It wasn’t a large crowd but about 25 to 30 community members and media gathered at the Hotel Monaco Wednesday evening, June 1, 2016 for a rare public meeting for the officers and board of directors for Seattle Pride, the non-profit volunteer organization that produces the yearly Seattle Pride parade every June. The group came under fire two weeks ago when it appeared Seattle Pride was telling employees of Alaska Airlines that they could not march in this year’s Seattle Pride parade on Sunday, June 26th wearing or displaying any logos identifying them as employees of the hometown airline which has long been a sponsor of local pride events.
But, this year, Alaska was outbid by rival Delta Airlines to become the exclusive airline sponsor for Seattle Pride. The deal was rumored to be six figures and common to most corporate sponsorships of public events, such deals traditionally give certain rights of exclusivity in their particular category to the winning bidder. The then president of Seattle Pride, Eric Bennett apparently interpreted these rights to mean that Alaska could not march displaying corporate identity and sent the LGBTQ employees of Alaska an email suggesting they could not march this year. The resulting controversy in the media, initiated by Seattle Times’ columnist Dennis Westneat and continued by Seattle Gay Scene and Seattle Gay News, resulted in a large outcry in the community which led to public apologies and the resignation of Bennett.
Anger from Seattle’s LGBTQ community as well as local LGBTQ media outlets prompted Seattle Pride to hold the public meeting this past Wednesday. The meeting opened with remarks by interim president, Kevin Toovey who stepped in to fulfill the remainder of Bennett’s term which was due to expire at the end of July. Toovey was also elected the new president of Seattle Pride for the next term of office earlier in May. He assumes full presidential duties on August 1, 2016.
A visibly nervous Toovey called the meeting to order and quickly addressed the “Airline Gate” issue with apologies and assurances that the Board would do better in the future in handling these kinds of issues. He introduced the other members of the Board, which includes a large number of new members, before turning over the meeting to the other officers who all made reports for their individual departments. David Hale, Sponsorship Chair, reported on the large number of entries for this year’s parade; Treasurer Christine Lyon reported on the apparently strong financial health of the group, currently on target with their budget. Secretary Alex Nugent presented this year’s Pride Guide, produced in a deal with City Arts/Encore Media, and reported on the success of that project, which is now in its second year.
But, the nitty gritty really began with the Public/Q & A portion of the meeting which was more about community members expressing concerns and making statements and suggestions than about asking specific questions. Longtime community leader and publisher of the Seattle Gay News, George Bakan opened the public part of the meeting with a long statement that got at the heart of Seattle Pride’s problems as he relayed his concerns over recent events with Seattle Pride but also took them to task for shirking their political responsibilities by not taking a strong stance on efforts in Washington State to repeal laws that protect our transgender citizens. Members of the Board protested that they had made efforts to fight the proposed Initiative-1515 with statements on their social media, but Bakan quickly countered with, “That’s not enough. A message on social media isn’t really making a stance.”
Bakan also expressed disapproval about Seattle Pride’s upcoming Volunteer Park Festival on Saturday, June 11th which is a re-branding and re-formatting of the event formerly known as the Seattle Pride Picnic, which was more family oriented. The new event is to feature a beer garden, which earned Bakan’s ire. “A beer garden isn’t very family friendly. And, I’m surprised the city let you have a license to have a beer garden in Volunteer Park.” Bakan went on to question the event itself: “I thought when Seattle Pride left Capitol Hill to move downtown, they would leave it to other groups to put on festivals on the Hill, which they have done.”
Bakan summed up his remarks by pointing out that many of Seattle Pride’s problems result from poor or simply a lack of communication with the community but with local queer media in general, a position that was quickly taken by remarks from others including this writer, who asked the Board a direct question: “How are you going to fix your communication problem? It’s great you have KIRO TV on board and City Arts (as media sponsors) but the bigger more mainstream outlets are not interested in reporting your day to day reports and press releases. KIRO doesn’t care what your theme is, or who the Marshals are, or the fact you’ve rebranded your picnic into something new. If you want your word to get out, then you need to communicate with your community and your queer media.”
Other members of the community and media also testified including Brian Daniel Peters, aka popular local drag performer and event producer, “Mama Tits” who hosted at Seattle Pride parades for many years before being abruptly canned by Eric Bennett in December of last year citing a need to “go in a different direction”. Many in the community were shocked that “Mama” was not rehired to host the 2016 parade, not only due to the popularity of the performer but because Peters stood up to anti-gay protestors at the 2014 Pride Parade which resulted in a viral video that earned millions of views and put Seattle Pride on the map. Peters stated “it hurts me to watch an organization I love, lose its way….your recent actions have led the community to not trust you.” He went on to ask the Board “You must be transparent. You must learn how to communicate with the community, other community leaders and our queer media.”
