Friday, January 15, 2010

Pride Goeth Before a Fall

commentary by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When I first read the coverage in the Gay & Lesbian Times of the so-called “Pridegate” scandal, my reaction could have been summed up by Yogi Berra’s famous malapropism that it was “dèja vu all over again.” I’ve been active in San Diego’s Queer (I hate that stupid set of initials, “LGBT,” and I try to avoid using it unless I’m quoting someone else) community since 1983 and I’ve been writing about it in various publications nearly that long. I can remember all too well in the 1980’s, when these sorts of controversies about Pride happened virtually every year — the board that ran one year’s Pride would be accused of hiding assets or taking money or not representing some interest or other, and it would be brought down in a spectacular auto-da-fé of community finger-pointing — and quite frankly I was glad to see the Center take over the Pride events in 1989, bring order, stability and continuity to the project and ultimately spin off Pride into the separate nonprofit corporation that exists today.

So I had a sinking feeling when I read about the whirlwind of events in the first 10 days of 2010: Pride executive director Ron deHarte’s “whistle-blowing” letter to the board about their decision to pay their chair, Dr. Philip Princetta, a “stipend” of $5,000; the board’s firing of deHarte the next day; the resignation of two other Pride staff members, Ken St. Jacques and Jeff Redondo, in sympathy with deHarte; and the sequence of three meetings on Friday, January 8 and Sunday, January 10: private sessions with former Pride board members and current volunteers and “ambassadors” — i.e., fundraisers — on Friday and a public “town-hall” meeting at the Center on Sunday that attracted over 300 people, the biggest crowd I’ve seen in the Center’s main hall since the building’s former owner rented it to outside organizations for progressive political superstars like Bernie Sanders and Jim Hightower.

On the one hand, I was flabbergasted that the current members of the Pride board had seen fit to offer their chair $5,000, $5 or 5¢. I’ve served on community boards before, including two stints on the Pride board itself — on an interim board appointed after another collapse in 1986 and on the final board for the 1987 events — as well as two years (1990-1992) on the board of Being Alive San Diego. If there was anything that was drummed into me during that experience, it was that being on a nonprofit board means being a volunteer. You don’t get any money from such service except for expense reimbursements, and if your treasurer is doing his or her job you don’t even get expense reimbursements unless you can document them up the proverbial ying-yang. Whether there’s some dipsy-doodle that’s been introduced into nonprofit corporate law since the last time I served on the board by which they can legally pay their board members, I still think it’s morally wrong.

Indeed, in the “real” nonprofit world — the one represented by the big social-service and arts organizations — board members are expected to bring money to the organization, not take it out again. The inelegant slogan often used to characterize the role of a nonprofit board member is “Give, Get or Get Off” — either donate out of your own pocket, fundraise or quit the board. One of the most embarrassing moments at the January 10 town-hall meeting was when former development director Ken St. Jacques — “development,” in case you didn’t know, is nonprofit-speak for “fundraising” — was asked how much money the Pride board members had personally contributed to the organization. The answer: at least $20 per month under the “Friends of Pride” program that all Pride board and staff members agreed to participate in as an example to the rest of us whom they were trying to get to enroll.

So the idea of a board of directors of a (presumably) nonprofit organization whose bylaws contain the boilerplate provision that the organization is not to be run for the personal gain of any of its members (you don’t get to be a nonprofit corporation, and the tax exemptions therefrom, if you don’t make that rule) voting a hefty chunk of change to its chair absolutely horrified me. But so did the name of the person who issued the initial call for the town-hall meeting on January 10 to discuss it: Nicole Murray Ramirez. My long memory flashed me back to 1986, when after allegations that board members had allowed festival receipts to be stolen (which were later proven untrue, by the way), the previous Pride board had fallen, Nicole organized a meeting at which a new Pride board was elected by whoever happened to be there — and that board was totally ineffective and another board, which included me, had to come together at the last minute to save the events.

