Friday, June 25, 2010

Cincinnati Pride or Privilege?

Cincinnati Pride is approaching, and this year issues have gone beyond the usual problems with Pride. Pride is a clusterfuck or issues, visibility, consumerism and corporatization, access, politics... but this I guess it was bored of the old problems and wanted something new. One issue vexing Cincinnati Pride this year is location. Pride has moved from its ‘gayborhood’ home to Cincinnati's downtown center, a change which has sparked some controversy. But there is another issue that is less obvious, and far more serious.

The project of Pride has been picked up by the Gay Chamber of Commerce, an organization focused on gay business success and representation in Cincinnati. “Doing pride fits right in our mission to promote the city and support our businesses." stated George Crawford, 45 year old local gay business owner, member of the Gay Chamber Commerce and the Chairman of Pride. Support our businesses? But what about our community? The queer community is not made up of businesses and their owners, its made up of everyday people. He confirmed that the Gay Chamber of Commerce was using a project called Equinox Cincinnati to run Pride. Equinox formed last year to host a party for the purpose of, in Crawford's words “to show the changing climate” of Cincinnati as a gay friendly city. (From where the rest of the community stood, it was a gay VIP rich folk only event.) I was surprised to learn Cincinnati had changed into an equality focused queer friendly city because as a visibly queer trans person working in the activist community, I figure I would have noticed if Cincinnati magically transformed into a mini-San Fran. When I asked about those who still did not feel safe, Crawford's thoughts were that it was the queer community’s fault that they didn’t feel safe in Cincinnati. "We have the chip on our shoulder and scars... we need our community to get on board..." Get on board for what? He made a decent point in saying "We can't continue to hide in a safe neighborhood like Northside [gayborhood]… we need to get out on the main streets.” I can’t help but agree with the on the streets part, but I'd like to know what I'm “getting on board” for, with who, and why. Crawford repeated words like “image,” “profit,” “income” and “reputation” - something very relevant to a business making money, but not very relevant to a community in need of resources.

According to Crawford, the goal is to make an “image” for the city as a good place for “gays” to live. Which is a nice idea, but what gays are we talking about here? I asked about visibly queer folks, trans folks, and people of color, and while Crawford stated that "Pride belongs to everybody"stressing the importance of diversity. When I asked him to expand upon efforts for diversity, however, his answer was "We didn't do as well as we could have, but there are always going to be people you miss." Honestly, I think the numbers are a little high for a menial oversight, though he did give a shout out to "transsexuals and drag queens" which was hard for me to appreciate.

Speaking of visibility, lets discuss the name Equinox Pride. When Pride was taken over by Equinox, Crawford said anonymous organizers thought it best to keep the name Equinox because it would bring in money. “People see “Pride” and they go ‘ew’ and don’t give it money.” said Crawford, “But with a name like Equinox they are more likely to fund it…We’re trying to re-brand our Pride.” He spoke of other cities that had ‘de-prided’ Pride, extensively removing the queer visibility from the event. Isn’t the point of Pride to be out and visible so everyone knows its queer? “Re-branding” seems a little counter productive to me, unless you’re trying to appeal to a fancy audience that is more interested in social acceptance than identity visibility. Crawford stressed that his committee only worked with queer supportive businesses that saw us as more than numbers and money, but that doesn’t meld with his statements about “re-branding” Pride.

Issues have also arisen from the communities of color, drag kings, burlesque performers, and lower income communities about inclusion and accessibility. When I approached Crawford about issues of transparency and accessibility he aired his frustrations stating that it “must not be in [kings, femmes, people of color's] priorities to know what was going on," and that was why people could not find the contact information. He then listed several articles and posts with contact information starting back in October, but when I went looking, including in the specific publications listed I could not find them in any archives. He also said that there is submission information on the site for volunteers and performers, but no such forms exist nor has there been clear information about how to get involved. Several people, myself included, have experienced problems and even rejection while trying to get information or getting involved. I asked Crawford directly if drag kings contacted him or the Equinox organizers. “They [ the drag king community] have not approached us...” he said, lamenting over his suffering as an organizer and the audacity of the kings to feel “slighted." But upon speaking to people in the drag king community I found several people from various troupes who had directly spoken to Equinox organizers about drag king performance options. One troupe was told that they could not perform because there would be no local performers this year, but when talking to me Crawford stated that "85% of [Equinox Pride] talent is local."

Maxx Lixgood, founder of the well known hip hop drag troupe The Lixgood Family, spoke with Crawford himself several times about performing online and on the phone. Repeatedly Maxx was told that organizers would get in touch with him with more information, but no one ever did. After months passed, Crawford contacted Maxx in hopes of reconciliation but by that point Maxx had given up.

"They aren't advertising to black people or low income... drag kings..." Maxx said in reference to Equinox, "We're urban, they don't care about us. They don't want me or my people, and this isn't just me. This is how our community feels. Black people aren't gonna go to Pride."

Maxx also stated that Crawford specifically requested that he leave a comment on the Equinox Pride Facebook page to publicly show that they had spoken - Crawford also instructed Maxx on exactly what to say. This leads us to another serious issue. Censorship and image control.

Much of Pride's advertising and networking has been happening on Facebook. In online organizing/writing/blogging it is generally understood that comments are a style of dialogue and unless they are seriously abusive, they are to be left as a method of documentation regarding whatever it is you're reading, be it a blog or public community organization's Facebook page. There have been several comments (including some made by me) on the Equinox Pride's page that were less than positive about the event, but none were malicious or abusive. All of these comments have been deleted. One comment about drag kings on the main Facebook page resulted in a somewhat heated conversation of an anonymous Equinox Pride representative. Over the past day over half of the comments in this discussion have been deleted, leaving only the more positive feedback, and none of the negative or comments contradicting Equinox's public statements. Crawford, who runs the Facebook page, stated that "to my knowledge we have never deleted a comment.” and “Personally I have never deleted a comment; and all admins can’t act without approval from me." He went on to say that there was a glitch on Facebook that was causing comments to not show up, or to disappear, but even the worst glitches on Facebook wouldn’t delete comments that were there for weeks, and then only delete parts of conversation threads but not all, not to mention it would be a site-wide problem, and no one else is having issues. If Equinox Pride was a person or a private organization it would be within reason for them to monitor feedback on their page, but it is not. It is a public event for the queer community and deleting constructive feedback, dissenting or not, is censoring the community.

One idea suggested that the Gay Chamber of Commerce using business model, which would automatically lead to less transparency and a more PR oriented method. It is clear to me that this is indeed the case. When a non-profit was running things, all meetings were open and it was well advertised who organizers were. From a business standpoint, you hide all negative feedback about your product so people will think it is perfect. You manage things quietly so people can't steal your ideas and create a fantastic front making your product out to be the best there is. No matter how consumer-based Pride becomes, it is about community, not cost, it is about PRIDE, not products.

Transparency is essential. How can we stand together if we can not trust each other. I legitimately believe that the Equinox organizers are well-intentioned people who care about their community. That said, I do not think they understand who is in their community and what we need. ? Withholding information, providing false information, censorship, and essentially creating a VIP club of rich gay folks, no matter how well intended, is manipulative and problematic. It cannot be taken lightly. The new organizers may be business profiteers, but Pride should not be a business, operating behind closed doors. This is a community event for the community, not for businesses and not for city image. It is for the people, all of our people.

“I don't think people look at the big picture." Crawford says, but I think its Crawford and Equinox who are not looking at the big picture, or at least, their “big picture” is not big enough. I have little interest in turning Cincinnati into a gay-money paradise when we still don't have basic community resources and education. The opinion of Equinox seems to be that less visible communities should be doing the work to fight our way through their power so we can be seen, like it’s so easy for us to push our way to the front. I understand change is necessary, I understand money is necessary. However, I do not think that making Pride bigger is synonymous with making Pride into an ablist, classist, racist, and elitist gay shame party for the benefit of the moneymakers from the pockets of our community. To quote a friend: "We need to expand, I agree. However, let's expand in the right way and be inclusive." I truly believe that Crawford and Equinox thinks they are being inclusive, and have openly admitted they need improvement and even have made mistakes, but the gross attempts at cover-up and misinformation erases all of that well-intentioned regret making me feel that the confessions aren't so much about actually caring about inclusion as much as they care about looking good and making money.

In addition to the Equinox Pride, local organizers have put together an event called Northside Pridefest as an additional event to take place in Northside in August, but I was unable to get any information about it for this post. There is more to be said in this conversation, and I am interested to see where Pride goes. Surely more posts to come – and they hopefully won't be so crazily long.

Update: several people have requested a plan of action or response -Post this article on your Facebook page and Twitter. Spread the word!

Visit the action event page to make your voice heard!



No comments: