The Sun Always Rises On Pride
In 1984, heritage of Pride (HOP) took over planning New York City’s Pride events from a disbanded Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee. Since then, not only has the organization grown -- to a whopping 40 or so members -- but so has Pride Week. Every year, it seems gays and lesbians have more and more to be proud of, because more and more people turn out for Pride Week. The festivities range from the rally that kicks off the week, to the climax -- the parade down Fifth Avenue, ending at, where else, Christopher Street. HOP’s Maryanne Roberto, this year’s co-coordinator, Michael Bath, rally chair, and Janice Thom, former two-time co-coordinator, sat down with Body Positive to talk about the rally, the parade, the pier dance, the people, the parties, the pooh-poohers, and the point of it all -- pride.
BP: How did you come up with this year's theme, "Unity Through Diversity?"
Janice Thom: The theme is chosen every year at an international conference of pride coordinators. Sometimes Heritage of Pride uses the chosen theme, sometimes it doesn't. This year we did. So this is actually the one that's being used by most of the pride communities around the world.
BP: What was last year's theme?
Michael Bath: Liberate, Educate, Demonstrate
Maryanne Roberto: That was ours.
BP: What was the overall theme?
MR: Equality Through Visibility
MB: Those international types like through. Something through Something.
BP: Why did you like this theme?
MB: Even though we're so different in a lot of ways, we do come together at Pride time, and we are one community. We can fight all year long about this and that, but when it comes down to it, when it really counts, we come together. Even though Pride is a political statement -- you know, taking the center of Manhattan and marching down the street, saying you're proud of who you are -- it's also a huge celebration. A lot of people refer to Pride as Gay Christmas. Although we still recognize that we have differences, it's the time of year when our community sets those things aside and we come together to celebrate what we have in common.
BP: What's your response to those people who say we shouldn't dress in leather or drag -- or in some cases, nothing at all -- but be more presentable to the mainstream public?
JT: Heritage of Pride, as an organization, probably falls into the second category. I don't feel like achieving my freedom as a vanilla lesbian. This is for all of us. Liberation is for all of us, and it doesn't really matter what you're wearing that day. You deserve your freedom, and by strutting your stuff on Fifth Avenue you're making that demand.
BP: How do you deal with the protesters? A few years ago I saw a group with signs saying gay people are responsible for AIDS. I was shocked, but everyone was just ignoring them.
MR: That's what we do, ignore them.
JT: It's like Mom said: Ignore them, they'll go away.
MB: At my first Pride, 10 years ago, there were probably 25 to 30 people, and over the last couple of years there have been less than five. I'm talking about in front of St. Patrick's. It's great. When I walk by, I never miss the opportunity to blow them a kiss.
BP: Does Heritage of Pride officially address these groups?
JT: It's their first amendment right to be there.
MB: That would make us no better than them if we tried to tell them they couldn't be in a certain place when they wanted to be. Do we wish they weren't there? Absolutely. It's just a slight little drop of rain on our parade.
BP: What message do you want to get across this year?
JT: Heritage of Pride doesn't have a message per se. 'OK, this year we're going to concentrate on voter registration,' or 'This year we're going to concentrate on gay teenagers.' What we do is we set up venues for all the organizations and all the folks who want to come and be whatever it is they feel they're being when they're being gay. It might mean you dress a certain way. It might mean you walk down the street holding hands with somebody. It could mean you're singing because you're a member of one of the choruses. We set up a platform and allow people to do whatever they want on that platform. I don't know that the organization has a message other than: We deserve our civil rights, our equal rights, and to be free.
MR: This is our day to celebrate ourselves and each other.
MB: We're really facilitators since somebody has to organize this. This came up a couple of years ago. There was a bit of a hubbub about the police threatening to arrest women who marched bare-breasted. Of course, the police really can't do that, because in New York State it's legal in the context of this event. A lot of issues came up, a lot of questions, like, 'Do you guys condone it?' It's not about what we condone and what we want to see happen. It's up to the entire community to do with it what they wish to do with it -- within reason.
BP: What goes on behind the scenes to get this together?
MR: All little feet running around.
JT: Exactly. We're like those ducks, paddling like crazy. Once you get really involved in the organization, it often seems that your job is to pick up incredibly heavy things, carry them long distances for no apparent reason and then move them back.
MB: One of the things that makes it so difficult is the fact that none of us is paid. If we were all independently wealthy and could do this all the time, it would be great. But we have to have real jobs. And sometimes the people at those real jobs expect us to do work, and that's very inconvenient.
One of the really cool things about it, and the reason a lot of us do it, is you find people who are like yourself -- not looking to be paid, not looking for recognition. You're just looking to make something great happen for a whole lot of people. I call it the Lifeboat Scenario. You learn quickly that those are the people I want in the lifeboat with me. Occasionally you find some people who walk in the door, and you're like, 'OK, you'll be the first one overboard if the boat starts to sink.' [everyone laughs] But all in all, we've got some really creative and talented people who are participants in this for all the right reasons.
BP: Do you have criteria to gauge whether Pride Week is a success?
JT: Yes. Lots of people, who mostly seem to be having a great time. Afterward we'll think, 'I can't believe we forgot to . . .' But probably none of the participants knew what that was.
MR: How can there be a bad Pride Week?
JT: The year it rained it was a wonderful march. No one has ever gotten hurt, really.
MB: Some of the things that most determine the success have to do with rain. The rally runs from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and last year at 3:15 p.m. the skies just opened up and poured all the water they had down on us. For about a minute I stood there thinking, 'I spent an entire year working on something that only lasted an hour and 15 minutes.' But 15 minutes after that, the rain just cleared away, and all these people who had gone running for cover turned around and came streaming back through Bryant Park. Everyone was clapping. It was incredible.
