1st The March, Then The Dance
Do the Parties Overshadow Gay Pride Parades?
Written by Brody Brown
In the ‘70s, the years after the Stonewall Riots, Pride celebrations were small-scale, highly politicized events of local interest only. In 1994, millions of people swarmed into New York for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall — and so did party promoters, who took over every venue in town, even the Intrepid, a retired U.S. Navy battleship. Today, Gay Pride in major cities has become an extended weekend of nonstop Circuit parties. Some observers are wondering if the tail (the parties) isn’t wagging the dog (Pride marches).
In New York, the birthplace of the modern gay-rights movement and home to the first Pride march, the original “Christopher Street Liberation Day” was full of raw emotions and fresh memories of the clash between bar patrons and police. Today’s march is more of a parade and includes plenty of corporate sponsors and floats filled with go-go boys among the organizations representing religions, AIDS providers and every gay group imaginable. Far from being treated as a pariah, the march now attracts nearly every major local politician. The police turned their backs on the original marchers. Now the crowd greets gay officers and firemen with loud cheers.
As managing director of New York’s Heritage of Pride, Chris Frederick oversees the largest party of the weekend, the Pier Dance. At least 7,000 people pack a Hudson River pier to dance and incidentally raise money for the organization that puts on the march. Rather than competing with the march, he sees the dance as an integral part of Pride celebrations.
“This event was started as a way for LGBT people to come together and show that they can dance with one another out in the public view,” he says about the Pier Dance. “I think this event, more than any other event, embodies what Pride is all about. The Dance on the Pier is one of the very few spaces left where that many LGBT people can dance together. All of the megaclubs in New York no longer exist, and you will find it hard to find another event that brings that many people in one space.”
One New Yorker, however, sees it differently. Jonathan lives with his husband on the Upper West Side and is a devotee of Ric Sena’s hugely popular Alegria Pride party, but attended the march only one year. “The concept of pride to me is not something I particularly understand all that well,” he says. “I’m not proud of who I am, I’m proud of what I do. Pride has become like my Christmas; it’s really a time to celebrate. No one really remembers what it’s about anymore.”
Alegria, Wonderland, DISCO:
Also Celebrating Pride
Sena’s original Alegria Pride in 2000 became the template for his very successful brand of regularly scheduled Alegria parties. Alegria Pride, held Sunday night after the Pier Dance, remains the most popular Alegria of the year — it regularly sells out, although tickets are often available at various times of the evening at the door. Sena believes its success is at least partly attributable to all of the out-of-towners swarming into the city — many of whom, he adds, don’t typically go to a late-night dance party.
Not only does Sena not believe that his party’s appeal eclipses the march, he sees a need for a variety of options to celebrate Pride. “Alegria Pride is also a celebration that brings the community together,” he says. “Friends fly in to see each other and to have a great time. People celebrate in different ways. It can be a free event, a march or a paid event. We’re just offering something else to do.”
On the other coast, the most anticipated event of Los Angeles’ Pride weekend is Tom Whitman’s giant Wonderland party. Whitman began throwing Wonderland in 2005 because he felt that “L.A. Pride should really have a huge event that is up to par with what Pride in the entertainment capital of the world should be.” Though it has all of the glamorous, sexy elements worthy of its Hollywood setting on a Paramount Studio lot, fête, Whitman sees his partnering with AIDS Project Los Angeles as making it part of the whole purpose of Pride.
“It’s important for me personally that I tie into community organizations as much as possible,” says Whitman. Nor does he believe that the success of epic parties like Wonderland distracts people from the original reason for why these Pride weekends occur. “There are a lot of ways to celebrate Pride,” he insists. “Learning about our history is important. Continuing to fight for our rights is vital. Building up less fortunate segments of our community makes us better citizens.
Supporting the youngest members of our community as they come out is crucial, as is taking care of the oldest members of our community, as is remembering that the fight against HIV/AIDS isn’t over. All of these things are important and are part of being proud. But so is the celebration element of Pride. And for myself, dancing with friends and celebrating that I found my place in the world is definitely an important part of my Pride.”
Up the coast, San Francisco’s Kyle Pickett and Billy Worthen have thrown “The DISCO” for the past four years. “Pride at The DISCO is a celebration of diversity and of gay pride,” Pickett says. “I have images from last year’s event with people holding up large signs in the midst of a crowd that includes ‘Got Pride?’ and ‘Celebrate Diversity.’ The DISCO is a celebration of who we are individually and collectively.”
Perhaps emblematic of the way these big parties are being incorporated into the non-profits that put on the marches, The DISCO has been an “official” San Francisco Pride event since its inception. The promoters use hosts that help raise money for San Francisco charities and, according to Pickett, “help ensure that our vision includes giving back to our community by creating a safe and fun place for our attendees to enjoy Pride.”
But whether or not these large parties continue to grow in size, in collaboration with their host cities’ official Pride celebrations or not, it appears the organizers behind them don’t want to see traditional Pride festivals or parades become extinct. It’s true that even the Pier Dance’s 7,000 attendees represent only a tiny fraction of the nearly 1.5 million people who participate in and watch the big march.
“In the end, each subset will do what they do to celebrate,” observes New Yorker Jonathan. “Parades don’t go away — there’s still a Columbus Day Parade. I’ve always said New York never turns down an excuse for a parade; anything to stop traffic.”
When: Saturday, June 25
How Many Years: 4
Originally inspired by: the 1970s NYC gay nightclub Crisco Disco, The Saint in NYC, Black Party, and DJ Cary Stringfellow
Attendees: 500 to 1,000 depending on venue
Tickets: $50 & the event hosts listed on http://www.friscodisco.net starting April 15
Dance on the Pier
When: Sunday, June 26
How Many Years: 25
Location: Pier 54 off the West Side Highway
Minutes of Fireworks: 20
People setting up the event: 250
Some Past Performers: Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Cyndi Lauper
Tickets: May $55; June 1-26 $75; Door $100, VIP $200, at http://www.nycpride.org
When: Saturday, June 11
How Many: 6
Location: Paramount Studios, Gower & Melrose
Ferris Wheel: 1
People working there: 100
Some Past Performers: Lady Gaga, Kim English, Kelis
Tickets: $70-$80; Door $90; VIP $150 at http://www.tomwhitmanpresents.com
When: Sunday, June 26
How Many Years: 11
Location: Best Buy Theater (Times Square)
Seriously Stunning Visuals: Roller coaster; elephant; carousel; Gold Rush frontier town; spaceship; swimming pool
Some Past Performers: Deborah Cox, Frenchie Davis, Ultra Naté, Jeanie Tracy, Suzanne Palmer
Tickets: $80-$90. Check http://www.alegriaevents.com and join mailing list for pre-sales.