It needs to be said: Seattle's gay pride parade is an embarrassment. Though this was obvious to everyone I know who observed the scraggly display of aesthetic lassitude and political apathy that passed for a parade this year, it's worth repeating, loudly, because a number of people in positions of power over the parade have, unbelievably, come to think it would be a good idea to relocate it to downtown Seattle next year.
This would not be a good idea.
When parade organizers begin a series of meetings on the subject this Sunday, July 17 those who support moving the parade from Capitol Hill to downtown will say their aim is to put the city on notice that we gay people have arrived, and now need to be taken seriously outside our gay ghetto. Leaving aside the question of whether it actually is necessary to make such a point in the commercial heart of one of the most gay-friendly cities in the nation, I can't think of anything less capable of persuading people to take gays seriously than the parade in its current form. It is a failure, both as spectacle and as political act.
THE ROAD TO OBSOLESCENCE
I've been an observer of Seattle's gay pride parade for five years. I live within a few blocks of its route along Broadway and always come out to watch because, well, I'm gay, and who doesn't want to love a parade about himself? But each year the parade disappoints by increasing degrees, sputtering along with fewer floats worthy of the name, fewer leather daddies in assless chaps, fewer lesbians chained to each other with bondage gear, fewer genuine spectacles. Mardi Gras beads proliferate, a sign of confusion about the purpose of the event and perhaps also a sign of widespread longing for the day to be more like some other day, a day that is truly fun and outrageous. Bud Light is now the parade's biggest underwriter. The very hetero Seafair Pirates now bring the best float. Political complaint is now more muted than it was when I started watching. And the entire event feels like a very safe, very long commercial for alcohol, interrupted occasionally by gay "floats" that are merely homos riding down Broadway in cars. How unusual.
I know I sound bitter, but I do recognize what is happening as a sort of progress. The fact is that more and more people—gay and straight—have been showing up to watch the parade as it tips over into bland meaninglessness. The crowd this year pushed 200,000. Hooray for the appeal of tame gays.
Parades are symbolic acts, and from their inception gay pride parades symbolized one thing: resistance against a culture in which being gay was something shameful, something definitely not worth marching down the street about. Pride parades were, therefore, designed to create their own obsolescence; once people in a city found gays parading down the street to be unremarkable, even enjoyable, the parading would have accomplished its aim.
We're getting close to realizing such obsolescence here, and the closer we get, the more people seem to show up, which indicates how much easier it has become to be out of the closet. Yet, not surprisingly, as the parade grows less intensely necessary, the worse it seems to be as spectacle. It just has no heart. It may appear to function, however imperfectly, for now, but it's not sustainable. At a certain point gays and gay-friendly spectators will get fed up with supporting an event that has no sense of purpose and isn't even visually impressive. And then they won't come back.
Its own success is only part of the reason the pride parade is getting dull. Pride parades in other gay-friendly cities continue to be worthy spectacles, because the people who run them are smart, organized, and aware of what motivates humans to make fantastic shows of themselves in the absence of overwhelming oppression. Above all, they remain cognizant of the parade as a metaphor for the state of the gay movement. The organizers of the Seattle parade have failed on all counts.
Take, for example, the parade theme, which provides both a context for viewing the event and a guide for participants' aesthetic decisions. The theme for this year's New York City pride parade was "Equal Rights: No More, No Less." It encouraged the event to be seen as a symbol of determination on the part of New York gays to win the last big gay-rights battle: marriage equality. Meanwhile, here in Seattle, with a state supreme court decision on marriage equality looming, the theme for this year's Seattle parade was "Pride Explosion," which only improved upon last year's "I Scream for Pride" (logo: a rainbow ice cream cone) in the sense that nothing could have been worse.
What to do?
First, the Seattle Pride Committee, which organizes the entire day, needs to jettison what its president, Frank Leonzal, described to me as a "whatever people want" leadership model in which the committee provides the opportunity to gather, and the community shows up on Pride day and does whatever it thinks appropriate. This isn't direction. It's the absence of direction, and it's exactly why the parade sucks. Maybe a hostile takeover of the all-volunteer Pride Committee—anyone who attends three meetings can vote on its decisions—is in order (though there's no guarantee such a coup would produce a better event). Whoever runs the day needs to have enough spine to enforce some aesthetic guidelines and to focus on bringing meaning and spectacle back to the event. Remember spectacle? We're gay. It's what we do.
Second, do what smart people have said in vain for many years: Offer a meaningful cash prize for the best float. Past prizes have allowed the winner to direct a pot of cash toward the gay charity of one's choice. That sounds nice, but it's not enough incentive to make people shell out a lot of their own money designing something impressive to roll down Broadway.
Finally, reverse the direction of the parade. Nothing would be a more powerful metaphor for change. 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. Even if the parade embraces what it is fast becoming (that is, a celebration merely of sexual freedom and booze), its annual arrival at a park named for a trailblazing gay politician and AIDS victim will at least be a recognition of all that has been sacrificed to allow such frivolity. (And the close proximity of the park to the city's best gay bars will be much appreciated by gay revelers.)
If, however, the parade gets more politicized, which seems likely if the next year brings a big fight over gay marriage to this state, then the park's namesake can serve as inspiration for maintaining a fighting spirit. And if the parade can't evolve and ends up dying a slow death, well, at least it can die at home with dignity, rather than expiring in a fit of denial about its current sorry state on the streets of downtown Seattle.
That last option, sadly, would provide more of a spectacle than the parade offers now. But it wouldn't make me very proud. ■
The Seattle Pride Committee meets Sunday, July 17, at 6 pm at Lifelong AIDS Alliance, 1002 E Seneca St (meeting room is off lower parking lot), 328-8979. Go and help them create a parade that doesn't suck. To gripe about the parade online, go to forums.thestranger.com.