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    Memories of Prides Past

    By Marsha H. Levine–

    Even before I moved to San Francisco, I was pretty familiar with San Francisco Pride, as it stood out as the Pride event and took place in “the gay mecca.” I’d first met Rick Turner, from their Board at the time, back in April of 1981. We were attending a UCLA-hosted conference where a gathering of national queer activists was trying to put together a political organization called NOLAG (National Organization of Lesbians and Gays). I recall we took a lunch break together one day, aside from the main group, and shared information about our different organizations (I was with Boston Pride and also part of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus), exchanged promotional buttons, and promised to send each other our Pride t-shirts. We also lamented that this conference clearly did not address any concerns we had as Pride organizers, and how nice it would be if we had our own gathering.

    Then, in 1982, I created NAL/GPC, the National Association of Lesbian/Gay Pride Coordinators (now renamed and known as InterPride), and put out a “call to unite” to about 50 Pride organizations in the United States. That October I met SF Pride attendees Glenne McElhinney and Konstantin Berlandt, who invited me to stop in and visit if I was ever in town. I took them up on that offer when I vacationed in San Francisco in 1983, even attending an SF Pride meeting, where I caught up with Ken Jones, whom I had just met at the second meeting of InterPride held in San Diego just days before. Some of the soon-to-be incorporators of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration Committee, as it was soon to be known, were present and included luminaries such as Linda Boyd, Barbara Cameron, Richard Gorin, Autumn Courtney, Reid Condit, and Jonna Harlan.

    Ken wasted no time recruiting me to join SF Pride when he heard I was relocating at the end of 1985. He arranged for me to run for female co-chair of the Main Stage Subcommittee within a week or so of settling in, with almost unanimous approval. No doubt having spent the last three years as President of the Boston Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee, expanding its rally on the Boston Common, and bringing in talent like Romanovsky & Phillips, Blackberri, and some of the Olivia Records stars was a deciding factor. I tried to replicate that diversity on the Main Stage here in 1986.

    That started my consistent years of involvement, where I was on and off the Board of SF Pride, or just a volunteer in any number of areas: Police Liaison and Dispatch for the “Safety Committee,” Medical Liaison, Parade Co-Chair for several years with a variety of male co-chairs, among them Edward Goehring, Empress Sissy Spaceout (Steven Lindsay), and Gilbert Baker.

    Back in the early 90s, we had to switch our Parade route due to construction on Market Street, marching from the Castro to Civic Center. As we were waving groups to step off and start the Parade, I remember I caught sight of a giant red patent leather purse artifact hoisted above a contingent of red patent leather purse-carrying individuals with a banner that read “Satanic Purses”—a parody of Salman Rushdie’s infamous Satanic Verses. I enjoyed a good-natured laugh over that one! There was also the Barbie Support Group and a group of poodles dyed all sorts of bright colors.

    But the often outrageous are not the only contingents I remember. Every year there is at least one contingent that will turn the corner onto Market Street and my eyes get misty: PFLAG SF, United in Spirit, Our Family Coalition, and others—reminders that not all of us came out during times or in places where acceptance was received with a more open heart, by organized religion or our parents, and LGBTQ children have felt isolated, alone, desolate. It is like watching a time capsule unfold before you.

    Also in the early 90s, Civic Center was being renovated at one point, which meant moving our event down to the Embarcadero. I recall making an appointment with some of their Port of San Francisco planners and officials at the Ferry Building, my proposal and a blueprint map in hand, showing them exactly how it would work—if we could close the roadway from Washington Street to Mission Street. This was a non-starter for them, but I persisted until they agreed to close the southbound side for us and granted us permission to use all the center parking lots for dance areas and exhibitor booths. I recall the main stage being over in what we now call Sue Bierman Park. Great, green, and grassy with a slight rise toward the back, it was a much nicer setting than mostly cement and fenced gardens. I believe the dance area was on the Embarcadero near Mission Street.

    I have a vague memory of 1997—when we were at that end of Market again, due to some other construction—that there was a stage in the AC Transit bus parking lot near Folsom and Main Street, a second stage elsewhere, plus a dance area, too. I was serving as the Police Liaison that weekend, stationed in an Embarcadero tower office suite overlooking the Vaillancourt Fountain, which someone had filled with soapsuds that were overflowing and flying everywhere.

