Up, Up, and to Downtown We Go!
by Megan Smith
UPDATE 11/13/14: Pride Houston has officially changed the date of the Houston Pride Celebration to June 27, 2015, as to not conflict with any Juneteenth celebrations.
Define “Pride.” If you’re in the “young professional” age bracket, you may think of Pride as a time to celebrate with your LGBT friends and allies, to have a drink (or two or three), and, at the end of the night, to come home carrying your own weight in beads. For the slightly older crowd, Pride might be defined as a time to remember our history and those we’ve lost during the fight for equality, and to live openly and authentically without fear. But for Houstonians of any age, one thing usually comes to mind: standing along Westheimer in late June, in the heart of Montrose, for the Houston Pride parade and festival.
This coming year, things will be different. On October 1, Pride Houston, Inc., announced that, beginning in 2015, the Houston Pride Celebration will be moved from Montrose—where it has been held for the past 36 years—to downtown. Additionally, the celebration will be held on June 20, 2015, a week earlier than the date traditionally chosen to correspond with the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. This decision was made at Pride Houston’s September board meeting with a 7–1 vote in favor of the move, the organization says.
The proposed downtown parade route will begin on Walker at Milam and continue down Smith Street to Andrews. The festival blueprint includes the reflecting pool in front of City Hall, Tranquility Park, and the downtown library pavilion.
The change of date will not conflict with any of the city’s other planned events, including its Juneteenth celebrations, says Susan Christian, the mayor’s director of special events for the City of Houston. “I’m respectful of what [the Pride Houston] board has presented us with,” she says. “We have processed and are continuing to process what their plans are, and there is appropriate space downtown, and the calendar is available to accommodate this move.” When asked about her personal thoughts on the move, Christian adds, “I love the event in Montrose—the roots are there. But the event has grown tremendously, as has that neighborhood. From a development standpoint, Montrose has changed. Coming from someone, on a personal and professional level, who has supported that parade and what it stands for, I don’t envy that decision that the Pride board had to make. We host many events of magnitude downtown, and the infrastructure can absolutely support the parade.”
The annual Rainbow on the Green event will not be negatively affected either, according to Barry Mandel, Discovery Green president and park director, and will continue to be held in the downtown park on the Friday of the weekend before Pride.
Pride Houston has cited numerous reasons for their decision—which they say was made with the help of “a community task force comprised of volunteers from top-tier consulting firms.” They point out that downtown presents improved parking opportunities, the chance to expand the festival with additional stages to showcase diversity, a larger family area, improved safety, and most prominently, more space.
The celebration has seen exponential growth over the past decade, the organization says, with attendance numbers reaching 425,000. “Growth also means new challenges in dealing with expansion, safety, and attendee satisfaction,” Frankie Quijano, Pride Houston president and CEO, says. “A downtown location is better suited to the safety needs of the growing Pride parade and festival. The experience of the attendees and volunteers will be improved by less-crowded sidewalks, roads, and parking opportunities.”
This is not the first time Pride Houston has attempted to move the celebration. In 2007, the organization proposed similar changes, but plans were ultimately squashed following public outcry. This time around, community leaders are criticizing the lack of transparency in Pride’s decision, stating that they were not asked their opinion until after the decision was made. “The Houston Pride Committee made a bad decision in a bad way,” longtime LGBT community activist Ray Hill says. “Though they say all one needs do is volunteer to be a part of decision-making, the 120-plus volunteers needed for this year’s event never met to make decisions. All decisions are made in closed meetings by the board.”
“As a founder of Pride Houston, and serving many responsibilities of the organization for 25 years, I understand that all community organizations have to look at serving their community better and remaining relevant,” Jack Valinski, who is no longer associated with the organization, adds. “However, the present leaders of the Pride Houston board did not reach out to the community they are supposed to serve. All [that the board] wants to hear are the good things.”
So, OutSmart asked the community. We reached out to other prominent LGBT leaders around the city for their opinions—both in favor of and against the move.
We received many responses, and several of those kept coming back to the idea of how Pride is defined, the evolution of that definition, and what that looks like in terms of location and the broader LGBT rights movement. “The Pride movement is about its people, not its location,” Quijano says. “The original purpose of Pride in the 1960s was to break down barriers and show the broader community that the LGBT people refuse to be ignored. The move downtown will help break additional barriers to inclusion and integration. This move will allow us to better showcase the evolution of the LGBT community to all of Houston.”
“The community is really a victim of its own success, which I, for one, celebrate,” says Nick Brines, a former Pride Houston president and board member. “For example, we no longer feel like we have to live in a gay neighborhood or go exclusively to gay restaurants, bars, or shops in order to be accepted. To me, a Pride parade should not be defined by a single street. By moving the celebration downtown, it shows that this celebration is for the entire greater-Houston area, not just a single neighborhood.”
