With the news that Seattle’s Gay Pride organizing committee has collapsed and will file for bankruptcy, a lot of the discussion about next steps will concern money and logistics: Can the Pride Parade and festival be made profitable? Who should run it? Why, exactly, did the festival fail at Seattle Center? Etc.
That’s all important, but I want to talk for a moment about symbolism, which is what parades are all about—grand symbolism, on a scale that alters the city-scape and perhaps the mind-scape of participants and observers.
The idea of moving the parade downtown last year may have been motivated, in part, by practical and financial concerns (specifically, that the size of the event was outgrowing Capitol Hill and Volunteer Park, and that organizers thought the Seattle Center would be more conducive to running a celebration that brought in money through beer gardens, merchandising, and perhaps ticketed performances).
But it’s important to remember that the move was sold to the community using symbolism that tugged at the yearnings of gay people to be accepted and celebrated in the heart of their city.
Now, it must be said: Anyone, gay or straight, who ties his or her entire sense of self to a parade deserves to be disappointed.
But, it must also be said: People love parades. They line sidewalks to watch them. They march in them. They link huge meanings to them, even if their more rational instincts tell them not to. In the case of the gay community, which has historically used parades in cities across America to push for acceptance and equality under the law, parades come with tremendous emotional baggage and symbolism attached. They become an embodiment of a city’s gay community at a given moment, a snapshot of its best, worst, and most bizarre aspects. The fact that they happen at all—that gay communites are able to parade their best, worst, and most bizarre members down the streets of major American cities each summer—is a testament to how far gay Americans have come since the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
Thus, the location, within a city, of a particular parade, is important and hardly devoid of meaning. When the Seattle parade’s move downtown was sold last year as a major symbolic statement—an announcement that gay people here were not just denizens of the “gay ghetto” on Capitol Hill, but in fact a central part of the civic fabric—people bought into that. They bought into the meaning of the move.
And they loved it. As Dan noted earlier, Ed Murray, dean of this state’s gay legislators, summed up the sentiments of lot of gay parade-goers with this statement after last year’s march down Fourth Avenue:
“There was a sense, marching down the streets today, of having arrived. Of being viewed as equal,” said state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who strode down the broad, leafy avenues of Fourth Avenue holding hands with his longtime partner, Michael Shiosaki. “I think the fact that people felt comfortable downtown is new. Michael and I hold hands on the Hill. We don’t downtown. But we did today.”
The organizers of the Pride Parade should of course be accountable to their bottom line, and they shouldn’t put on an event that can’t support itself (why they weren’t able to turn a profit on an event that draws 200,000 people is another, very mind-boggling, question). But the current and future organizers also need to see themselves as accountable to the symbolic storyline that the gay community was sold, and enthusiastically bought, last year.
By “voting with their feet,” as Dan says, and picking the downtown parade over the scraggly counter-parade held last year on the Hill, gay Seattleites were saying, among other things, that they see themselves as part a grand narrative that begins in the gay ghetto and ends on Fourth Avenue, or around the fountain at the Seattle Center. It’s a narrative that begins with marginalization and scorn from the wider community and ends with integration, acceptance, and celebration in the heart of Seattle’s civic space.
What would it mean for this narrative, then, if this year the Pride Parade and celebration slinks back up to the gay ghetto on the Hill, due to the gay community’s inability to create a self-sustaining celebration in the center of Seattle?
The abject failure of the Seattle Pride organizing committee, however well-meaning and devoted its volunteers may have been, is already a huge embarrassment to the larger gay community in Seattle.
Whoever picks up the pieces of the organizing committee’s financial mess will not just be dealing with a financial mess, however. They will need to fix a symbolic mess, too, and answer this question:
Is retreating back to Capitol Hill simply adding embarrassing, self-inflicted insult to embarrassing, self-inflicted injury?