On June 28 in New York City, two different LGBTQ Pride events played out. In real life, tens of thousands of queers and allies marched from Manhattan’s Financial District to Greenwich Village in the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality, organized by the grassroots Reclaim Pride Coalition, a group founded two years ago to create Pride events with a strong focus on intersectional social justice and free of corporate or police involvement. Once the march reached Washington Square Park and became a rally/free-form dance party, dozens of marchers were attacked, pepper-sprayed, and arrested by police after someone scribbled with a Sharpie on a police car.
Meanwhile, Heritage of Pride (HOP)—the multimillion-dollar nonprofit that has long worked closely with the police to organize New York City’s massive, tourist-heavy June Pride march and several satellite events but this year canceled them all due to COVID-19—hosted instead a virtual Pride event on TV and via social media. It headlined Billy Porter and Janelle Monáe, who sang “Cold War” against a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protest imagery. It was the culmination of several days of virtual HOP panels on serious topics with diverse speakers—prominently sponsored by corporations including L’Oréal, CVS, T-Mobile, MasterCard, and Skyy vodka.
After the police attacks on Queer Liberation marchers exploded on traditional and social media, HOP posted on its Twitter feed: “A TIME FOR REFLECTION: We at NYC Pride unequivocally condemn the onslaught of violence unleashed by the police. The events of the past few months and specifically the transgressions on June 28, 2020, by the NYPD, have caused pain and anguish toward our community. ...”
Then, under the subhead, “Black Trans Lives Matter,” the post read: “NYC Pride will be taking the next 30 days to reflect amongst its membership, staff and Executive Board to create an actionable and comprehensive plan in order to examine the changes and actions this organization needs to make, both internally and externally, in order to better serve and represent our diverse LGBTQIA+ community.”
To a one, the comments on the post were scathing. “Stop inviting cops and corporations to pride and cut this ‘for some people it’s a celebration’ shit,” read one. “After everything that has happened all month, @NYCPride, do you really need 30 days to end your relationship with the NYPD?” read another. Yet another simply read: “No cops at Pride. Easy. Next.”
The comments were of a piece with widespread cries on social media for HOP, which has come to be synonymous for close ties to corporations and the NYPD, to disband amid a new, more politicized era where its nonconfrontational, Pride-is-a-party vibe is now widely seen as irrelevant and out of step with more marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, especially Black and/or transgender or gender-nonconforming people.
Critiques From Within
But even as HOP seems embattled from without, the target of scorn from New York’s wider queer community, it now also seems threatened from within, with about half a dozen members stepping forward, some anonymously, to tell TheBody of an organization where a few change-resistant board members and a large, new cohort of paid staff have effectively shut out unpaid volunteers who’ve traditionally steered the organization; where finances are a black box to all but a few; and where the recent flooding of general membership with mostly corporation-linked cisgender white men is the latest gambit from group leaders to shut out new voices who want to shake the group up, making it cut or drastically reduce its ties to corporations and the NYPD—and give more of its money to grassroots LGBTQ community groups.
These members say that the organization risks either imploding due to internal divisions or becoming, perhaps to the satisfaction of some members, an organization that primarily produces high-ticket parties (such as its Pride Island party featuring highly paid stars, including Madonna) and stops even trying to pay lip service to LGBTQ-adjacent movements such as those for police reform and abolition or greater equity for queer and transgender New Yorkers of color.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings we’ve had where the entire conversation revolved around the amount of dependence we have on corporate sponsors and having their blingy logos all over our signs,” says Evan Brewer, a general member of HOP who holds several leadership roles. “And of course we’ve had conversations about the police, especially when something happened in the community that brought that to life. The organization’s immediate response would be to talk about it at meetings—and always there was a faction of membership uncomfortable with the level of police presence [at HOP events] and the fact that it seemed that we just had to comply and work with the police because they approve our permits.”
In contrast, the Reclaim Pride Coalition worked informally with the NYPD last year, but this year, allying with the anti-police stance of Black Lives Matter, refused to work with them, staging the Queer Liberation March without a permit. (Some cops, including those who attacked the ad hoc dance party, still showed up to patrol the march route.)