“After reviewing the data available, out of approximately 3,000 donors, attendees, and/or participants, voters, and volunteers in 2014, 2.5 percent reside within the Montrose parade area,” says Javier Ramirez, executive vice president for Pride Houston. “Many of the loudest opponents to the move to downtown do not themselves live within the Montrose parade area.”
“Montrose has been and always will be the epicenter of the GLBTQ community,” Jose Apodaca, director of operations for Charles Armstrong Investments, says. “No matter what statistics people throw out on the gay-to-straight ratio, there’s no dispute that the GLBTQ community is most concentrated in Montrose and makes Montrose its networking and/or party neighborhood. Therefore, it’s only natural—for the past 20-plus years—that the community has insisted on keeping it in Montrose.”
“By taking our festivities beyond Montrose to downtown, we make a powerful statement that we are staking our claim as legitimate citizens of the broader Houston community,” says Carol Wyatt, who previously served as both president and a volunteer of Pride Houston. “I see this as the next stage in our journey towards full acceptance and recognition, and that is a good thing.”
“It’s important to remember that Pride isn’t about any one event or parade, it’s about our coming together as a community to recognize our accomplishments and working together to achieve many more,” says A.J. Mistretta, editor of mygayhouston.com. “With so much opportunity right in front of us, this is no time to be divided.”
“On the one hand, I really do appreciate the history that Montrose brings to the parade,” says Council Member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Montrose. “There’s a great deal of passion there. At the same time, I think the fact that it’s grown the way it has is a real tribute to the LGBT community.”
“Opponents of the move are baffled at the arguments that LGBT Houstonians need to ‘leave the ghetto,’ claim ‘legitimacy,’ and turn our parade into a magnet for tourists,” says John Nechman, Houston attorney and founder of People Opposed to Moving Pride Out of Montrose (POMPOM). “Pride is a celebration of our history and who we are, and our epicenter is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, Montrose. Yes, we live all over this massive metropolis, but Montrose is still where our collective soul resides. Our foundations and our spirits are here, not on five concrete blocks in the soulless canyons of a downtown that for most of our lives rejected, neglected, and arrested us.”
Some respondents focused on the problems presented by the growth of the celebration, as well as the potential (or lack thereof) for a better festival in the new downtown location. “The festival and parade has grown every year and will continue to grow as the LGBT community garners more friends and allies,” says Ryan Levy, a longtime resident of Houston and a past organizer, participant, marcher, and booth host in the parade and festival. “Our cause, our fight for equality and acceptance, is now city-wide. It has outgrown its current location and cannot progress without a change of venue. I am also excited to see the parade return to the original location in downtown where Houstonians protested antigay crusader Anita Bryant. I can think of no more fitting honor for the brave protesters that stood up for equality downtown in 1977.”
“In Montrose, the festival was on hot concrete streets with limited space and little to no shading—and certainly no place to sit and enjoy performances on a stage,” Brines says. “A festival lends itself to allowing community organizations to interact with the public, so they can encourage community involvement. By moving downtown, we can have a proper festival in a giant park with grass, trees, more space to expand the festival’s offerings, and much better parking.”
“The decision to move feels rushed and not well thought through,” says Mike Craig, planning and operations director for Out & Equal Houston. “This isn’t simply a transplant operation—there are very real risks to any major change like this and, frankly, I don’t have much confidence that Pride Houston, Inc., has the organizational capability to pull it off. Other downtown festivals and parades have a mixed record of success—the International Festival has folded, the Thanksgiving Day Parade is on life-support, and the new kid on the block—the BeerFest—may not survive its financial troubles.”
“This should excite every LGBT organization, because a robust and well-attended festival is your best opportunity to tell your story to the masses—to let them know what you offer, and to solicit support—in a way that a 15-second pass-by as a parade entry could never provide,” Wyatt says.
Others we asked raised a different point altogether: is worrying about the location of the Pride celebration the most effective use of the community’s time? “Let’s stay engaged,” Craig says. “It’s been out of the news for the last few months, but in January we will learn whether or not the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance will be on the ballot in 2015. Parades, festivals, and parties are well-deserved markers of the arc of the LGBTQ equality movement—but don’t we also want to make sure that everyone is protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations after the revelry is over?”
“Our community has the resources and the ability to influence the November 2014 election to our favor, finally winning true equality throughout Texas,” says Tony Carroll, an openly gay Houston business owner and community leader. “On the other hand, we can become distracted, divided, and disgruntled while arguing over the location of the Pride parade. I prefer drawing on our history of success by putting aside our differences, uniting, and directing our unequaled energy, creativity, activism, volunteerism, and incomparable drive for equality toward a huge win once and for all.”
“I would hate to see this be a wedge issue,” says Council Member Cohen. “I hope that both sides can work together and recognize the history of the Montrose, but at the same time, give the larger Houston community an opportunity to share in the festivities.”
No matter which side of the debate you’re on, OutSmart encourages you to keep the conversation going. We’re a diverse community with diverse opinions—and that’s what makes us so great. Let your voices be heard by commenting below.