Big changes proposed to Houston’s annual GLBT Pride Parade and Festival
For nearly all of the past 30 years, Houston has maintained a tradition of celebrating Pride with a parade and a festival in June. Since that time gays, lesbians, transgenders, and the straight people who love them have gathered in the heat, bursting out of their closets—even if for just one glorious, liberating day—to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion.
It was back in 1969, June 28 to be exact, when New York City police raided a Christopher Street neighborhood gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, arresting and harassing patrons as was de rigueur for the times. But on that sweltering evening, for the first time, patrons led by transgenders, historians believe, resisted arrest by throwing trash cans, coins, and, according to legend, high heels.
The high homo holiday has been long considered by most GLBT historians and activists to be the jumping-off point of today’s same-sex equal rights movement.
But in Houston, the traditional June neighborhood observance may be about to change, beginning in 2008.
When interested persons log on to www.pridehouston.org, website for Pride Houston, the organization that produces Houston’s annual Pride parade and festival, to date held each June in Montrose, they are greeted by the following message:
Pride Houston, producer of the annual Pride Parade and Festival, wants to make our festivities bigger, better and more inclusive! Here’s what we’re planning:
• Move Downtown to the park areas around City Hall to enhance the Festival and do exciting new things with the Parade
• Hold our festivities at a cooler time of the year
• Enlarge the Festival to offer fun
In April 2006, the Pride Houston board of directors met to discuss the future of Pride at a Saturday workshop.
“We had a vision that we’d like to become a destination weekend so that people want to come and visit Houston to join our festivities,” Carol Wyatt, president of the Pride Houston board of directors, says.
Wyatt cites data from Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based gay research group as favorable to that vision. The results of that firm’s annual gay travel survey indicate that of 27,000 respondents worldwide, 23 percent of the people revealed that they have spent money in the last year to attend Pride festivities in a city other than their own.
“We believe holding the festival at a cooler time of year will allow us to attract more people who just get beaten down by the heat,” Wyatt says.
To better examine all the issues surrounding the proposed date and location changes—”the benefits, the impact to all the different stakeholders in the community whether it be bar owners, the people who participate in the festivities, the businesses along the way, whatever the case may be,” Wyatt said—Pride Houston began working with consultants from the Houston office of Accenture, the international consulting firm.
“We got two consultants from Accenture,” Wyatt says. “They basically have given us about $50,000’s worth of consulting time at no cost.”
On the day of the Pride parade and festival last June, four or five consultants surveyed the crowd—”everyone who would talk to them, from vendors to participants to people on the street,” Wyatt says.
Accenture presented its findings to a task force made up of local individuals invited by Pride Houston to share their input about the proposed changes. The task force presented its impressions of the findings at a Pride Houston board meeting in December.
Wyatt says the eight-member task force has called most of the major Pride organizations throughout the world to find out “how they handled things, and anything we could learn from them.” They also queried local parade and festival organizers, and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, she says.
The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau has been especially helpful, Wyatt says.
“They are saying, ‘Let us help you negotiate packages with the downtown hotels. We can make sure that we have great things to offer your travelers, and Pride gets a little money back from it. We’ll put together the whole traveler packages for you.’ ”
The website for Friends of Pride, a fundraising branch of Pride Houston, states that producing the Pride parade and festival each year costs more than $250,000. Wyatt estimates that moving both downtown would possibly double the budget.
Wyatt believes an expanded, downtown venue would bring more diversity to the Pride parade and festival.
“We think that’s good for the city, and we think that’s good for our community, to really flesh out our offerings so that we have a whole weekend-full of entertainment, educational and commemorative opportunities associated with Pride,” Wyatt says.
“We know we haven’t done a good-enough job of providing things of interest to the diverse elements of our community,” she continues. “We got word last time that the Latino community felt like we don’t have anything to offer them, so they don’t really participate in our festivities. We’ve since heard similar things from the African-American community.”
Changing the date of the celebration to a cooler month would also offer participants a means to escape Houston’s blistering June heat, Wyatt says.
“It’s not only tough on the attendees,” she says, “but it makes it very hard for Pride Houston to get enough volunteers that day. And it’s really hard for us to recruit vendors, too. We get a lot of complaints that there’s not enough good food choices at the festival. Well, it’s not because we haven’t tried. People don’t eat when it’s that hot, and employees don’t want to work.”
Wyatt says other Pride organizations have established precedent by celebrating in other months.
“San Diego used to hold theirs in June, but that is their rainy month,” she says. “They kept getting rained out and they were losing their asses financially. So they had to move to July.
“My thought is, if those drag queens at Stonewall had rioted in January, do you think Chicago and Toronto would have tried to hold Pride festivities in a driving snowstorm? Probably not.”
Wyatt says the Pride Houston board of directors is potentially targeting the last weekend of September 2008 for the date change. Should this change be adopted, she says producers understand they “need to do something commemorative on the Stonewall date” in June, though she does not yet know what that would be.
“Personally, I’d like to find something indoors. We could do…a candlelight vigil. I don’t know, but we definitely won’t let the date go by without commemoration,” she says.
Wyatt says Pride Houston preliminarily envisions that the 2008 parade and festival will occur in a three-block area anchored by the City Hall reflecting pool.
“We’d use that and Tranquility Park, which is the next block north of City Hall, and the library pavilion footprint, which hopefully won’t be finished by 2008,” she says. (The Houston Public Library is renovating the Jesse H. Jones Building, the central library downtown. According to the timeline on the library website, completion is set for the end of 2007.)
As the event continues to grow, it would spill over into Sam Houston Park and toward Eleanor Tinsley Park and the bayou, Wyatt envisions.
Wyatt also envisons an expanded festival that would offer different stages appealing to different ethnic and cultural interests, including a hip-hop stage and a stage with Tejano or Latin-themed music.
“We’d have more stages so we’d have more opportunities to bring in entertainers that are of interest to different elements of the community,” Wyatt says.
Wyatt also envisions a family activity area in Tranquility Park.
“The art festival [Houston International Festival] people might be interested in having us do an interactive children’s art area there,” she says.
Another possible festival attraction would be a beer garden called The Stonewall, Wyatt says.
“We would have a lot of signage that explains the history of Stonewall and what its relevance to our movement was. And, of course, we would have drag queens as entertainers at The Stonewall.”
The festival might also contain a country fair atmosphere, Wyatt says, where nonprofit organizations would staff game booths and interactive activities while simultaneously distributing information.
“We might do a mass commitment ceremony on the steps of City Hall in the middle of the afternoon, and raise the gay flag,” she continues. “I think it makes a powerful statement that we’re a part of the fabric of this community.”
Other ideas include projecting enormous images on the side of downtown buildings that face the City Hall reflecting pool.
“They can be images of gay history, famous gay people throughout history, and pictures of the commitment ceremony from that afternoon,” Wyatt says.
The parade, instead of following a linear route, Wyatt says, would follow the large rectangle of the outside perimeter of those three blocks. Rather than starting from a single location, the parade would commence simultaneously from four starting points.
“We’d stage one-quarter of the parade at each of those four corners,” she explains. “All segments would move into the parade route simultaneously and move in a clockwise fashion, so there’s no more standing there, waiting an hour and a half for the parade to get to you. Elements of the parade will get to you quickly, and each segment will move all the way around so you’ll get to see everything.”
The day would end with fireworks, around 10 o’clock, Wyatt projects, allowing partiers plenty of time to return to Montrose to enjoy other parties and bars.