improve on financial transparency?
MONTEMAYOR: Absolutely. Recently, we started publishing our annual tax returns on the LA Pride website. Anyone who is interested can look at them with just a few clicks. After the festival and parade this year, we’ll look at improving things even further for the future.
BLADE: Would you like to comment on the work of your predecessor?
MONTEMAYOR: Christopher Street West is more financially stable now than it has been for years, a direct result of Chris Classen’s work and leadership. Financial stability is precisely what made it possible for the CSW Board to appoint Madonna Cacciatore as its first full-time Executive Director in more than a decade. The financial success of the 2018 LA Pride Festival – and other LA Pride Week 2018 events – will allow CSW to create new programs and initiatives that Madonna, myself, and the rest of the CSW Board will develop later this year.
BLADE: Will the contract for Bowers be reexamined?
MONTEMAYOR: Following the 2018 LA Pride Festival and Parade, we will be reviewing everything. Madonna and I will lead an effort with the entire CSW Board to engage with our community members and leaders to review CSW’s programming, vendor relationships, and operations with the goal of continuing to evolve the organization and fundraising efforts while being inclusive, transparent, and representative of LA’s diverse LGBTQ+ community.
BLADE: What are you most looking forward to about being the new President of CSW?
MONTEMAYOR: Listening. I was taught by my mother that listening is the most important part of being a leader. By listening, we can make choices that work for everyone, but we can also learn a lot. I’ve learned so much by listening to those I’ve worked with and even listening to those I’ve fundamentally disagreed with.
BLADE: Tell us a little about Madonna and her role.
MONTEMAYOR: She is fabulous. Madonna describes herself as a lifelong activist, having worked at Los Angeles LGBT Center and APLA Health where she produced and managed a lot of their signature events: AIDS Walk; Simply diVine; LGBT Center Gala. She’s a seasoned fundraiser, event producer and non-profit leader. She’s going to help us lead the organization, take a lot of the day-to-day operations off the all-volunteer board and help us evolve.
BLADE: What are you most looking forward to?
MONTEMAYOR: I remember coming to my first pride several years ago in San Diego, I was equally nervous and excited. I didn’t know what to expect. I had just barely come out to my friends, but my family didn’t know yet. I was so afraid my family would find out I was there, not that it mattered, I have a very supportive and loving family. I remember seeing the parade and festival goers and thinking “Wow, they are so free, I want to feel the freedom that they feel.” Well here I am now, free in my own way and I have the opportunity to pay it forward by creating that same space and welcoming environment for some young person who is experiencing their first pride. It’s very full circle and I feel honored to be trusted with that mission.
Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Blade corrected this story on May 17 to reflect that Chris Classen stepped aside and was not voted off the CSW Board, as previously reported online and in the print edition. The Los Angeles Blade regrets the error.