Says another HOP member who, like others in this story, said they were speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation by certain HOP members who conduct smear campaigns against those who speak out: “We’ve told them that we have to decrease our expenses so we don’t need the corporate sponsors, but it always falls on deaf ears. I think they’ve lost track of what the organization actually was.”
Complaints on So Many Fronts
Grievances against HOP from those who spoke to TheBody fall into three general areas. The first is the feeling that true decision-making power has shifted from general members, who traditionally have voted on everything, to a few board members in partnership with a large new cohort of staff members. Staff grew from one or two prior to last year’s WorldPride Stonewall 50 blowout to up to a dozen today, many of whom—say critics—were hired temporarily but then made permanent and even given bonuses behind the backs of general membership.
This has happened, critics say, despite membership voting in several new board members late last year in an effort to diversify and overhaul the organization. “The new board worked diligently and proactively to bring inclusion, transparency, and diversity amidst old board members’ resistance,” says Maria Colon, a longtime HOP member who was among new board members voted in last year but who just gave her resignation, citing skepticism that the organization will really change.
According to Vincent Maniscalco, the current HOP cochair who is also stepping down because of his dissatisfaction, the total budget for salaries has risen from about $686,000 in 2018 to slightly more than $1 million in 2019, but general membership doesn’t know what individual staffers are making.
Says an anonymous member who describes themself as a person of color, “People have spoken out to say that the more staff we hire, the more we need to pay them, and that’s money that could’ve gone elsewhere. … But generally when someone speaks out, like Evan, the others do everything in their power to crush them. Blacklisting [members who voice dissent] became extremely common.”
Late last year, HOP voted in a new executive director, Latinx gay man David Correa, who supplanted white gay man Chris Frederick, who remains a HOP general member. “Chris was extremely secretive and made no bones that he hated membership,” says an anonymous member. “He would always say, ‘Staff can do it.’ I got thrown out of a meeting for questioning how they were spending money.”
Says Brewer, “Chris took roles away from longtime volunteer members—people who had done this work for years and were experts. There was no opportunity for new paid staff to learn from the volunteers. So you had members feeling pushed out and not valued, and now this battle has progressed to where there’s nothing left for us [unpaid members] to do and we serve no purpose.”
One anonymous member, with others, alleges that HOP sent several staff members to an InterPride conference in Athens last fall but that most staff “got so drunk that they missed most of the conference.” According to this member and others, staff (pictured here), mixed in with unpaid board members) looks somewhat racially diverse but, by merit of being paid, is more concerned with retaining their salaries than advocating for the nonprofit to dramatically cut ties with corporations and the cops.
The second main grievance is that nobody but some staff and a few board members can see the books. “Lack of transparency is a root issue,” says Brewer. “When we asked, ‘What are we spending on salaries?’ there’d be silence, or they’d say, ‘We’re following up’ or ‘We need more time.’ At meetings, they’d only show figures on a screen. They wouldn’t distribute anything. If you have nothing to hide, why don’t you show it?”
According to one anonymous member, many “old guard” (read: resistant to change) board members quit recently “after allegations of financial impropriety, and after there were demands to see expenses on certain trips to conferences.”
The third grievance alleges that just before Frederick stepped down from being executive director, he nearly doubled the general membership by loading it with about 100 primarily corporation-linked cisgender white men who share his desire to stay close to corporations and the NYPD, thereby tipping in the old guard’s favor a membership that up until that point was roughly half old guard and half insurgents.
“If you’re not a cisgender white male, you’re really not welcome,” says the anonymous member of color. “The membership of color is very small. We’ve never had a transgender person on the board.”
This member shared with TheBody online HOP meeting screenshots they alleged were from new corporate-linked members who threatened to yank their corporations’ support from HOP if the internal dissent did not cease. “This is shameful,” reads one. “I wonder if our corporate sponsors know how dysfunctional this organization is?? I couldn’t even pretend to defend this to my company.” Replied another: “PWC, KPMG, EY, and Deloitte [the “Big Four” accounting firms] are listening.” And another: “I can verify Estée Lauder and the Lauder family are aware.”
It is this bloc of mainly cisgender white gay men who are preventing HOP from taking bolder action regarding corporations and the cops, critics say.
