Los Angeles' annual LA Pride parade may be a flamboyant fixture in the city's social calendar, but it's still as controversial and politically relevant as ever. With national debates rumbling over the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the bullying of gay teens very much in the news, the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is certain to push a lot of hot buttons while celebrating in what is always a festive and colorful parade.
This year, LA Pride is not just a parade, but three full days of events. It stars with Friday night's Purple Party, featuring drinks, food trucks, DJ sets and a musical performance by Macy Gray, and continues with a festival that takes over West Hollywood Park on Saturday and Sunday with 125 exhibitor tents, food and entertainment. The parade is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Officials continue to push for more visibility. And more fun.
"Historically, the parade has always been a reflection of where the LGBT community is — culturally and socially," says John Duran, mayor of West Hollywood, who has been involved with 30 years of these parades. "In the '70s, the parade was all about sexual liberation. Then in the '80s, the parade became about anger and angst toward the AIDS and HIV epidemic. In the '90s, the parade became a platform for social equality. More recently the focus has shifted to marriage equality. I think this year we will see a combination of all four."
That long history also makes the LA Pride celebration one of the oldest of its kind in the world. In the summer of 1970, three gay activists in Los Angeles formed Christopher Street West (CSW), a nonprofit committed to advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community. Only a few months after its founding, in the face of serious obstacles and at some peril, CSW successfully organized what current President Rodney Scott says is the world's first LGBT pride parade.
Over its 41-year run, the celebration has evolved into a three-day festival. On the festival grounds, partygoers will find not just food and drink, but also community groups, theater companies, social organizations and artisans. Besides Gray, the weekend's entertainment features performances by Margaret Cho, Mya, Estelle, YouTube phenomenon Drew Droege as "Chloe," and many others. Special events include the popular fetish show Erotic City, where the next Mr. CSW Leather will be crowned, as well as 5K and 10K runs organized by Los Angeles Frontrunners, CSW and West Hollywood. Friday night's Purple Party is dedicated to the lesbians in the community.
"Lesbians and their relationships tend to remain invisible. Our greatest challenge is breaking that invisibility and making sure we are represented and seen at LA Pride," says Vallerie Wagner, vice president of CSW.
The parade, traveling westbound on Santa Monica Boulevard from Crescent Heights Boulevard, expects 400,000 participants, making it the largest annual gathering of LGBT individuals and their supporters in Southern California. Scott explains that, above all else, "[Pride] is an opportunity for our community to celebrate loud and proud. It allows people in the LGBT community to do the simple enough act of holding their partner's hand in public without judgment or harassment. These are things we don't take lightly or for granted."
Though Pride's overall atmosphere is one of glittery celebration, the parade's more somber moments serve as an important reminder of the struggles the LGBT community continues to face. At noon, the parade will observe a "silent celebration" — a moment for parade participants and attendees to pause and remember those in the LGBT community who have died as well as those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom the community has today. This year, for the first time, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared June as LGBT Heritage Month.
Bennett Schneider has participated in the parade for 16 years as a member of the nonprofit Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Schneider, or Sister Unity, reveals the reason why he and so many others continue to attend LA Pride: "As long as there are teenagers who have to live on the streets because their families reject them and as long as there are teenagers still killing themselves because their schools and societies reject them, I will continue to wave my colorful, gay pride flag as high as I possibly can. LA Pride is a lighthouse to all communities far and near, to say we are here for you, we are waiting for you, you are not alone."
Where: West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
Price: $20 single-day pass, $35 two-day pass
Info: (323) 969-8302; lapride.org