The mood was tense but respectful in the room during these testimonies but several Seattle Pride members would attempt to defend themselves and the organization after every comment, including Sponsorship Director David Hale’s mini lecture on how non-profits/community organizations operate, which led to Seattle Gay News editor Shaun Knittel commenting, “You need to stop talking and start listening. As long as we are being respectful, take in what we’re saying, process it, THEN respond. But, constantly being defensive and in some cases, talking down to us, is insulting. Nearly every person is this room has worked for or currently works for community non-profits. We know how they work. We don’t need a lecture.”
Present but not making public remarks at the meeting: recently resigned president Eric Bennett and Northwest Polite Society owner Chuck Zimmerman, who is contracted to handle sponsorship deals and promotions for Seattle Pride. Zimmerman and Northwest Polite Society both received scrutiny during the meeting as their handling of the “Airline Gate” issue was called into question. Though not officially outlined on the “Profit and Loss” statement that was distributed at the meeting, it’s surmised that much of the $109, 336.11 budgeted under “Contract Services” expenses went to Northwest Polite Society as their fee/commission for negotiating sponsorships including the very lucrative corporate sponsorship deals.
It was also noted during the meeting that while Seattle Pride’s Board is very proud of their official Pride Guide, produced with Encore Media for the last two years and incorrectly marketed as its first Pride Guide, the endeavor is apparently not very rewarding to Seattle Pride itself with treasurer Christine Lyon admitting “we lost money last year” but “we’ll make something this year” which lead SGN’s George Bakan, an experienced publisher of many years, including decades of producing Pride Guides at SGN, including previous ones in collaboration with Seattle Pride, to exclaim “How do you lose money on a guide full of advertising?” while others questioned the Board on what kind of deal did they have with Encore, if Seattle Pride wasn’t making a profit off the project. This writer asked: “If you’re not making money off this deal, then who is? The main goal of your pride guide shouldn’t be making large amounts of money for Encore.” The initial deal with Encore ends this year; board members admitted they needed to re-examine the project for the future.
Others made comments as well, including Adam McRoberts, a former long time Seattle Pride board member and current Seattle Gay Scene publisher as well as other former Seattle Pride board members, who quickly began making suggestions on how Seattle Pride could improve their operations as well as the annual parade itself with many suggesting less emphasis on corporate logos and more emphasis on artistic expressions of community interests. As more and more positive suggestions were made, the tone of the meeting and the attitude of the Board itself seemed to improve immensely with Board members taking notes about many of the suggestions for future parades.
Also in attendance: Egan Orion the president of Seattle PrideFest the non-profit organization that puts on the annual festival at Seattle Center after the parade is over. Seattle is unique in that two separate groups put on different parts of the city’s official LGBTQ Pride celebrations, which is a result of Seattle Pride nearly going under permanently after the group moved the parade and festival downtown in 2006. Poor fiscal planning and huge debt led Orion and his One Degree Events production company to take over the festival portion from Seattle Pride (then known as Seattle Out and Proud) in 2007. Since then, the two have operated separately with PrideFest having great success in the last 10 years as they expanded the Festival to include other major events during Pride month as well as events during the year.
But, Seattle Pride’s recent public controversy has also had implications for Orion’s PrideFest organization as angry community members and sponsors contacted their group thinking that they were the ones responsible for this recent public relations fiasco. Towards the end of the Wednesday night meeting, Orion casually rose to speak and then made a simple statement, introducing himself and then gently chided Seattle Pride for their lack of communication skills noting that this was the first time he had met most of the people on the Seattle Pride board. He suggested it might be wise for both Seattle Pride and Seattle PrideFest to establish stronger lines of communication for the future and suggested a community summit between the two groups and other community organizations might be a positive step for the future.
At this point, this writer made this comment to the Board: “This is part of your problem. Adam (McRoberts) and I know Egan. And we know George (Bakan) and Shaun (Knittel) from SGN. And, we all know Fred (Swanson) from Gay City, and Louise (Chernin) from the GSBA and Jason (Plourde) from Three Dollar Bill Cinema and all the other queer non-profits in Seattle but no one knows you guys because you’ve chosen to be apart from the rest of the community. And, that doesn’t work.”
The meeting seemed to end on a note of positivity about the future with President Toovey stating the Board was open to discussing many of the ideas presented at the meeting and that more public meetings in the future could be beneficial into opening up lines of communication with all of Seattle’s LGBTQ community. Afterwards, Board members and the public casually met and introduced one another and to further discuss the events of the evening. It ended with an air of hope for the future of Seattle Pride. Hopefully, the weeks and months ahead will show their commitment to follow through and make some drastically needed changes. The future of their organization depends on it.