“We’re taking a 30-day pause?” asks Maniscalco mockingly. “No! There’s no pause. We should react with a statement like, ‘NYC Pride says that [the June 28 police attacks on QLM marchers] is egregious and we’re going to ... distance ourselves from police involvement. We’re not going to let them march [in future HOP marches, as LGBTQ cops have in the past], and we’re not going to give them the ability to control us.’”
Says Colon, “With the ushering in of new members that are predominantly white cisgender males, I worry about messaging and trust within the community. Are we walking the talk? To do that, NYC Pride must be reflective and honest with its history, accessibility to marginalized communities, and inclusivity. For example, this year, NYC Pride Cares’ pledge increased and extended its offering to include a yearlong application period. … Yet, we have not taken concrete action steps to build yearlong relationships with those grant recipients and the respective communities they impact.”
Heritage of Pride Response
In response to these allegations, HOP sent TheBody an itemized document. Perhaps reflecting HOP’s internal conflicts, some of the very members who spoke out in criticism to TheBody were among those who worked on the document.
Regarding its future role with the police, the document reads, “Our 30-day pause is a way of reflecting with intention and taking action in order to respond accordingly to the NYPD. Our goal is to create ongoing solutions to the problems of diversity and inclusion we face internally as well as within our corporate involvement. As an organization that has collaborated with the NYPD for our events ... we are at a moment where our actions will speak louder than words.”
Regarding allegations of control having been shifted from general membership to a few board members and paid staff, the document reads: “Part of our reflection has been discussing next steps between the board and staff in order to stay efficient and timely within our 30-day plan to take action. ... It is not at all our intention to not discuss this huge endeavor with membership, which is why we had an open discussion at our Monday, July 13th meeting.” This Zoom meeting, which TheBody attended, included many members who complained that since the meeting was a non-voting meeting, it was essentially meaningless.
“Additionally,” read the document, “we have been holding daily meetings that are open and attended by membership to provide input on the action plan. It is important to note that we have regular General Membership, Executive Board, and committee meetings, all of which are led by board members and are open to membership and the general public as a means to provide feedback and participate in the decision-making process.”
Regarding paid staff having ballooned from one or two to 11 in the past few years, the document reads: “The staff has increased in response to the growth of the organization and the larger impact that Pride events have within New York City during the month of June. The steady increase in events and attendance further grow the organization towards a path of service to the community. ... The more we grow as an organization, the more folks are needed to get the job done. Understanding that the WorldPride year [in 2019] was larger than any Pride month produced in New York, it required additional consultants for media, tech and communications, and production to be hired on a contract basis which is an increase of the salary expense in a normal year...”
Regarding members and staff not attending sessions at the Athens conference, the document reads: “Since Athens, the Executive Board enacted a uniform policy requiring all attendees to submit a report describing each panel they attended, upon their return.”
Regarding claims of a lack of fiscal transparency: “Typically, each Fall, NYC Pride’s overall budget is shared, explained, and discussed. Membership also votes to approve this budget each fiscal year, receives updated financial reports each month from the Treasurer, and all are encouraged to attend monthly finance meetings, which are open to the public.”
Additionally, the document reads: “NYC Pride, like any other 501(c)(3) nonprofit, complies with federal laws by listing Director-level salaries in the organization as well as full salary expense on our 990-N form that is available to the public. The 2018 990-N is currently still in process, but the members are regularly sent current financial reports and are encouraged to attend our monthly finance meetings.”
Regarding not enough HOP money going to community groups, the document says that a total of $8 million in corporate support in 2019 “has led to a variety of benefits for the community, including several free events such as Family Movie Night, which hosts 2,500 people, and Youth Pride, which allows over 10,000 teens to attend a safe and inclusive environment to celebrate their pride together. Many of the attendees for these youth-focused events are housed at shelters like the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Ali Forney Center. In 2020 we were also able to raise over $50,000 for God’s Love We Deliver through our annual Savor Pride event and over $130,000 in order to pay black and queer activists and performers at The Black Queer Town Hall. These are all in addition to the Pride Gives Back Program and our Community Working Group program, which provided $294,000.00 to local non-profit organizations during our most recent fiscal year.”
Regarding claims that Chris Frederick has flooded membership with corporation-friendly cisgender gay white men, the document reads: “Any individual may be nominated to HOP membership, and they must meet a slate of volunteer requirements, as outlined in our constitution, and have those requirements confirmed by the volunteer Human Resources Director before being confirmed by the membership. Any members who were nominated and subsequently ratified were all in compliance with our membership requirements. Due to WorldPride 2019 there was a natural increase in engagement and membership numbers.”
The document also suggests that general member support for corporate sponsorship of HOP’s event is strong: “In a 2020 survey sent to our entire membership, of the responses we’ve received to date, 68.1% indicated they are in favor of our current corporate partnership program, with 23.4% saying they are neutral and 8.5% not in favor.”
And regarding claims that members have threatened to get companies they are close to to pull their HOP funding, the document says: “No corporations have threatened their funds to NYC Pride. We were proud to have 34 corporations authentically support us this year, even during the pandemic. As a non-profit functioning in New York State, we are bound by rules and regulations, specifically the conflict of interest policies. None of our voting members serve as our point of contact for partnership agreements at corporations.”
Reluctance to Cut Controversial Ties
Overall, HOP’s internal critics paint a picture of an organization that, slowly over the years, has gone from fundraising for and organizing a march that began in 1970 simply by people taking to the streets to one that is now about lavish corporate sponsorship and glitzy events (like Pride Island, where tiered pricing can nail some deep-pocketed partiers their own private cabana), cut off from the communities and issues, such as police brutality and transgender rights, currently animating the queer world.
Yes, they say, the organization still produces rallies and (this year) online events with a diverse array of LGBTQ folks, including this year’s online rally leaders: media pundit Ashlee Marie Preston and actor Brian Michael Smith, both Black and transgender. But when HOP refuses to join other groups in robustly condemning and even shutting out the NYPD, say critics, the inclusionary efforts feel like window dressing.
Still, while many outsiders call for HOP to cut off cops and corporations completely, even if that means the end of the group as it currently exists, few insiders—even the critics—say they want that. “I agree with a lot of people on social media that our Pride should be more about social justice than what it currently is,” says Brewer, “but I also think you can have some money-making events that help fund” HOP longtime events, including for young people and families.”
But Brewer also says, “I don’t know if HOP will be able to recover unless it does some very deep soul-searching and changing. I don’t know that the organization at this point is capable of evolving in a way that would meet the demands of the community. There are other groups out there like Reclaim Pride, Black Lives Matter, and Gays Against Guns that are better positioned” to do that.
In other words, perhaps what will happen is what is already happening, and has indeed been happening for years now: Countless people who want Pride to be a truly political, resistance-minded event will continue flocking to events like the Queer Liberation March, which has shown a willingness to occur despite both COVID and the lack of NYPD permits, as well as the more racially diverse and less corporately owned Pride marches in Brooklyn and the other boroughs.
Meanwhile, HOP’s events, including the big march—should it occur next year, pending pandemic control—will remain the choice of less political local and tourist Pride-goers who don’t know or care that their parties are produced by an entity that has not cut ties with the cops—or with corporations that have a history of involvement with things like private prisons, oil pipelines, and the military.
For now, some HOP insiders may not be calling for the organization’s head, as much of the outside queer world is—but they lament what has become of the organization. “It used to be all community-run,” says current board member Maria Tamburro. “People were willing to volunteer 40-plus hours a week to put on Pride. That’s the organization I fell in love with.”
Says the anonymous member of color: “My hope would be that we actually start to listen to the community. I believe there’s still a place for us to produce our historic events, but we need to be responsible. That would mean that every dollar we receive is used either to produce an event that serves the community, and the rest of the money is given to the community. If we need to support BLM and people who are being murdered and struggling, then that’s where the money goes.”
But this same member thinks it will play out more like this: “Membership will continue to serve merely as the conduit to the staff, and we’ll vacate any sort of activism, protest, or representation of marginalized individuals and solely be a production company for a corporate Pride agenda. It will be a parade, not a march, and it will bring in dollars and increase staff, which allows them to go on putting on ‘cool’ parties for the A-list people.
“In other words,” they say, using a term meant to describe when thorny issues of privilege and power are covered up by feel-good “Love Is Love” Pride pieties—“it’ll be rainbow-washing.”