The City of West Hollywood was founded in 1984 with the first majority gay city council in the world. Today, 32 years after our founding, West Hollywood still boasts an LGBT population close to 50% of its residents. Our core values reflect our community’s respect for diversity and inclusion. Even our city flag is embedded with the rainbow symbol, which says to all: “You’re welcome here.” The most important event each year that reflects our core values is the annual LA Pride Parade and Festival.
In the early days of West Hollywood, Pride was more than a community event. It was a celebration of who we are, what we struggle with and how we have united as one family under the rainbow. Pride was the day we all undressed and wore our hearts on our sleeves. Pride was a welcoming weekend for many who came to West Hollywood to share our sense of community. Inside West Hollywood, gay and lesbian couples could hold hands and transgender men and woman wouldn’t be judged.
Christopher Street West (CSW), an independent non-profit, had organized LA Pride activities for many years. In the last five years its leadership has changed. Pride has drifted from its beginnings and it’s unclear what it is about. At a recent CSW meeting before this year’s Pride weekend, one resident asked CSW President Chris Claussen “what is the core mission statement of the Christopher Street West organization?” Classen’s response: “we are still working on it.” Even CSW is not clear about its purpose.
Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco, which also host gay Pride parades and festivals. In those communities, the events generate money that goes to local non-profits and local social service organizations . Their festival ticket prices are half (or less) the cost of attending the West Hollywood Pride Festival. And the cost to have a float in or march in the parade is much less than what CSW charges.
So in West Hollywood there appears to be little public benefit to hosting Pride. The majority of attendees are not from West Hollywood. The majority of West Hollywood residents are not happy with the way CSW is managing Pride. And zero money has been donated to fund any non-profit initiatives.
On a recent visit to City Hall I bumped into a 20-year City Hall employee who has had a front row seat when it comes to CSW and Pride. He recalled a day when bags of money went disappearing. He said that in once instance there was $25,000 short-changed, and nobody knew what to do.
In 2013, after much community discontent about CSW and Pride, the City Council established an independent sub-committee of council members John D’Amico and John Duran to work with CSW and look into the community concerns. CSW’s then-President Rodney Scott stepped down. Now it is apparent that the sub-committee failed. (John Duran, by the way, never even attended a single CSW board meeting.) CSW’s decision to turn the festival into a music festival aimed at Millennials and reduce transgender, lesbian and other programming sparked calls for a boycott.
And this year CSW suffered a $395,000 loss according to a financial statement obtained by WEHOville that CSW has not made public (It hasn’t yet made its 2015 tax return available either.) That’s much worse that the 2014 loss of $51,612, the 2013 loss of $76,566 and the 2012 loss of $70,526. Ask yourself, is this an organization that is worth investing in?
Mayor Lauren Meister took Duran’s spot on the subcommittee and now is making an earnest effort to fix things. At the beginning of a community event last month (another is coming up this Wednesday and unfortunately I will be out of town and unable to attend) Meister underestimated the anger in the crowd. Lesbian activist Ivy Bottini spoke up and hit the nerve points, and the community spoke out . That first community outreach meeting showed all the deep divisions between CSW and the community.
There are three important issues to address to decide if the City of West Hollywood should continue working with CSW on LA Pride or take a fresh start.
1) Is CSW a good steward of the public trust and are its financials transparent?
It would appear that CSW has had many financial challenges — losses year after year while the costs to participate in the Pride event have escalated. With the $400,000 loss this year, will it even be able to pay its expensive talent? So the answer to this question is clear — CSW is not a good steward of the public trust.
2) Does CSW provide a public benefit?
The answer to that question is no. CSW has not contributed to any of our community non-profits or social service programs.
3) Has CSW shown that it understands the needs of the community and shares West Hollywood’s inclusive, community-oriented way of life?
The answer to that is clear. Consider: The festival was turned this year into a music festival aimed at Millennials. Festival admission fees initially were going to be raised 40% to $35. Transgender programming was going to be pushed aside and free-admission Friday nights were going to be eliminated This was the vision of Chris Classen and his business partner Craig Bowers, also a CSW board member who have an unusual lock on the CSW board’s decisions and are to blame for most of the mistakes.
Pride is not CSW. Pride is ours. It’s in our heart. There is nothing more near and dear to this community than a celebration of our history. Pride is that one weekend a year when we open up that big warm West Hollywood heart and say you’re welcome here. The parade brings everyone together and the festival needs to be its after party.
At many community meetings local promoters, event planners and citizens offered to volunteer to reshape our Pride weekend. Imagine a Pride that had a million dollar profit for our social service organizations. Imagine a Pride task force of community members. Imagine the inclusiveness of a Pride with community stakeholders as the decision makers. Imagine a Pride that is free for all and funded by sponsors who want to be a part of something great. Imagine a festival for young and old, gay and straight allies, neighbors and friends. Imagine a Pride that reflects our dynamic, diverse community. That’s the Pride I dream of. We can take control of Pride and tuck it neatly into our West Hollywood One City One Pride festival, which already includes 94 LGBT events.
It’s time to move forward. CSW has lost the confidence of the community. Now we need to create a Pride that the community has confidence in, a Pride that provides a public benefit. We can do it. Let’s take back our Pride.