Recently, Alex Morash shared his view that Pride festivals and parades have become too corporate, that they don’t properly reflect the community and should be more of a protest. While I agree that Pride events should always carry a spirit of resistance, his well-intentioned article just didn’t reflect the realities of Pride festivities.
Morash argues that Pride has just become an advertising opportunity for what he calls “luxury brands.” While Pride sponsors like Marriot International may be common in larger cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, or Miami, they certainly aren’t nearly as common in many other urban centers. In Oklahoma City — where I live and volunteer for the local Pride organization — the largest sponsors are usually the local radio stations, Budweiser, and the hometown LGBT paper (which I also write for).
While Morash makes the very salient point that many big-city Pride sponsors are outside the reach of many LGBT consumers, it’s that very reason that corporate sponsors, especially large ones, are so important — Pride festivals that constitute more than a parade and a block party are not cheap.
Last year’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando — which occurred at the height of Pride season — raised fears for organizers and attendees. With less than three weeks to go before OKC Pride, people were refusing to attend unless security was increased, some would only go if they could arm themselves, and the city itself was paranoid about violence (which Oklahoma City has a deserved right to be, considering its history). While the city pledged a larger police presence, legal requirements forced OKC Pride to increase private security and create checkpoints where people could have their bags searched. This unexpected cost of more security set the organization back $15,000 for three days’ worth of work and put the event into the red. It took over six months of fundraising to offset this cost, which means that organizers started $15K short for next year’s event.
Unforeseen costs are par for the course with events like Pride. Those surprises are on top of garbage collection, port-a-johns, radios, golf carts, ice, electricity, insurance (these events are required to be insured), and numerous other incidentals, not including entertainment. While many entertainers are happy to perform for Pride, it is still their job, and they have bands, agents, and managers to pay. They may take a reduced rate, but they rarely work for free.
This runs into the issue of the LGBT community not being as wealthy as its own self-perception believes. To ensure folks don’t pay exorbitant entrance fees to celebrate Pride, corporate sponsorships are sought out to help offset costs. While a smaller community such as Enid, Okla. (population 50,000), has its own Pride that suits its needs with smaller name performers and events, a city such as New York fully expects big-name entertainers and lavish events befitting its communities. Even then, the LGBT community of NYC is not so wealthy as to hold multiple events in multiple locations featuring national acts, famous celebrities, and extravagant parties. I’ve seen the asking prices for some of these acts, and they are not cheap. Even the ones who haven’t been A-listers for over 20 years can ask more than my yearly income for a 90-minute performance.
Of course, this raises the argument that Pride shouldn’t be about celebrity performances, decadent parties, and conspicuous consumption. I can’t disagree. It would be great if Pride was about more than that, but the reality is that it’s not. This isn’t the fault of the corporate sponsors, but of the LGBT community. The people get what they ask for, and for many in the LGBT community it’s not hours of lectures from a queer studies professor at Georgetown; it’s Cher, Lady Gaga, and Tegan and Sara. They want to party. In order to be able to provide this, you’ll need to splash logos everywhere and give naming rights to events. Even guest speakers and intellectuals need to be paid for their plane tickets and hotel accommodations. Children’s bouncy castles for the family area aren’t as cheap as you might think.
Dismissing corporate sponsorship misses another big benefit — Pride festivals are practically job fairs for the LGBT community. Numerous large sponsors and corporations recruit employees at these events. Even if they are just call centers and retail jobs at Target, a job for many LGBT people is a blessing. Seeing a company actively participate lets these people know they can find work there and that they’ll be welcomed.
Morash calls for a return to a march and protest atmosphere. I can’t disagree with the general sentiment, but I still don’t feel that he is right. While Pride parades do have corporate participants, they are still protest marches. In a liberal place like New York City or Seattle, having a Budweiser truck in the parade might seem tacky and off-message, but in far more places, it sends a bold message. Years ago, Oklahoma City missed out on several big corporations locating large facilities there. When the city asked why, they all replied, “Your city sucks. There’s nothing to do, and we have a diverse staff that doesn’t want to live there” (that’s not verbatim). The city took the message to heart and began developing entertainment districts, parks, and recreation, and also changed its tune on anti-LGBT discrimination. While the state legislature continues to be a nightmare of anti-LGBT legislation, every year the City Council overwhelmingly approves the Pride celebration. This is because city officials know that encouraging an accepting atmosphere is not only good for the city, but good for business. Yes, this is a cold and pragmatic approach, but it works — look at how former Indiana governor/current nightmare VP Mike Pence rescinded his anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law after businesses began pulling out of his state.
Morash isn’t wrong that there should be more activism in Pride celebrations, with more events centered on education, volunteerism, and organizing — but it can’t just be that. Even the first Pride parades were unabashed celebrations of LGBT culture, in addition to a protest. In their early days, a strong voice and raised fist of defiance against laws criminalizing us were necessary, but these events also featured dancers, singers, and open displays of affection. Today, in 2017, we need a demonstration showing we are not broken and not afraid to celebrate who we are despite the threats we’re facing. The call of “We’re here, we’re queer” should be a sign of strength and celebration of who we are and the power and acceptance we now have, and what could be a bigger protest than laughing, cheering, partying, and having it all catered by corporations eager to show they’re on our side?
AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.