Ultimately we want, we would hope, to make THE CLOSET an obsolete institution through our efforts to make everybody more visible." (Stephen Graffeo, Co-Chair Pridefest 97, New Orleans, Saturday, June 27, 1997).
Come this October 11th and 12th, the New Orleans Alliance of Pride, Inc., aka
Pridefest 97, will be celebrating its 18th Annual Lesbian and Gay Pride
Festival and Parade in Washington Square Park (Elysian Fields Avenue between Royal and Dauphine Streets) from 11 am to 7 pm. The national theme this year is "Equality Through Visibility." Now that the organization has reached a majority-has grown up as it were-where can it go and what more can it do in the future?
On Saturday, June 28, I met with Co-chair Stephen Graffeo and three Board Members, Dr. Ronald Wilcox, Jim Wiegand, and Ambush's own Sonny Cleveland. We met at Pride Headquarters situated in a small apartment above P.J.s Coffeehouse on Frenchmen Street. I mention the date specifically because, as one of those present stated, "This would have been the weekend of the event before we moved it to October." We all laughed and watched as, outside the windows, a deluge poured from the sky and kept pouring.
Had the celebration been held in June, it would have been washed out, and I mean really washed out- again. "We can rest our case regarding one reason we moved the event to October," said Co-Chair Stephen Graffeo as lightening flashed and thunder rolled. I had hoped for a larger show of board members, but in view of the downpour, these four guys were lucky to be there. Members unable to make the interview were Keith Oalmann, Alan Spach, Crystal Little, Lisa Beaumann, Reba Douglas, and the Rev. Kay Thomas. I mention them to give them credit for being involved in this awesome and time consuming annual lesbian and gay celebration. I wanted to get each board member to describe his vision of what they dreamed, and hoped, for the future of Gay Pride in New Orleans. And so I did! These four guys were so articulate, I'll let them speak for themselves:
Co-Chair Stephen Graffeo gave me a written Mission Statement for 1997 which read: "To advance the cause of equal rights for all people through the increased visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities of Greater New Orleans and the Gulf South." Graffeo advised me that they are still looking for someone to fill the other Co-chair when I asked about that position. He has more to say later in this report.
Board Member, Jim Wiegand, who is the Booth Vender Coordinator, said, "I'm hoping for better relations between all the different groups within the gay community because it's the one avenue the City has to where everybody, regardless of race, creed, or anything else in the gay community, come together under one tent, really, to network and meet each other and I just hope that before it's all over we have better relations between all the different groups of people in the community." Mr. Wiegan has served 2 1/2 years on this Board and hopes to make way for others to serve in his place. "I would like people to get more involved because it's very easy to sit back and say what's going to happen this year, what are they planning. But, I would like people to get more involved and come to the meetings and see what they can do to really set this thing off. Anybody that hasn't been involved up to this point, they need to come in and see how it's done because they're going to have to be the ones to do it one day. The lesbians are always the ones who inevitably pitch in at the last minute and do the hardest work. When you need them they're always there. I just think everyone should get involved because we truly represent the entire community. A lot of people have ideas out there as to how this event can be done better and what not. Get out of the bars! Don't talk about it there. Come around the board table and present your ideas! If they're valid we'll go with them. We meet every Tuesday at 7 pm. The doors are open to anybody who wants to come in and help."
I asked Dr. Wilcox to give me his description of the event for those readers who may not really know what it's all about. "The New Orleans Alliance of Pride is the organization that coordinates and throws out every year." We all laughed. Outside the storm raged. "There's entertainment throughout the day," he continued. "Saturday it kicks off with a big parade through the French Quarter. On Sunday morning we have a non-denominational religious ceremony and we have a "Commitment Ceremony" for couples that wish to make a public affirmation of their commitment to each other. Then we go back to the entertainment."
Acting Co-chair, Stephen Graffeo, who had been busy with some computer work in the next room, joined us again and said, "In keeping with our theme this year of 'Equality Through Visibility,' which was the theme selected by the International Association of Lesbian & Gay Pride Coordinators at a convention in Kansas City, the NOAP [New Orleans Alliance of Pride] is a non-profit organization whose membership is open to anyone who can devote a sufficient amount of time and talent to its end. The work that we do entails, basically, that vision with some minor variations from year to year depending on what our focus has been. This year 'inclusiveness' is a word that's been used a lot in connection with Pride. We've made an active outreach to the Gulf Gender Alliance, for example, who represent a group of people who have traditionally very enthusiastically participated but have not been as well represented in the decision making process in the past as they are now. That's largely due to fact that we've made a real effort in reaching them. That's probably one of the most important things that we've done so far this year, sort of broadened the representation, at least on the Board of Directors, of the community. That [action of] basically advancing the cause of equal rights for all people, or at least for all queer people for the time being, by increasing our visibility as a community, as a group. It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, but it's amazing how familiarity ultimately breeds more familiarity once you get past the contempt, and that's what we're hoping to do. We do not feel that the closet is good for anybody, not for the community, not for the individual that's in it. Ultimately we want, we would hope, to make the closet an obsolete institution through our efforts to make everybody more visible. The work that we do here for Pride not only touches on and affects and is affected by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, but if we do our work well and what we're doing is valid and really is the right thing, ultimately it will touch on everyone in society. I mean it's a very big ideal when you think of it that way but if you think of this a goal-driven effort, it is. Ultimately it happens. We can touch on everyone in society. It touches something deeper in the human animal than, I hate to say it, but mere sexual identity or sexual orientation. It's something ultimately that runs even deeper than that I would like to see us eventually touch on, or at least be able to identify in some way." We discussed a great deal more than I can possibly write about.