The big problem with Pride — and the reason it’s so often a flashpoint for community criticism, both constructive and otherwise — is that its main purpose is to produce the Queer community’s largest and most important public event: the annual Pride Parade and Festival. For better or worse, these events are our outreach to the non-Queer community; they’re the source of the images that get plastered on the TV news and they give a lot of straight people who don’t know any Queer folk (or, more likely, don’t know they know any Queer folk) virtually their only impression of who we are, what we do and how we party. What’s more, the Pride events are also our community’s greatest source of self-definition: they’re the images young Queer people just coming out see and from which they learn how to manage this peculiar aspect of their lives. Virtually every Queer person I know cherishes their memory of their first Pride event as an important “rite of passage” in their journey from self-hatred and self-doubt to a mature, “out and proud” Queer identity.

It’s the sense of ownership the Queer community has in Pride that leads to the difficult balancing act in how it’s run — and to the unusual venom with which the controversies arising from it are fought. Pride has become San Diego’s second largest community event (after Comic-Con) and, according to Mayor Jerry Sanders, it brings in an estimated $21 million in badly needed tourist income to San Diego. Obviously an organization that puts on an event that big can’t be run on the ad hoc basis of the community-based Prides of the 1970’s and 1980’s. But in taking Pride away from the volunteers and participants and giving it the order and structure of a formal business, the current events show that we’ve erred too much in the other direction. San Diego Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride appears today to be under the control of board members who confuse their legal authority over the events — which appears, based on the way they’ve structured their bylaws, to be absolute — with moral authority to do whatever they like with the corporation and its treasury.

They’ve steadily moved resources away from the community and towards themselves. They bought Pride a building as a permanent headquarters, and to pay for it they drastically cut back Pride’s contributions to other community organizations, including outreach to Queer youth, women’s health and people with AIDS. They’ve jacked up both the admission price to the Festival and the cost of renting booths — thereby freezing out many community organizations and instead filling the booth spaces with corporations and other businesses, many of them from outside the Queer community who regard us purely as a market niche from which they can extract money. Even something as seemingly minor as ending the free admission for active-duty military is an example of the Pride board giving the finger to the community, and one can’t help but wonder if they thought, “We’d better do that before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ gets repealed and we’ve got a lot more military people we’d have to let in free.”

The Pride volunteers and contributors who oppose the policies of the current board are facing a horrible dilemma. They can’t do anything to harm the current board or force the board members to resign without also hurting the Pride events themselves. They can boycott, they can refuse to contribute, they can seek investigations of the Pride corporation to determine whether the stipend to the board chair and some of its other actions violate the law — but all those things will do is make it harder to produce the Pride events. They can form a rump Pride and try to do their own event, but that will only dilute the resources available; either the city would take sides and grant one group permits but not the other, or the two Prides would compete for money, resources and volunteers and there would be two half-assed Pride events instead of one good one.

What Is to Be Done?

So where do we go from here? Short-term, the Pride board members need to get off their ego hobby horses and work with the volunteers and former board members to find qualified, competent, broadly respected people to fill out the board and prepare for the 2010 events. They also need to find an executive director with the needed skills to run the show. This may or may not be Ron deHarte, who’s shown his competence at producing a certain kind of Pride event but who may not be the best candidate to take Pride to the next level. But Pride — not only the organization but also the event and the very concept — is showing signs of age and declining community interest, and merely returning to the status quo ante, as many people at the January 10 town-hall meeting seemed to want, is not going to solve its problems.

Long-term, the first thing Pride needs to do after the 2010 events is to rewrite its bylaws to create a membership structure. The regular Pride crises of the 1980’s showed the dangers of allowing the events to be controlled by shifting ad hoc coalitions whose only qualification for membership was showing up. The current Pride structure has overreacted in the other direction; in the name of order, stability and continuity, they have created a corporate monster that gives a self-selected board of directors way too much power and offers no checks, balances or accountability. This may work fine for a conventional nonprofit with a focused mission — to run a health clinic or a symphony orchestra — and one which relies on a handful of big donors (who tend to be the corporate rich, comfortable with business-like structures similar to those in the profit-making world), but it clearly isn’t working for the producers of an event that is supposed, more than anything else, to be the voice and expression of an oppressed community.

What Pride needs now, more than anything else, is a membership structure, a way of holding the board members accountable and allowing the people who actually make Pride happen — the volunteers on the ground and the community members and businesses who contribute money, goods and services — the final say. I don’t think Pride should become an open membership organization, but I do think they should rescind Article V of the bylaws (the one that says they don’t have members and the board has final say over all aspects of the organization) and replace that with a pledge system by which you would earn the right to be a member of Pride — and therefore to elect its board — through contributions of either money or volunteer time. Organizations in the Leather community routinely do this now. So do law firms when they decide which attorneys have brought in enough money and business to merit “making partner.”

I would suggest that the Pride corporation hold an annual meeting approximately one month after each year’s Pride events. The business of this meeting would be to credential the people who had earned Pride membership based on their contributions to the events; to present an audited financial statement of income and expenses for the events; and, once the new members were credentialed, to elect the new board. Part of my plan would end multi-year terms on the board; board members would have to stand for election every year. The meeting would also include an open-mike section for public comments, similar to the one on January 10, so ordinary community people would have their chance to talk about the events and make suggestions for next year in a communal, non-adversarial manner. The recommendation offered on January 10 for an advisory committee of former board members is also a good one, and should be instituted.

Beyond the question of organizational structure, we should also be using the opportunity created by this crisis to rethink some of the basic assumptions of Pride itself. Many of my politically progressive friends long ago stopped going to Pride or supporting it because they feel it has lost its way. Instead of either a political statement or a community celebration, it has become a business, pure and simple, aimed at making money and perpetuating itself rather than serving the community. Certainly the 2010 board and future Pride organizations should get back to what former board member Larry Baza said were the purposes of Pride when the current structure evolved in the late 1980’s: making the parade and festival self-supporting and donating any profits from the events (after keeping a certain percentage as seed capital for next year) back to the community in the form of grants to social-service organizations and other worthy nonprofits serving the Queer community.

But the “reboot” of Pride should go beyond that. Certainly a Pride parade and festival should include plenty of opportunities to party, but it should also acknowledge that the event whose anniversary Pride celebrates, the rise of a Queer liberation movement in 1969, was a political challenge to a status quo that had kept us marginalized, repressed and invisible. Lesbian activist and socialist Sherry Wolf made a good point when she spoke in San Diego last December and pointed out that the original Pride events started in the Queer “ghettoes” and moved outward, spreading our bodies, our images and our messages to the broader community. Modern-day Pride events do the opposite; they start on the outskirts of the Queer neighborhoods and move in, sacrificing outreach for comfort and community-building for feeding the bottom lines of Queer businesses. In an era in which the Queer community’s biggest political need is to reach out to, and build the support of, non-Queer people, we should be able to figure out a way to re-route the Pride events so they not only entertain our community but show us at our best to the rest of America.

We need a broad community debate over how best to stage the Pride events for the 21st century and how to combine their various purposes — outreach, awareness, politics, business opportunities and entertainment — without the partying and money-making parts swamping the rest as happens now. The Pride celebration should include programs celebrating the history of the Queer movement (including the parts of it that happened before the Stonewall Inn riot in New York in June 1969!) and acknowledging the fact that our very existence as a people, as well as our right to equality, is still a matter for deeply contentious political debate in a nation whose people have voted against our right to marry virtually every time they’ve had the chance. I’m not saying we necessarily need to go back to an annual “rally” with a bunch of predictable speakers and almost no one in the audience; perhaps this year’s Pride organizers, or a future group, could mobilize theatre people to stage plays dramatizing our history and inspiring us for the future.

We also need to make Pride more user-friendly. The current Pride organization has adopted the same business model as the newspaper industry: continually charging more money for a product (the Pride festival) that either doesn’t change from year to year or gets less and less interesting. Pride needs to see the community as a constituency, not as pockets to be milked. It’s shameful that there are Queer community organizations that don’t exhibit at the festival because they can’t afford it — and it’s even more shameful that the Pride board has spent the money they’ve made by selling booth space to straight corporations instead of Queer activists on buildings and bonuses for themselves and their staff, while slashing grants to community organizations. We are a highly creative people, and we can do a lot better with our community’s premiere annual event than a static festival run by a self-serving board that appears to have forgotten that the original purpose of Pride was “community service” in every sense of that term.