Former grand marshals weigh in on proposed changes to the Pride Parade and Festival
By Nancy Ford
— Robert F. Kennedy
It’s tradition. Each year since its inception, Houston’s GLBT community has honored its brightest and best in the embodiment of grand marshals of the annual Pride Parade.
Elected by the community at large in recognition of their contributions to GLBT Houston, grand marshals in four categories–one male, one female, an organization, and a supportive heterosexual individual or couple–lead the parade contingents through Montrose to be publicly thanked by the 100,000 or more people who line Westheimer.
Ultimately, if Pride had patron saints, these are the Houstonians who might first be canonized.
OutSmart invited a number of former parade grand marshals to share their thoughts on the changes Pride Houston, producers of Houston’s annual Pride Parade and Festival, are considering. (Not all former grand marshals contacted responded.)
Longtime Houston equal-rights activist and out businesswoman, Marion Coleman, led the June 1982 Pride Parade, themed “A Part Of, Not Apart From” with co-grand marshal Andy Mills. Coleman doesn’t mince words regarding her opinion of moving the parade and festival downtown.
“This would be the worst thing that Pride could do,” she says. “Pride needs to be in our community. It always has been, it should always be.”
Coleman considers moving the parade downtown a slight to local gay-owned businesses that have long supported Pride events.
“We must remember that the people that who have kept us going for all these years are the bar owners. When we decided to do the night parade, it was Charles Armstrong, Mary’s, E/J’s … all those people came forward with the money so that we could have a nighttime parade. If it hadn’t been for them, there would have been many times we wouldn’t have been able to put on the parade.”
Coleman also fears moving festivities downtown would increase the possibility of anti-gay violence.
“We’re sort of protected in Montrose, as far as security is concerned,” she says. “There are still some crazies out there, and downtown would be wide open.
“It’s going to be a mess.”
In 1989, on the 20 th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, Charles Armstrong led the Pride Parade as one of its grand marshals. Chief executive officer of Charles Armstrong Investments, owner of landmark Montrose bars JR’s Bar & Grill, Montrose Mining Co., and South Beach, Armstrong says he can’t think of any reason to move the Pride Parade and Festival out of Montrose.
“If we all pretty much agree that Montrose and Westheimer is the epicenter [of the GLBT community], why would you want to go very far from that? Everyone I’ve talked to thinks it’s an absolutely horrible, stupid idea.”
Armstrong recalls several years ago when a Pride Festival was held at the Metropolitan Multi-Purpose Center on West Gray.
“It was a train wreck,” he says. “No one went. They lost money. It put them back a year or two, trying to catch up the deficit. But it was their dream to have a festival ground with kiddie rides and bands playing over two days. And no one came.
“The people I know don’t care about a festival. They’re going to the parade.”
Roughly estimating that the clientele of Armstrong Investments-owned bars translates to approximately 20,000 people (10 percent of GLBT people who comprise 10 percent of Houston’s overall population), Armstrong says, “I can’t speak for those other people, but I think I’ve got a firm grip on that 20,000 people who go to the clubs and support the parade.”
Armstrong recognizes that moving Pride Parade and Festival from Montrose would adversely affect his business on the day that those events were held. Nevertheless, he maintains that financial considerations aren’t his motivation for opposing the change in venue and date.
“Whatever happens, it’s just one day in the life and we can deal with it,” he says.
“But I can give you a prediction,” he continues. “All the people I’ve spoken to feel strongly in their hearts that if [the Pride Parade] is moved by this current Pride board, there will be an uprising of those 20,000 people that I’m speaking of. They’ll demand someone step forward to put on a parade on the last Saturday in June in Montrose. That’s my prediction.”
Is Armstrong saying that if the Pride Houston board of directors decides to follow through with proposed changes for 2008, he would confer with other bar owners to produce a June parade in Montrose?
“We would certainly explore it immediately,” Armstrong says. “There would be an exploratory committee put together.”
Before moving to Houston in 1985, Armstrong was general manager of the gay and lesbian nightclubs owned by Frank Caven that still line Cedar Springs in Dallas. It was Armstrong’s vote in 1984 that moved the Dallas Pride Parade, now called the Alan Ross Freedom Parade, to a September date.
“In Dallas, the parade is put on by the Dallas Tavern Guild. The bar owners organize the parade. It runs down Cedar Springs, and people are happy with it being on Cedar Springs.”
