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Problems on Parade 

West Hollywood may end up taking control of next year’s Gay Pride Weekend

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000
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All did not go well at this past spring‘s Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade and Festival in West Hollywood. The poorly attended event lacked activist vision and once again put the spotlight more on the internal problems of its organizer -- Christopher Street West (CSW) -- than on gay liberation.

Now, three months later, critics are wondering if CSW is capable of handling the annual event or if control should be ceded to the city of West Hollywood.

Within the last two years, half a dozen board members have resigned or been ousted, including former co-president John Capodanno, leaving a skeleton board of just four. Neal Zaslavsky, a CSW volunteer and vendor-relations liaison, says that understaffing caused some volunteers to work 12 to 18 hours a day during the three-day festival.

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“I think I can speak for almost everyone who was at the parade and festival this year. It was a total disappointment,” says West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang, who estimates parade attendance at half of its usual 300,000. The event “shows no connection to being part of a movement for social change” and “has devolved into one big alcoholic party.” Adds veteran activist Ivy Bottini, “I’m not the only middle-aged lesbian who stopped going to the event because it did not speak to me.”

If CSW does not restructure itself and hire an executive director to guide the organization‘s mission on a daily basis, Prang believes, the city of West Hollywood should take over the event. It has been without an executive director since Sharon Donning resigned last December.

To help stave off a city takeover, gay-community activists, led by Bottini and Morris Kight, who co-founded CSW in 1970, have rallied a group of about 25 people to create the Committee To Revitalize Christopher Street West.

The second revitalizing meeting, on August 1, did not bode well for the organization’s survival. The new board members seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems they faced. Donning says the session amounted to little more than a “bitch fest.”

Attendees Carol Hass and Rodney Scott say that questions about the mission of CSW, its financial status, its commitment to cultural diversity, and whether an executive director is needed must be answered before a new board can take over.

Such concernS about CSW aren‘t new. For decades, activists have complained that the board is closed and elitist, that it charges admission for an event that is free in San Francisco, that it is too heavily policed and has overly restrictive regulations. The parade seems sanitized of its original rebellious spirit of gay liberation by the push of commerce above all. Activists fret that CSW appears bent on forgetting that a drag-queen rebellion against police harassment at a New York City bar in June 1969 ushered in the gay and lesbian civil rights struggle.

CSW was founded 30 years ago as a nonprofit service organization. With an annual budget of $1.1 million, the group has a staff of four, plus a volunteer board, and has gained a reputation as a prestigious place to learn the skills of running a nonprofit while building the fledgling gay movement.

Bob Craig, the former publisher of Frontiers, the local gay newsmagazine, sat on the board of CSW for many years, along with other moneyed leaders, and even became its president. CSW emerged as a kind of “trust” to the community and boasted of the $100,000 in grants it gave back to the community -- claims that Craig highlighted in his paper. But his death this year opened up the way for Frontiers to run its first critical story about the organization (pinning the problems on ex--board president Capodanno) and to alert the general community to the organization’s systemic problems.

“CSW is a symptom of a wave that has been rolling through our community since the new drugs started to keep people with AIDS alive,” says Bottini. “The wave is part of the larger social apathy fueled by prosperity that says, ‘Tomorrow is tomorrow, but today is today, so let’s have fun while we can and not think serious thoughts.‘” To her that wave has “snowballed into the gay community’s internalized homophobia to result in alcoholism, circuit parties and gay-community apathy around its own parade.”

It is difficult to get a handle on the group‘s finances. According to CSW’s promotional materials, $100,000 is returned to the community every year. But a review of its July 31 financial report shows that only $57,442 made its way back to the community in grants and gifts, says event manager Mike Iacono. Of that amount, $8,400 went to pay the yearly mortgage on Casa del Sol (a building owned by CSW that provides low-cost housing for people with AIDS), $8,250 went to nonprofits, and $2,500 went to for-profit organizations that joined the parade. An additional $8,360 went to support a variety of community fund-raising events during the year (including $3,000 to Pasadena Pride, $1,100 to Women‘s Night Out, $700 to the Valley Business Alliance).

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