What a strange, embarrassing thing: To live in one of the gayest cities in America, and yet find that this very gay city is incapable of putting on a smoothly run, successful gay-pride celebration each year.
What is going on?
In other cities, gay-pride celebrations are huge, well-run, profitable events. In the Seattle area, there is no shortage of people, gay and straight, eager to watch the local gay community put its best, worst, and most flamboyant members on display. The parade here has become a party, a political statement, a fixture of this city's special-events calendar, and in recent years, it has drawn over 200,000 people—all despite its epic planning tribulations.
But oh, those tribulations. The annual paroxysms of doubt about whether the event will even happen at all. The ensuing existential crises within the gay community "leadership." The announcement, this year, of a bankruptcy filing by parade organizers—and then the subsequent announcement, just hours later, that the bankruptcy filing would not be happening. And of course, the all-out war between gay factions over the parade's location, with the supporters of a downtown parade in one camp and the supporters of a Capitol Hill parade in the other. Angry words and recriminations fly back and forth between them, in private and in public. It's enough to make a homo want to stay home on parade day. (Parade day, the one thing everyone seems able to agree on, is Sunday, June 24, this year.)
For those interested in gawking at the mess that Pride Parade planning has become in this city, the next section offers a brief, weary overview of how the gay community arrived at this absurd and somewhat shameful moment. For those who can't bear the drama, skip to the following sections, in which I offer a few suggestions on how all involved might get their ridiculous shit together.
The Pride Parade and Its Discontents
In the beginning, there was Pioneer Square. That's where some of the earliest gay-pride celebrations were held in Seattle, and where one of the first gay bars in the city, The Double Header, still serves beers (although no longer to a mostly gay, or even minimally gay, clientele). Eventually, the parade followed the gay bars up to Capitol Hill, the current heart of Seattle's gay community. These days, the Hill is sometimes referred to as the "gay ghetto," most often by queers who claim to be "over" the idea of needing to confine themselves to one neighborhood for the sake of safety, solidarity, and easier sex.
"Gay ghetto" is hardly a perfect term, and the sentiment behind the phrase is hardly universal. But the emergence of an "over it" feeling—or, perhaps more accurately, a "beyond it" feeling—among some gay people when it comes to Capitol Hill is the subtext of the conflict over the Pride Parade. There comes a point, in the arc of every minority group's successful fight for acceptance, when the worst seems behind them and the question becomes whether to integrate or remain separate. When the Seattle Out and Proud Committee announced last year that it was moving the parade from Capitol Hill to downtown, it steered its rickety nonprofit organization right into the center of this debate and, as we are now seeing, barely survived. Roughly put: Downtown Pride Parade supporters back integration; Capitol Hill Pride Parade supporters back separation. It's Mainstream Sensibility vs. Ghetto Mentality.
Sure, there were practical reasons for moving the parade downtown. The size of the parade had outgrown the capacity of Broadway and Volunteer Park, and the financial requirements for putting on a 200,000-person parade and festival had long since outgrown the revenue stream offered by a free post-parade event held in a small public park that couldn't be fenced off in order to charge admission or dotted with beer gardens in order to bring in cash. But in the end, those reasons linked right back to the larger issue: The community was outgrowing the old norms.
So, last year, the parade's organizing committee asked the question: Does the parade have to be on Capitol Hill just because it has been for much of the recent past? The answer, it turned out, was no.
Despite a counter-parade held on Capitol Hill by disgruntled supporters of "tradition" (and encouraged by some Capitol Hill bar owners who see downtown celebrations as a threat to their Pride weekend income), the gay community and straight parade watchers voted with their feet. They marched downtown in huge numbers and celebrated afterward at Seattle Center, with homos of all stripes dancing in the giant Seattle Center fountain, a spot often thought of as the emotional heart of this city, and with many participants hailing the event as the best ever—a better location, a better feeling, a better embodiment of what it is to be gay today.
It was not, however, a better moneymaker. Due to mistakes too numerous to be cataloged here, the Seattle Out and Proud Committee somehow managed to turn a 200,000-person event into a $100,000-plus debt to Seattle Center, laying the groundwork for this year's crisis.