Bettie Naylor, founder of the Bar Owners Association of Texas lobbying group, was Armstrong’s co-grand marshal in 1989. Owner of Naylor & Associates lobbying firm in Austin, Naylor says she intends to “fully support” whatever decisions are made.
“My goal has always been for all of us to have fun together and to let all others see how happy and proud we are,” Naylor says.
In 1990, Annise Parker led Houston’s Pride Parade under the theme “Look to the Future.” That proved to be an apt theme for Parker, considering what her future held. After serving three terms as the first out gay or lesbian person elected to Houston City Council, Parker is now in her second term as city controller.
Parker says there is a reason that all the big parades in Houston are held downtown.
“There are wide streets, there are plenty of places to stage the parade. If it’s done on the weekend it doesn’t interfere with business activity, residents, anything else,” she says.
Conversely, Parker admits the big disadvantage to moving the festivities from Montrose, where people are used to seeing them, is the potential loss of “that neighborhood, family feel.”
Parker says she has traditionally believed that it was important to celebrate Pride in June, but since many other cities have moved the date, she now believes it’s more important that Houston has Pride events that capture “a sense of history and legacy,” she says.
“One of the reasons that we went to the night parade is that it’s just god-awful hot in June in Houston. I would have been more supportive of changing the date when it was a daytime parade. Now that it’s a nighttime parade, I think there’s less need for that–although, if the parade organizers really want to couple it with a festival, the weather becomes a factor.”
Houston has been lucky that Pride parades and festivals held in the Montrose neighborhood have never been blighted by a serious accident or problems with homeowners, Parker says. Pragmatically, she adds that a neighborhood parade poses other concerns.
“We are in violation of our noise ordinance every year. They also violate the parade ordinance every year, because the parade runs long,” she says.
Parker believes if Pride Houston wants to keep growing the parade, it probably has to move out of Montrose.
“If they want to limit the number of entries and scale back, then we leave people out of the parade. So there’s going to be gains and losses wherever it is.
“It’s not just about where we’d like to have the parade, but where does it make the most sense to have the parade,” Parker continues, “and where they want to take it.”
Following Parker’s lead, City Councilmember Sue Lovell became Houston’s second out elected city official in 2005. While Lovell says she intends to support “whatever the community decides” about the location of the parade, she says she opposes moving the time of the event from June.
Deborah Bell served as female Grand Marshal to the 1997 Pride Parade, themed “Glowing with Pride.” Also having served as a former co-chair of Pride events, Bell says she has mixed feelings about the proposed changes.
“I hate to see the vast commercial effort and corporate route the Pride Houston committee is leaning towards. There are those that just will see it as a big party … but what does it really say or mean about us as a community? Do we truly understand why thousands of people show up along Westheimer to see the parade?”
Bell recommends a reading of the David Carter 2004 history Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (published by St. Martin’s Press) to learn more about why Pride events are traditionally held in June.
Though she doesn’t favor the move downtown “or elsewhere, as there is a tradition to the timing and location of the parade,” Bell proposes having the festival on one day and the parade on another.
“One way to do that would be to have the nighttime parade in late June, as usual, but have the festival during the day in October, during GLBT History Month.”
PHYLLIS RANDOLPH FRYE
Attorney and trans activist Phyllis Randolph Frye helped lead the Pride Parade, themed “Say It Out Loud,” as Houston’s first transgender female grand marshal in 2006.
In 1979, Frye supported the parade’s move from downtown to Montrose, “the historical roots of the GLBT community.” And she calls the inception of an evening Pride Parade in 1997 “a stroke of genius.”
“My favorite part of the evening is walking through the staging area in the neighborhood near the junior high [Lanier Middle School] and watching floats and trucks and trailers being outfitted and seeing friends that I see there each year,” she says, stressing the importance of allowing every group, “both large and small,” the chance to be seen and heard in the parade.
“I have been with the parades since the second one,” Frye says. “I have watched them evolve. Change and evolution are good things, and I salute Ms. Wyatt and the committee for looking for ways to improve.”
But whether it is moved again or the date is changed, Frye emphatically believes that “more people will show up only when more people come out of the closet.”
EDITOR’S NOTE; Nancy Ford, who reported and wrote the Pride coverage in this issue, served as female Grand Marshal for the 1999 Pride Parade. At that time, she did not work for OutSmart.