The fury of the thunder storm after about 2 hours had begun to abate. We got a call from board member Sonny Cleveland who asked us to wait a while longer. He wanted to make a statement. We agreed to do so. Co-chair Graffeo told me there was one more thing on his mind he wanted to get off his chest. "Well, I've just noticed lately in the print media in general," he began, "that a lot of paper and ink has been dedicated to a lot of, in my opinion, petty bickering in this community over various organizations and the courses they have taken, you know, like what they have failed to do, or whatever it is. You know, I would just like everybody in this community to stop for just a minute with all the petty bickering, to take a step back and assume some responsibility for the outcome of the work rather than the seemingly endless criticism of the efforts of others. None of us is perfect. We're all merely human beings. We dedicate thousands of hours every year to the work for the community. We do not get paid. Quite honestly, and I don't mean this to sound bitter, but we very rarely even get thanked for it, much less compensated. We don't do this for ourselves and we're not a bunch of megalomaniacs. We're doing this because it is our belief that what we are doing is best for the community. At least as far as Pride is concerned. Everyone and anyone is always welcomed and will always be heard and their position will always be considered. Like I said, debate and the democratic process is what's going to determine what we do. I just wanted to get that off my chest, so I did," he concluded. We all paused a moment considering his remarks.
Then, Dr. Wilcox spoke. "We'd like to appeal to the community to get more minority representation on the Board. We have some people from the transgender community but we don't have any of the other minorities represented," he said.
There was some discussion of a financial statement regarding the New Orleans Alliance of Pride, Inc., that was recently published in Impact. The Board had received questions about why there was what appeared to be a deficit in that published report. I was given a copy of another financial statement which contradicted that previously published one. I knew that the item published in Impact was identified as a Cash Flow statement. The one which we have published with this article was described as a Profit & Loss statement.
The following clarification regarding the two financial statements was exclusively offered to Ambush by Co-Chair Graffeo. "The difference," he said, "is that on our Cash Flow report which was previously published, we didn't show an opening balance for the year, and on this one we do. Although we had a negative cash flow last year we did not go into the red. That's a distinction in account terms. We ended the year with a positive balance but with a negative cash flow. In other words, we ended up the year with less money in the bank than we started out in the year."
I asked if there was some need to use all of the money up in a fiscal year rather then leave a balance to draw interest? He responded, "It is always in our best interests tax wise and for the community, to spend on legitimate needs for the community and the organization as much money as we possibly can. We do try to keep a reserve fund of approximately $5,000.00 year to year in order to insure that we get our bills paid between January and October. As far as I know, there's no legal limitation to the amount we can keep in reserve as long as we don't earn any taxable income on the funds. Taxable income would occur if there were payroll taxes and so on.
"Atlanta has a paid Executive Director," added Dr. Wilcox. I suggested that it would probably be a good idea for New Orleans to do the same eventually. "A lot of people ask why we spend so much on talent," added Jim Wiegan. "My response is that it's just because we had the ability to bring in a known talent for the first time in our history and our objective should be to make the festival as good and as professional as possible."
Sonny Cleveland arrived looking a bit wet under his platinum blonde hair. He offered this observation. "I want to see a possible move to Armstrong Park for an easier expansion. Keeping Pride in a smaller space inhibits its growth. A move to a larger venue would give us more space to spread out and allow us to get mainline big-time entertainers. If we keep in mind the one in every ten ratio of gays to nongays, we have about 50,000 gays in the Greater New Orleans area that we don't see hide nor hair of; we don't see their cash flow or their participation. As old as Pride is, I'd like to see a major growth occur. And I'd like to see the parade get major media attention." The rain storm had finally stopped. More or less. We left our little air conditioned office to face the beginning of our monsoon season.
Thank God the Board got wise and moved our Pridefest to the cooler month of October. And by the way, Co-chairs should know how to tap dance. That's a private joke we shared that afternoon. Go figure it out. Or call Co-chair Stephen Graffeo. More importantly, go and participate. Call the Pride people at 504.949.9555. This is also their fax number. Use it either way.