Over the decades, St. Louis’ PrideFest has grown from a few dozen people daring to come out for a day, to 200,000 community members and supporters gathering to celebrate.
Now, as St. Louis gets ready for its 36th PrideFest, the annual event is experiencing some growing pains. Planning for this year’s gathering has been marked by conflict. For Pride St. Louis President Matt Harper, it’s been a period of trying to balance the contradictory opinions of a disparate community.
“You just can’t please everyone,” Harper said.
‘Too little, too late’
In early May, just a few weeks before the June 23-25 Pride weekend, the Pride St. Louis board decided to charge a $5 admission for the festival. The parade would remain free. Board President Matthew Hathaway said the organization needed an additional source of income.
“We ended the festival with a deficit in 2016 so we kind of started 2017 in the hole,” Harper said.
Several other Pride organizations, including those in Kansas City and Milwaukee, charge admission.
In St. Louis, the decision sparked an immediate backlash. Dozens of people, including Bianca Adams-Gaston took their complaints to social media.
“Sometimes, people may not be working and still want to go to Pride,” Adams-Gaston said. “I feel the community should be able to enjoy the festivities without worrying about a charge.”
Under the plan, people unable to pay could get an exemption. But some felt that was tantamount to making them grovel.
The Pride board reversed the decision a week later, asking for donations instead. ReeCee Hartnell said she appreciates the turn-around, but struggles with why the board ever embraced the idea of charging in the first place.
“I think it's too little, too late,” Hartnell said. “It's just added salt to the wound that's already open for people who just don't feel a part of Pride any longer.”
Who’s on the board and who leads the parade?
The admission-fee debate may be resolved, but other concerns continue to fester. In St. Louis and around the country, another issue is whether people of color feel included in Pride organizations and events.
In St. Louis, Hartnell said, the Pride organization’s executive staff and board of directors exemplify a lack of diversity.
“When I see the Pride board, it looks predominantly white,” Hartnell said. “It looks extremely male.”
Harper said the faces on the organization’s website don’t tell the whole story.
“We have probably more people on our board that identify as not white and not male: there's an intersex member who is African-American. There is a gender non-binary,” Harper said. “We also have a trans member on our board and we also have people who are of Indian descent, who are of Pacific Island descent.”
Some community members like Adams-Gaston, who is black, are OK with the makeup of the board and feel welcome at PrideFest. The board does a good job of listening, she said. For example, they heard loud and clear when people complained about the $5 festival charge. And they listened again when some said they no longer wanted the traditional, military-style police brigade leading the parade.
“I can see why they wouldn’t, because of the Ferguson situation,” Adams-Gaston said. "Watching that on the news, seeing the whole militant-style of the police officers was kind of an overwhelming thing to see.”
The Pride board responded to those concerns by asking members of LGBTQ organizations to lead the parade, instead. But not everyone is happy with that decision. It’s a capitulation to stereotypes against law enforcement, according to the head of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Jeff Roorda.
“There’s a lot in common between law enforcement and the LGBT community and people of color,” Roorda said. “We’re all the pronounced victims of hate crimes.”
‘Your pride is your pride’
Some people are asking if, in the current political climate, there should even be a parade at all.
In Los Angeles, organizers decided ahead of time to hold a resistance march instead of a parade. Two weeks ago, in Washington, D.C., protesters disrupted the annual Pride parade over concerns about inclusion, as well as corporate sponsorships.
In St. Louis, Monsanto, Mallinckrodt pharmaceuticals and MasterCard are among the corporate backers.
“One thing we’ve heard our community say is they don't want us to solely rely on corporate sponsorships to support the organization,” Harper said.
Harper said that input was another reason for the notion of charging admission charge to the festival. But he’s still not opposed to corporate contributions.
“We love our corporate partners and we love what they do, not only for us as an organization but what they do for the community,” Harper said. “About 90 percent of our corporate sponsorships actually come from within. There's an LGBTQ employee resource group that's at a company that allocates money out of their budget for the year to sponsor Pride.”
Back in the early days of Pride, corporations were nowhere to be found. The origin of Pride is rooted in protest, stemming from an event known as “Stonewall.” In June of 1969, police raided the gay club, the Stonewall Inn, in New York City and patrons fought back in a demonstration that lasted several days. Hartnell would like to see St. Louis return to those roots.
“We were angry,” Hartnell said. “Well, I'm angry again and a lot of our people in our community are angry, because nothing is being addressed.”
Harper, who’s a volunteer, understands people having strong feelings at this time in our history.
“There are lots of opinions out there,” Harper said. “And whichever way you represent pride or you celebrate pride; that's the beauty of pride: your pride is your pride.”
If you go:
Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis
Festival: 4:30-10:30 p.m., Friday, June 23; 11 a.m.- 9 p.m., Saturday, June 24; 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday, June 25
Parade: Noon, Sunday, June 25
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL