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Gay Pride Confronts an Identity Crisis

Parade: Longtime backers of San Francisco event question the role of conservatives.

June 24, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yep, they're gay.

But are they really a source of pride for the gay community?

For years, this city has staged one of the nation's largest gay pride celebrations, showcasing a community that is no fringe minority, but a cornerstone of San Francisco's power structure.

That increasingly has meant participation by gay businessmen, corporations and political conservatives--a sign to some of the community's ever-expanding assimilation into the mainstream.

But a growing number of old-school, left-leaning gay activists are convinced that their movement is being sold to the highest corporate bidder, and that it has become so inclusive that it may rip its once-radical roots out.

As San Francisco prepares for the annual Gay Pride Parade and Celebration on Saturday and Sunday--an event that is expected to draw a million people to downtown--many liberal gay activists have begun belittling some of their fellow entrants: gay power company executives who rake consumers over the coals, gay landlords who evict hard-working tenants, gay cops who still harass cross-dressers.

Corporate participation has risen dramatically, too -- Budweiser Light is a primary sponsor.

That evolution has been dramatic enough to provoke 500 activists recently to block off the Castro district--the center of the Bay Area's gay community--to dole out "Gay Shame Awards" to people they see as hypocrites.

The "winners" included Mary Cheney, a lesbian who tirelessly campaigned for her father, now-Vice President Dick Cheney, after he compiled what critics called a vicious anti-gay record as a congressman. Mary Cheney also worked as the official liaison between Coors and the gay community, even as the company's liquor profits were being funneled to conservative causes, such as a bitter campaign against same-sex marriage. (The White House has declined to comment.)

Another "award" was given to a gay-owned, Bay Area real estate development company that is alleged to have advised its clients on the best methods to evict tenants--thereby making possible higher profits when apartment buildings are sold.

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Second Demonstration

The group behind the awards is planning a second demonstration during the parade. Among other activities, the group is planning to distribute small bags to parade watchers--"so they can vomit out their gay pride," said Matt Bernstein Sycamore, a San Francisco resident who goes by the name "Mattilda" and is part of the "Gay Shame" effort.

What began as an amusing and lighthearted campaign to needle organizers of the parade has forced the gay community to address very real questions.

Organizers of the celebration have quietly begun in recent years to poll parade watchers to determine, essentially, whether they are there for a party or for their politics. Crowd members will continue to be polled: Questions will include whether they believe that the level of corporate sponsorship is appropriate.

The bottom line: Is a civil rights movement merely mature when it can tolerate internal dissent--as feminists may have demonstrated this spring when they disagreed over new data suggesting that women should give birth at a younger age? Or has the gay rights campaign lost touch with its roots, making it less a movement and more a niche for marketeers?

That, of course, depends on whom you ask.

"We can look at corporate sponsorship as being an accomplishment. We've achieved an acceptance that, 30 years ago, I thought I would never see," said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front while a student in South Philadelphia and now is an activist for gay rights and tenants' rights in San Francisco.

"But we want these corporations to be accountable for what they do on all fronts. These people are marching under the banner of ... what? The fact that we are all queer. And as a progressive, there is more to my vision of myself and the world, other than just my sexuality."

Of particular concern to some observers this year is that the official motto of the parade and celebration--"Be Yourself"-- is the same as the slogan of one of its primary corporate sponsors, Budweiser Light.

Celebration organizers said that is a coincidence.

Critics aren't convinced.

"They've kind of jumped off the deep end in terms of corporate sponsorship," Mattilda said. " 'Pride' has become little more than an opportunity for multinational corporations to target market. It's a gated procession of one corporate banner after another."

Teddy Witherington, executive director of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Celebration Committee Inc., the primary organizing committee behind the parade, said the Bay Area is full of gay activist organizations.

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