Queer Pride Town Hall Draws Small Crowd

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

In sharp contrast to the earlier meeting in January, a town-hall called by San Diego LGBT Pride February 22 drew only about 50 people and lasted just 45 minutes. Instead of a bitch-fest aimed at getting rid of the Pride board — whose members resigned and were replaced with respected community veterans who'd served on previous Prides — the February 22 meeting offered constructive discussion about the fate of the annual Pride parade and festival, including concerns from politically oriented Queer activists that by abolishing the annual pre-Pride rally, the former board had betrayed the true meaning of Pride.

Second Pride Town-Hall Draws Small Crowd

Constructive Dialogue Questions Pride’s Other Projects, Elimination of Rally

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Judy Schaim and Larry Ramey, Ben Orgovan

What a difference a month and a half makes. The last time the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in Hillcrest hosted a town-hall meeting to discuss the fate of San Diego’s annual Pride celebration and the organization that runs it, on January 10, nearly 300 people came to the Center’s big hall to demand the resignation of the Pride board and question whether they could continue to support the events. The next meeting, held February 22, drew only about 50 people, many of them long-time Pride volunteers, and lasted just 45 minutes. With the former board gone, replaced by a new one consisting mostly of previous Pride board members, the aura of crisis dissipated. Instead, there were a few constructive suggestions, and the only real dispute was over whether Pride should go back to holding a rally before the parade and festival in July.

Larry Ramey and Judy Schaim, co-chairs of the new Pride board, MC’d the meeting and were the only members of the new Pride board who spoke. Others — including Jeri Dilno, Bob Leyh, Suanne Pauley, Chris Shaw and Andrea Villa — were simply introduced from the audience. Ramey began the meeting with a reading of Pride’s mission statement, which says that the group’s purpose is “fostering pride in and respect for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities, locally and globally” and achieving “ world free of prejudice and bias. Then he and Schaim both talked about their own personal experiences with the Pride events.

“I came out at Pride, let’s just say a few years ago,” Ramey said. “I went to the parade three days after walking into the Center for the first time. At the little dip on Sixth Avenue, just before the parade goes into Balboa Park, I just stopped for a moment and all I could see in front of me was Gay people. I looked back and all I could see behind me was Gay people. I felt that I could be part of this too. I had a great day, and the next day I spent volunteering at the festival. A year later I was a supervisor. The next year I was on the board. The year after that I was the treasurer, and the next year after that I was elected as co-chair. It was a kick-the-door-off-the-closet experience for me, and if people want to know why we stepped forward and agreed to serve, for me it was because Pride has meant so much to me.”

“I knew I was a Lesbian at seven, but I didn’t know what it was called or what to do about it,” said Schaim. “Like a good little Jewish girl, I married and had children. I felt a lot of shame about my sexual orientation and I worried about how I would tell my kids that I’m a Lesbian. It’s because of that that I do this work. I’m also a therapist, and I see so many people who feel they’re alone because they’re Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender.”

Schaim then talked about some of the steps the new Pride board has taken to restore public trust in the organization in the three weeks they’d been in office. “We needed to make sure our house was in order,” she said. “We’re taking a tremendous amount of time sifting through what works and what doesn’t, what was budgeted for and what wasn’t. We’re creating a foundation and hope you have some patience with us.” She pointed out that the Pride budget document is 64 pages long and “we want to be thoughtful and careful” about how they spend the community’s money. Addressing some of the issues raised on January 10, Schaim said that Pride had appointed a new auditor and “will have an audited budget statement on the Pride Web site [http://www.sdpride.org] as soon as it’s ready.”

According to Schaim, the Pride board is also working on fulfilling the mandate in its bylaws for gender equality and fair representation of people of color — but the former is proving easier to achieve than the latter. “We’re well aware that most of us are over 45 and white,” she joked. “We want to be a diverse board.” She said that the current board is five women and four men, plus a male director emeritus (San Diego Pride founder Doug Moore) and a woman candidate member (Karen Bucey), and they’re interested in recruiting a youth representative. The board has also opened its meetings, which take place every Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Pride headquarters, 3620 30th Street in North Park.

Schaim and Ramey then threw the meeting open to the audience for one-minute comments, and declared only one topic off limits for community discussion: the fate of deHarte and the two other staff members, Ken St. Pierre and Jeff Rolando, who resigned in support of him in early January. “That is being handled by attorneys,” Ramey grimly noted. The first speaker was Howard Menzer of Scouting for All, who noted the drop in attendance from January 10 to February 22 and asked where were all the “mouths” who had filled the room with their complaints last time.

Greg Myrland of the San Diego Humanists’ Association asked why the Pride board had increased ticket prices for the festival in 2009. Ramey said they really hadn’t; they just eliminated the two-day discount for tickets bought in the last week before the event. Alex Sachs of the San Diego Democratic Club asked what the new board was doing about two other issues raised at the earlier meeting, including lowering fees to festival exhibitors and allowing active-duty military personnel to attend the festival free. Ramey said they’re keeping the costs for booths the same but working on a discount for nonprofit organizations, and they will let the military people in free again.

“I’m very interested in the direction Pride is taking concerning the ways the former board branched out,” said former Pride board member Dr. Lois Gail. “Are you going to continue to compete for fundraising with service organizations? I’d like to see you focus on the main Pride event and add an educational component to it.” Schaim said that the current board is “aware we are not a social-service organization” and “we will be joining, not competing” with community groups that do offer services. One issue raised at the January 10 meeting that didn’t get raised this time around is whether Pride will increase its grants to community service groups, which the former board cut back.

Another former board member, Pam Schwartz, criticized the new board’s plan to set up “advisory” committees of community people and former Pride board members. “The people in the community who are interested in working on Pride at that level should be on the board,” he said. “Pride is about making as much money as possible and bringing it back to the community. If community members have comments, there are ways to e-mail the staff or the board, or they can join the board.”

Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, who has served on the Pride board and has volunteered in some capacity in virtually every Pride celebration held in San Diego, thanked the new board for rejuvenating her trust in the organization but criticized the decision to drop the rally in 2009. San Diego’s was one of the last Pride groups to keep the rally, but the one in 2008 — held the night before the parade on the festival grounds in Balboa Park, and featuring British Queer activist Peter Tatchell speaking about Queers in other countries and how they’re routinely arrested, beaten or murdered by homo-hating governments and individuals — drew only a handful of people.

Nonetheless, Biegeleisen made it clear she wants the rally restored. “For me as an activist, the rally is the most important part of Pride, where I can hear activists speak to me and know why we’re fighting,” she said. “I want to see Pride look at the rally as an asset, not a liability.” She said that the Equality Torch Relay, an event Pride started last year that involved carrying a torch through various sections of San Diego county — and which got most of its media attention when then-director deHarte was Queer-bashed in El Cajon — was supposed to have replaced the rally as Pride’s activist component, “but I didn’t get it.”

Another speaker, Ron Bettinger, also expressed support for the rally. “I really enjoyed the rallies, and I miss them,” he said. “I found them deteriorating in quality over the years. We need them to come back with a variety of speakers, representing a multiple of ages, to address the chief core issues of the time.”

“Many of us recognize that the rally is the fire that gets the parade and festival going,” Schaim said. “We haven’t yet decided how, when and where” to stage a rally, she added.

But Ben Orgovan, assistant to the parade coordinator and one of the youngest activists in the room, had a different point of view. “I have nothing against the rally, but I’ve never been to one and it’s not my cup of tea,” he said. “I want to say how much the Equality Torch Relay meant to me. I’ve lived in Chula Vista my whole life and I’m afraid even to have a rainbow flag. Seeing Pride get out to other parts of the city and county is important to me.”

“I’m a Torch Relay fan,” said John Vigil. “I worked El Cajon and La Mesa and it was just a little lonely and scary, but I did it. My first one I drove, and my second one was a walk. There were a small group of straight people on hand to support us.”

Jennifer, the parade coordinator, made it clear that at present the plan isn’t to do a rally on the eve of the parade, but to have one at the end of the Equality Torch Relay a month and a half before the main Pride events. “We want community members to carry torches and banners throughout all of San Diego county,” she said. “At the end of the relay, on Saturday, June 5, we will have people come in from all over the county and meet at the County Administrative Center [1600 Pacific Highway downtown] for speakers and a presentation. That will be your rally aspect. This will be publicized and will let everyone know there are LGBT [Queer] people everywhere in San Diego County. They don’t all just live in Hillcrest.”

But Wendy Sue Biegeleisen said that wasn’t good enough to suit her. “I have nothing against the Torch Relay,” she said. “I didn’t understand what it was about, or that it was replacing the rally. I thought it was just a bunch of people attending a relay.” Biegeleisen said that she thought rally attendance dropped off because it was at an awkward time and location — the night before the parade, when most community members interested in Pride were either getting ready to march in the parade or setting up for the festival — and on the festival grounds in Balboa Park, a difficult and potentially dangerous location to leave after dark.

“I also want to speak for the rally,” said Virgil Bowen of the California Cyclemen’s Motorcycle Association. “If you don’t have an activist portion, there’s less meaning for Pride.” Later in the meeting, however, he called the Torch Relay “a wonderful idea” and seemed O.K. with the concept of making the end of the Torch Relay a rally-like event with speakers.

Other concerns expressed at the meeting included the long gaps in the middle of last year’s parade — which Jennifer pledged to fix — and what one speaker called the “substantial penalty for early withdrawal” assessed against some, but not all, festival exhibitors who closed their booths early. A Pride official replied that the only “penalty” was the loss of a security deposit, but didn’t respond to the allegation that some groups had had to pay while others who closed early got off scot-free. Menzer asked for assurances that, if Pride wants its exhibitors to remain open until the end of the festival, they will keep the power and lights on that long.

A representative of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence criticized last year’s festival because of the number of beer gardens on the grounds and the way some of the festival performers could be seen only in a beer garden. “It’s a concern to me that all Pride events be available to those living sober lives without alcohol,” Ramey said. He and Schaim closed the meeting with a pledge to hold another one in March and to keep lines of communication open between Pride and the community.
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