BP: What are some of the best moments you remember from Pride?
JT: The first time we had fireworks. It was for Stonewall 20, in 1989. We just decided we had to do this. We do that with a lot of things: 'We're only going to do it this once, just this once,' and then it becomes too wonderful, and you have to do it again.
MB: It becomes tradition.
JT: I think I was co-chair, and I remember standing at the end of the pier with all the people who had marched all the way downtown and had done all this work, and we were so tired. Until the first fireworks went off none of us really thought we had arranged this. And it was so complicated. You have to call the Federal Aviation Agency and the Port Authority. It becomes this federal case. They started going off, and a bunch of us broke down and cried, because we couldn't believe we had made fireworks go off.
MR: It's pretty amazing the first time you see the fireworks. It's like this end of all this work, and you're standing around with people you have just spent more time with than anybody should spend with another human being, and there are the fireworks. That feeling is incredible.
MB: One of the greatest feelings I ever had was at my first Pride. They had a big controversy. The animal activists were upset because they said the balloons we planned to release would burst and the turtles would swallow them and choke and die. (This was all planned to happen during the moment of silence.) So they came up with another idea. Instead, they made this huge banner to put in front of the public library that said, "We remember," in memory of all those we've lost to AIDS. I remember that they said they needed help down at the community center, and I wound up ironing part of the letters onto this banner. But I didn't quite get what it was for. And it just so happened, as fate would have it, that I wound up in front of the public library at the moment of silence and saw that banner. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'Oh, my, god . . . and I helped!'
BP: What were your worst moments?
JT: They usually happen before the day of the march.
MB: In 1992, we had rented these three trucks, and one of them was, I kid you not, a Baby Watson Cheesecake truck. Somehow someone connected to the truck company saw the truck, thought it had been abandoned, and took it back. All we knew was our truck was missing, and it was carrying all the balloons for the beautiful balloon arches. I can't tell you how many grown men and women were crying over those balloons. But the next morning when I showed up late (we were able to sleep in because we didn't have to do the balloon arches) there was that damn truck. Our female co-coordinator at the time had found it.
BP: Any other bad moments?
JT: When bad things are happening, it's easy to focus on them, but after it's over you kind of forget about it. It's the good things you remember. You have to or you would go crazy. You wouldn't want to do it again.
MR: And the bad things usually end up being little triumphs anyway. Whatever the bad thing is, we usually end up figuring out how to get around it, work it out, and it's not such a bad thing in the end.
MB: The first time we moved the rally to a week before the March (it used to be a day before), the Catholic League came out the same day and held a press conference uptown, talking about the evils of homosexuals and how we shouldn't be marching past St. Patrick's. I was media director at the time and thought, 'Oh, my god, how could this happen?' Well, the good thing was, as soon as the reporters were done up there, they came down to the rally. We had more press coverage that year than any we've had in the past decade.
BP: Does it drive you crazy that you get so little press coverage? It's such a major event in this city, and I usually just see a 30-second spot on the evening news.
MR: Yeah, it's frustrating. You sit there and say, 'That was it? Wait a minute. What about this, what about that?' By being there the entire day, you see so much going on, and to see it cut down to 10 seconds of, 'Well, you know, a couple of people got together and had a gay pride thing,' -- it's unbelievable.
MB: In defense of the media, they've gotten much better recently. It seems like they have started showing a few more photos in the papers that aren't the most outrageous members of the community. A couple of years ago, they started showing coverage of our dance on television.
JT: There's never going to be enough coverage.
MR: You asked a loaded question in a way, because of course we would think there's never enough coverage. An hour-long special wouldn't be enough.
MB: We don't even know everything that happens. In July, we get together -- we call it our Pride Moments Meeting -- and we go around the room, and everybody tells the best moment of the day. You hear all these wonderful stories and magical little moments.
MR: The meeting is probably one of the best things because there's that pride letdown afterward.
MB: It's the day after Christmas. All the people you wanted to strangle a week before . . .
JT: Now you miss them.
BP: When do you start working on the next year's Gay Pride?
MB: [laughing] So we don't miss each other that much.
JT: Heritage of Pride is 35-40 people. But the march clearly doesn't get done with 40 people. You get 200-300 volunteers who just show up and do what we ask them to do. There's no way it would happen without them.
MR: A lot of them come back year after year. 'I've done this for the past five years. I'll be section leader for section 7, and that's just what I'm going to do.'
JT: 'Give me my shirt. See you later.' It's wonderful.
BP: Are you planning something this year to distinguish it from other years?
MB: Not so much different as just to try to top ourselves. I relax as soon as I get somebody who's a big name. It was panic, panic, panic, and then we got Cyndi Lauper. Now I can breathe a little better. We just try to make the march run more smoothly.
BP: Where does the overflow money go?
MB: Our goal each year is to have a little bit of excess so that we'll have money to make it through the year. One year we had a lot of extra money, and we donated it back to the community.
BP: Define pride -- the feeling, not the event.
MB: It's just magic.
JT: I'm proud of what the organization does. I'm proud of what it stands for. Sometimes you could get the same feeling when you're standing in your neighborhood and you look around and there are all these happy gay people just wandering around. You're just proud that we all exist and that we've managed to make it through all the years of history where people didn't (as they don't now) want us to exist, when we were burned as witches. And here we still are, and there's a lot of joy. I'm really proud of the joy and the determination that we have, because in some ways we have no right to it. But we do. That's what we create for ourselves in the same way we create our families. We have to create this all, because no one wants us to have it.
MR: I may be getting philosophical, but pride is really a sense of togetherness and community. I don't know if I feel pride when I am alone. The days of these events, that's there. We're all out there together. I don't know that one can go without the other -- community without the pride.