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.
“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).
An additional $27,163, Iacono says, went to the controversial “community working-grant,” which gives money to nonprofits to hire people to work at the parade and festival. Some former board members, including Capodanno and Don Bruhnke, have objected to this practice because CSW says it is “giving” when it is really “hiring.” “That money is not a grant,” Bruhnke says. “It’s wages.”
Iacono defends the practice. He says nonprofits want to be part of parade operations and appreciate getting paid for their work. He also says that CSW gives an additional $50,000 to the community through in-kind donations, such as less expensive parade entry and booth fees.
Capodanno, whose own financial papers show that only $6,000 in grants was given to the community, says he had been trying to correct some of these problems — confusing figures, different board members having different profit-and-loss figures — when he found that board members had met behind his back. He says that the mortgage on Casa del Sol hasn‘t been paid in the last two years and that he was waiting until the festival was finished so he could investigate the issue; he also takes issue with the notion that approximately $8,000 is given to the community for so-called fund-raisers. The truth, he says, is that CSW board members attend events to get a free dinner: “They are supposed to go there and network, but they don’t.”
Capodanno says he resigned on July 11 only because he suspected he was about to be ousted.
But others see it differently. Members at the revitalizing meeting say Capodanno can be sexist and overly controlling. Current board president James Fields says Capodanno sometimes bullied the staff. Capodanno says that he did get in trouble for “not always using the right words, like calling the ladies ‘girls,’” and that he was the only one who knew how to run the business and would get “impatient at times for the sake of CSW.”
Nicki Cruz, a board member who was ousted in 1998 after serving almost 14 years, decries the effort to “scapegoat” Capodanno. “Johnny has a temper,” Cruz says. “But without him, the festival could never have gotten off the ground.” (About his temper, Capodanno says, “I am very direct and firm, like a businessperson. You don‘t beat around the bush.”)
To Cruz, the problem is that CSW became more about cachet — “a money market for perks and favors” — than community a long time ago. She says she was ousted because she began a grievance committee about what she considered to be financial abuses, such as annual board retreats to Big Bear that she says cost between $30,000 and $50,000.
Hundreds of credit-card receipts obtained by the L.A. Weekly for 1996 and 1997 provide a glimpse into how the organization spent its money. Michael Yates, who was a CSW board member from 1980 to 1997, and served as board president in 1996 and executive director in 1997, charged $1,164.31 in plane tickets to Sacramento, Arizona, Kansas City and San Francisco, and $5,091.47 for hotel rooms in Sacramento, Berkeley, San Francisco and Kansas City. He charged $319.31 for a plane-ticket adjustment to Paris. Dinners cost as much as $121.98 at Jacopo’s Hollywood on July 15, 1997, and $199.44 at the Firehouse Restaurant in Sacramento on April 26, 1997.
Yates says that he used the card to do CSW business, and while he doesn‘t remember each and every charge, including the restaurant bills, he says he was diligent about backing each charge up with paperwork. The trips to Sacramento, he says, were to attend meetings of the now-defunct LIFE Lobby, a statewide organization that lobbied on behalf of gay and lesbian civil rights. Yates says he was the LIFE Lobby delegate appointed by CSW. He was also a board member of LIFE Lobby.
In addition, Yates attended conferences held by the International Association for Lesbian and Gay Pride Coordinators in Kansas City and Arizona, and the California Association of Pride in San Francisco.
He says he made a trip to the European Pride Coordinators in France to do outreach to the European Pride Community. CSW paid for a half-dozen members to attend these conferences. Adds Yates, “We asked them to work hard and bring the learning back to the organization.”
Former board members, such as Cruz, Capodanno and Bruhnke, say they had questions about these trips — whether CSW could afford them, whether they were just excuses for the elite to take vacations, and whether it was fair to ask community members to pay $12 at the festival while board members took fancy work-related junkets. Yates isn’t the only one who went abroad. Former board members Sherri Richardson, Sharon Donning and Rudy Estrada went to Scotland in October 1999 to attend Interpride. Capodanno says that he was opposed to the expense and feels that the trips did nothing to benefit CSW locally.
Board members don‘t like to talk much about the departure of half a dozen board members over the last two years. But CSW president James Fields broke with the “no comment” position in the case of Capodanno.
Fields says that he and others had trouble with Capodanno because “John wanted his significant other to work on the festival.” Fields says that the board permitted Capodanno to hire his own people, but didn’t think this was a good hire. “John used his power to threaten that he would give over financial receivership to the city of West Hollywood if we didn‘t give him what he wanted,” asserts Fields.
Capodanno says his lover was paid $5,500 as contract labor. He says the job was done well and that the board okayed the deal. He adds that he never threatened the board and, furthermore, that the CSW bylaws do not specifically forbid hiring a relative or a significant other.
Questions about what constitutes a conflict of interest have plagued CSW. In 1999, board president Sharon Donning acted as the organization’s executive director and received $400 a week. She says she was able to separate time spent on volunteer board business from that devoted to her paid position, but in November 1999, she says, the board voted to remove her as president. At that time, she also resigned her position of executive director, expecting that she would otherwise be fired.
Don Bruhnke was also forced out last year, after four months on the board, because, he says, he asked too many questions, such as why financial documents weren‘t distributed to the community and why budget reports were so hard to read that board members didn’t bother scrutinizing them. Fields says that he and his colleagues ousted Bruhnke because he felt that his questions showed that Bruhnke was more of a troublemaker than a team player.
Bruhnke questioned a July 5, 2000, Budget Analysis Report that says $355,309 in tickets were sold at the festival, a figure Bruhnke considers too high. Bruhnke is upset about other line items, such as the figure of $64,000 attributed to corporate sponsorship and the “absurd” figure of “zero” for Friday-night ticket sales.
CSW accountant Ron Rosato provided the Weekly with updated budget information showing that $125,400 was raised from corporate sponsorship and that “Friday-night sales were next to nothing . . . due to street construction and renovations.” Rosato gets his estimates from deducting what was unsold from the 40,000 tickets ordered. “It has always been a little difficult to tightly control the attendance numbers at the gate,” he says in an e-mail correspondence. “I have asked some of the other pride organizations about this, and they tell me that they have similar difficulties. Each year we hope to improve the manner in which we account for gate attendance.”
To its critics, these financial issues and board bickering raise serious questions about whether CSW can continue to handle a public cultural community event.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, says that abuses of power are rampant in nonprofits that don‘t receive government funding and are not subject to government scrutiny. “We, like the Gay and Lesbian Center, are very regulated not because we are a nonprofit,” he says, “but because we have health licenses and receive government funds.”
While Weinstein has had his run-ins with both West Hollywood City Hall and the Center, he argues that both groups would be better entities to host the Gay Pride Parade and Festival than CSW. While he acknowledges that some worry that a government agency could never be gay-positive, he argues that the “glory that was CSW never really was” and that “the city has put on festivals and parades before . . . We are mystifying this thing. It’s not a big deal, you hire professional people to put on the event.”
Other benefits of having the Center run the parade and festival, adds activist Wendell Jones, are that it would probably manage the events better and that the parade would not necessarily be limited to West Hollywood and its mostly white, male demographic. What about a central, natural location like Griffith Park, for example?
It‘s not likely that revitalizing-committee members would agree with such a radical reassessment. But it seems clear that as news of CSW’s trouble filters out to the larger community, more and more gays will seek to reclaim the historic trust to which CSW co-founder Kight refers. Until then, the spirit of gay and lesbian liberation remains threatened.