What to Do?
Last week's premature cries of bankruptcy notwithstanding, the parade is going to take place downtown again this year. At least, the parade organized by the Out and Proud Committee is going to take place downtown.
There may or may not be another counter-parade, organized once again this year by downtown resisters, and it may take place along Broadway on Saturday night, June 23, or it may take place in the same spot on Sunday morning, June 24. At the moment, it's not quite clear.
There won't be a celebration at Seattle Center this year—at least not one organized by Seattle Out and Proud. The Out and Proud Committee is focusing on the one thing it's been able to do right, the downtown parade. (The parade has historically been profitable, so, over a number of years, Out and Proud hopes to use the parade proceeds to slowly pay back its $100,000 debt). As far as post-parade celebrations, Capitol Hill bars and clubs will continue, as ever, to be the de facto Sunday-evening celebration spot for most parade-goers.
But this is not a stable situation. It's a patchwork of competing interests and barely rescued failures, all cobbled together into a confusing weekend that is not supposed to showcase gay ineptitude and infighting, but is instead supposed to make gay people proud, make Seattle proud to have lots of gay people, and, most of all, leave everyone at the end feeling happy and maybe drunk and hopefully pleased to have been a part of something that made sense, was big, and was worthwhile.
Which brings us to the biggest failure of the Pride planning to date: its failure of meaning.
Parades are all about grand symbolism, on a scale that alters the cityscape and perhaps the mindscape of participants and observers. Now, it must be said: Anyone, gay or straight, who ties his or her entire sense of self to a parade deserves to be disappointed. But, it must also be said, again: People love parades. They line sidewalks to watch them. They march in them. They attach meaning to them, even if their more rational instincts tell them not to. In the case of the gay community, which has historically used parades in cities across America to push for acceptance and equality under the law, parades come with tremendous emotional baggage. They are an embodiment of a city's gay community at a given moment, and the fact that they happen at all is a testament to how far gay Americans have come since the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Thus, the location, within a city, of a particular parade, is important. It means something.
In 2005, when it was becoming apparent that the Pride Parade was faltering and the celebration at Volunteer Park was no longer working, I proposed turning the parade around, marching in the reverse direction along Broadway, and ending up in the newly redesigned Cal Anderson Park: "Nothing would be a more powerful metaphor for change," I wrote. "Instead of continuing to march north along Broadway toward Volunteer Park (which deservedly or not is mainly a symbol for sex in bushes), the parade should march south along Broadway and arrive at the new Cal Anderson Park, which is tremendous both as a public space and as a symbolic point of arrival. It is named after the state's first openly gay legislator, who died of AIDS in 1995. Close off the streets around the park, fill them with food courts and interest-group booths, put a stage on the lawn, and enjoy the win-win opportunities for drawing meaning from the location."
I was wrong. At the time, I was writing a counterproposal to the idea of moving the parade downtown. My fear was that given its track record, the parade would flop in the center of Seattle, creating the wrong spectacle, the wrong symbolism. I worried it would become an object lesson in gays here not being ready for prime time. In the end, the parade downtown was a huge success despite the myriad other failures of its organizers. Which is fantastic, especially considering something else I now know—that the parks department will never let Pride organizers hold a celebration at Cal Anderson Park, for fear of crowds trampling and otherwise ruining the best new gathering spot on Capitol Hill.
So, credit where credit is due: Out and Proud was right. The parade downtown made sense. From a Seattle Times story after last year's parade:
"'There was a sense, marching down the streets today, of having arrived. Of being viewed as equal,' said state Representative Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who strode down the broad, leafy avenues of Fourth Avenue holding hands with his longtime partner, Michael Shiosaki. 'I think the fact that people felt comfortable downtown is new. Michael and I hold hands on the Hill. We don't downtown. But we did today.'"
The parade should stay downtown. As a location, it's a good metaphor for where gays are becoming increasingly visible now, and where we want to stay visible—which is to say, in almost every place that's central and important. Sure, the community is divided on this issue, but the balance tilts decidedly off the Hill. In a poll conducted on The Stranger's blog over six days last week, downtown was the preferred parade location over Capitol Hill by a 10-point margin. Over 1,000 people voted. Internet polls are far from the gold standard when it comes to public opinion, to be sure, but there's more. There's Murray's feeling after last year's parade. And there's this:
By "voting with their feet" last year, and picking the downtown parade over the scraggly counter-parade held on the Hill, gay Seattleites were endorsing the idea of downtown. They were saying, among other things, that they see themselves as part a grand narrative that begins in the gay ghetto and ends on Fourth Avenue or around the fountain at Seattle Center. It's a narrative that begins with marginalization and scorn from the wider community and ends with integration, acceptance, and celebration in the heart of Seattle's civic space. To put it simply, the downtown parade-goers were picking integration and its discontents over isolation and its discontents.
The current and future organizers of Pride events need to see themselves as accountable to this symbolic story line that the gay community was sold, and enthusiastically bought, last year. What would it mean for this narrative if this year the Pride Parade and celebration slink back up to the "gay ghetto" on the Hill, due to the gay community's inability to create a self-sustaining celebration in the center of Seattle? Nothing good.
Does that mean the celebrations on the Hill should wither and die? No. Despite the impression left by the two feuding camps, parading downtown and celebrating on the Hill are not mutually exclusive propositions.
Imagine a Pride weekend with a sensible progression of events that move seamlessly from the Hill to downtown and back again, mirroring the ease with which gays now move about in this city and recognizing the community's roots, both old and new. Here's what it might look like:
Saturday: A festival on the Hill, either in Volunteer Park or, preferably, Cal Anderson Park if the parks department could ever be persuaded to agree, organized by and benefiting the Capitol Hill LGBT Community Center, which has been one of the loudest voices pushing for a Hill-only celebration. If people insist, a small early-evening parade along Broadway. And of course, the Dyke March. All of which would inevitably empty into the Capitol Hill bars and clubs that have fretted so much about losing money.
Sunday: A grand march downtown in the morning, with bigger and better floats, bigger and better prizes, more space in which to parade and watch, and better symbolism. If it can be made financially feasible, a post-parade celebration Sunday afternoon at Seattle Center, where gay parents, gay kids, gay teens who can't get into bars, and everyone else can all congregate, have a beer in a celebration-funding beer garden if they want, maybe enjoy a ticketed concert, and splash around in the fountain. As a gesture to the bars on Capitol Hill, the Seattle Center celebration could wrap up by 7:00 p.m.—if anyone is even still down there by then. All of which would inevitably empty into the Capitol Hill bars and clubs that have fretted so much about losing money.
It's not quite the way things are now, but it's the way they seem to be going, and if people in the "leadership" of the gay community stop working at cross-purposes and try to get there, it could be a great success, symbolically and financially, for all concerned. It could take years to get to that point, but it shouldn't take too many years. It can happen, if this community gets serious about having a good Pride celebration, by 2010.
It could happen even more quickly if the various competing groups now involved in Pride planning start to look at the big picture. In the big picture, there's clearly a place in the Pride weekend celebrations (and a potential profit) for all the factions that have been warring over the schedule and the location of events for more than two years now. Rather than fighting among themselves, these groups should focus on the abundance of potential and time slots that an entire weekend presents, and also on this: Outside the often zero-sum world of intra-gay politics, there's a huge importance to having a parade worthy of one of the biggest gay cities in the United States.
Just as a flawed and floundering Pride celebration promotes a downward spiral of insider recriminations and general disinterest, so an improving Pride celebration would promote a greater sense of gay community. Who cares about fostering a greater sense of gay community through parades and parties, especially in an era that some call "post-gay" or even "post-post-gay"? Well, maybe a certain type of person who is out, proud, over it, and fine on his or her own doesn't care much (though this ability not to care much comes thanks, in no small measure, to countless gay parades that have come before). But here's who definitely does care: The streams of young, semi-out, and semi-confident gays who pour into Seattle over Pride weekend each summer. The better the celebration, the better for them, and the better for them, the better the future for gays and lesbians.
That should be reason enough for Seattle's gay community to put aside its differences and build a better Pride weekend.