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L.A. Pride's 50th Anniversary Is Postponed — But Not Defeated

LA Pride

The LGBTQ celebration will go on, just not in the way it was initially planned, says event producer Jeff Consoletti.

This year, event producer Jeff Consoletti was preparing to make history. For the first time ever, South by Southwest was hosting a Pride showcase, #OUTLOUD, dedicated to LGBTQ artists like Betty Who, Capyac, Flavia, and Madame Gandhi. Consoletti was one of the planners.

History was indeed made this year due to the festival, but in a much different sense. On March 6, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced that for the first time in its 34-year run, the music, film, and tech gathering would be canceled. In that moment, SXSW became one of the first of many major U.S. events to fold in the wake of the growing COVID-19 pandemic as well as a canary in the mine for Pride season.

When it comes to Pride, Consoletti -- the founder and principal of JJ|LA -- is one of the most prominent names in the business. For 10 years, he has produced L.A. Pride. Additionally, he worked with World Pride to create the musical festival Pride Island featuring Madonna in New York City for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. And this year, he had signed on for Southern California's Long Beach Pride, a May celebration that essentially kicks off the country's constellation of LGBTQ festivities that take place in June.

Throughout the year thus far, Consoletti had been "closely monitoring the temperature of what has been going on" with COVID-19 and its impact on events. His job has always been to coordinate with brand partners, performers, and municipalities as any one of these players faltering can jeopardize a happening even in normal times. In the early days of this extraordinary new era, responses from different parties varied. Conversations surrounding postponement were "rapid" and "dramatic" as more information about the health crisis unfolded, Consoletti recounted.

"What was funny is the city of Long Beach initially was not as concerned. Alternately, the city of West Hollywood was very concerned, very early on," Consoletti said.

West Hollywood led the curve in the nation's announcement of Pride postponements. The city itself, rather than the organizer Christopher Street West, made the call March 12, with Mayor John D'Amico citing the city's at-risk populations like senior citizens and HIV-positive people as a key concern. "Our city has a population that is very much concerned about not being exposed to this virus unnecessarily," said D'Amico. The politician later tested positive for COVID-19 and is in the midst of recovery.

The postponement came despite the fact that L.A. Pride, originally planned for June 12 to 14 this year, was preparing to mark a banner year, its 50th anniversary, with a celebration scaled to such a grand milestone. Even in a normal year, L.A. Pride -- dubbed a "gay Coachella" in some circles -- has attracted A-list talent like Paula Abdul, Big Freedia, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Kehlani for a music festival in addition to the parade, which collectively draw millions in revenue to the heavily LGBTQ city.

In contrast, the city of Long Beach, about an hour's drive south of WeHo, left the decision in the hands of Pride organizers. But soon that decision was made for all involved. "It really just was falling apart," Consoletti recalled in the "blur" of events that would follow.

The same day L.A. Pride was postponed, the NCAA tournament was canceled. Other major events, like the PGA Tour, scrubbed dates. On March 13, the president declared a national emergency. By March 19, California and Los Angeles County had effected shelter-in-place guidelines as well as bans on large gatherings. Social distancing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would be the key tool in fighting the novel coronavirus -- and that meant a temporary end to most events.

"There was like several large-scale events that disappeared in like a matter of what felt like an hour," said Consoletti, who knew by the NCAA announcement that the postponement of L.A. and Long Beach Pride would be inevitable.

"We were planning artists announcements in the midst of all this that's going on, and it just didn't seem appropriate," Consoletti said. "So that's when we really were like, I think we should be thinking about a backup plan, especially for L.A. Pride. ... We don't want to be going down the road of planning [a] massive celebration for their 50th anniversary if we can't have it."

As of the publication of this article, there are no plans "for anything to happen in June" for either L.A. or Long Beach Pride. Consoletti predicts that the 50th anniversary festivities will be pushed to late summer or fall -- although something "small-scale" might occur if the curve of infections is flattened and distancing orders are eased.

Of course, Prides, which have no overarching organization and are often coordinated on a local level, have had different responses to COVID-19. A March 20 report said that around 100 Prides around the world have either been canceled or postponed, including events in the Washington, D.C., area and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The rest are in limbo. In statements, New York, even as it emerged as a hot spot in the crisis, said it was "moving forward with planning June Pride activities." San Francisco stated it would "continually assess the outlook for gatherings like ours in the months to come."

However, as much of the world moves to a work-at-home, shelter-in-place, and Zoom happy hour mentality, Consoletti has not discounted the possibility of some form of June happening. "I think that there is an opportunity for something to happen in June, whether that's a digital livestream or some sort of way that Pride can come together and celebrate in a unique way," he said.

"I think that there's a way to still celebrate Pride in June together, but maybe not just in the traditional sense," he added.

Some possibility models have already emerged for an alternative event. On June 27, organizers across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and southern Africa are planning to use online platforms to digitize a Global Pride. Livestreams will boast "musical performances, speeches, and key messages from human rights activists," according to a release. Additionally, Pride Media, the parent company of The Advocate, is now a partner in Stonewall Day on June 26, a global, livestream event featuring activists and celebrities to raise funds for LGBTQ organizations impacted by COVID-19. And SXSW, in partnership with Amazon Prime Video, will now be hosting a digital film festival.

On a smaller scale, drag performers have seized on new technologies to make a living. Digital shows have become commonplace. A fundraiser from Werq the World, an international drag tour production company, drew top talent last weekend, including Bianca Del Rio and Lady Bunny, for a livestream in order to raise money for local queens. Prides might draw upon these events as templates for their own online events.

Consoletti's company, JJ|LA, which has historically produced about 100 events per year, is "certainly exploring livestream opportunities and how to engage people using social platforms," he said. This pivot marks a significant departure from the expectations for events in the real world, which require tasks like stage and video design, construction, and car service for talent.

For event production across the board, it's been a tough and sudden adjustment. "Most of my industry and most of my counterparts are going through a very extensive downturn. It's like the avalanche just happened. Everyone fell off the cliff right away," Consoletti said.

"I think everyone's being a little bit creative, and so much of this industry is based on relationships. There's been so much work to go around when the work is there. So it's been great to see how agencies have been supporting one another and how clients have been really working collaboratively with their creative partners and finding opportunities to sustain maybe small-scale right now," he said.

"That's what events are about: people coming together," he added.

Events -- and their disruption -- have also marked milestones in the life of Consoletti, who has helped create up to 2,500 unique events in his 18-year professional career. He recalled having to cancel a fall welcome concert at George Washington University because of 9/11; he was a junior working in activities at the time. He was also laid off from a large agency in the wake of the Great Recession, which turned out to be the impetus he needed to found his own company.

"It wound up being a huge positive for me because I was able to sustain through that by creating my own thing," said Consoletti. However, in the current crisis, when most physical events have been canceled or postponed, he has anxieties as a business owner.

"To have people that show up for you every day is probably one of the most proud things that anyone could have," he said. "So it's sad to me to not have the work or be able to sustain in the same way that we were even two months ago and certainly six months ago."

"I think that the market shifts and you have to be nimble enough to just kind of adjust to what you can, what you can do for yourself, and then certainly what you can do for the team that's there," he added.

So what advice would Consoletti give to Pride organizers who have not yet canceled or postponed? "As long as there's a national crisis happening, any client that I would be working with, I just would probably be advising, I think we need to scale down or reassess or readjust in a way that's appropriate, even if we happen to be an event that's in the middle of nowhere."

"If the nation collectively is going through this, then I think it makes the most sense to adopt those safety precautions because especially with what's happening with COVID-19, [there's] so many unknowns about how this is traveling or how people could get infected or how fast it happens when if someone happens to be contagious, like in an area," he added. "So I would always lean on the side of caution, especially when it comes to big events."

The key, said Consoletti, is "being sensitive to what's happening in the greater marketplace" as well as the guidelines instituted by political and health officials. Eventually, stay-at-home orders will be lifted or eased, whether that's by this June or months afterward. Consoletti can envision scenarios in which some smaller gatherings, especially, may soon be conducted safely.

"Pride was birthed out of a movement of people coming together," he said. "There are plenty of Pride events that are designed for 30 people, just as many as there are for 300,000 people."

Even though Consoletti -- a West Hollywood resident who lives in the gayborhood with his husband, Rob, and their dog, Rilo -- is "disappointed" that his city's 50th Pride anniversary has been "overshadowed" by a health crisis, he also sees this time as "a moment of enlightenment."

Now LGBTQ people can reflect on their history and the hardships the community has endured, including the AIDS crisis. After all, Pride is bigger than "how many colorful lights are stringing up on the street and how big of an artist we might be getting to perform in our event," Consoletti said.

"It really brings back that this is a movement more than it's a party. And a movement can happen anytime a year, not just in June. And we can carry our voices in many ways," he said. "We can celebrate Pride right now in whatever capacity we want. So I think where we're figuring out ways to do that."

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