    There are so many memories that stand out like snapshots throughout the years. The giant vulva sculpture on, I think, the Vagina University float that appeared at the end of the Parade for a couple of years back in the early 2000s. The crude bridge of the starship Enterprise float made by the Gayglers, who convinced George Takei to make a surprise appearance in the Captain’s chair. GAPA’s boat and its members dressed up like sushi was great fun. There were Taiko drums, martial arts, and the Tsunami swim team wearing bathing caps, goggles, and flippers. I think of The Golden State Rodeo Association on their horses. And the first time I saw Recology’s garbage collectors doing a coordinated moving routine with their rolling garbage cans. I have 16 years of Parade lineups I could review to jog more of those images.

    To backtrack a little, overall co-chairing with Ggreg Taylor in 1993 was fun, exciting, and a wonderful adventure. He had a strapless rainbow chiffon “petal” dress made for me that I wore to every event we attended in May and June. Sisters Hellen Wheels and Dana Van Iquity dressed me up as a nun … though I could not wear white or black because I was not initiated, so we picked red. Sister Dana keeps threatening to pull out a picture she has, but the threat is empty so far. Ggreg was delighted and nicknamed me Princess Tomato since I was in head-to-toe vermilion. He also frequently accompanied me in full drag as his outrageous NAMBLA the Clown persona.

    Our media person, Allen White, along with Allen Klein came to the two of us with the idea of using Sen. Jesse Helms’s own words lambasting SF Pride, for a PSA to get people to come to our event. As I recall, it was a montage of shots of the Parade, with a clip of Jesse intoning, “That gay, that gay, that gay pride parade, and I wish everyone in America could see it … ” closing with the date, time, and location to show up. Absolute genius!

    Oh, I cannot forget that the community picked “Year of the Queer” for the 1993 theme, which created a small firestorm of outrage, but we held a community town hall meeting, backed up the decision, and used it everywhere on everything.

    But it wasn’t always good and fun and happy or exciting. In 1990, when I was the Board President, there were lawsuits to navigate, disputes to mediate, and a lot of bridges to build to repair previous community damage.

    Leadership roles would change depending upon who could get themselves elected. Sometimes, the organization fell into the hands of those who used it to elevate themselves and their interests instead of centering the event and our community. Sadly, this sometimes included misuse of funds and assets. That has been disappointing.

    Though in 1992–1993, club promoter Ggreg Taylor and I paired up and successfully staged a coup to unseat the current overall co-chairs at the time. The co-chair position mirrored what is now the executive director role with similar duties and responsibilities. Within a day of taking office, we found the organization was in deep debt, the ledger was missing, pages from the duplicate form checkbook were gone, and credit card receipts did not match what bills we could find.

    We set into immediate action and worked with our sponsors to get advances on funds to help us keep running, set an austere budget, held community meetings to share what our plans were to reshape SF Pride, and we fundraised like crazy. Within the year, we had successfully paid off all debts, and even had a little extra money left over post event. Ggreg and I were the last overall co-chairs—we eliminated the position and the stipend that came with it. Instead, we established a working Board largely made up of volunteers and members who had played key roles in the production and operation of SF Pride—as well as worked on a strategic plan.

    At the end of 1993, I was elected as Vice President of Production, with Joe Wagenhofer as Vice President of Operations, and we split oversight of all the various subcommittees between us. Robert Allen was a strong and efficient President, and by post-event 1994, we had banked a sizeable CD, to hold as reserve funds—the first time SF Pride was not in debt and had a nest egg. By late 1995, I was in a new relationship and feeling a bit burned out after three years of intense repair and rebuilding of the organization, so taking a break from the day-to-day operations, I became a day-of volunteer and loyal member again.

    I watched once more as the fiscal protocols I helped put in place were either discarded or ignored, and an over-zealous Board with little thought to the bottom line managed to rack up an enormous deficit, an even larger debt than Ggreg and I and our Board had erased. There was wild overspending and lack of adherence to the budget, a lot of self-indulging. What usually happens afterwards is that the membership reacts and elects a more fiscally committed Board of Directors, which, of course, happened. Then, SF Pride was righted again and managed to hire its first executive director, Teddy Witherington, in August of 1997. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him at an InterPride conference a few years before and we had become fast friends, so I was delighted when he called to tell me about the opportunity he accepted. He did an astounding job cleaning up the bylaws and standing rules, putting order to the chaos, and hiring staff when he could to assist him in our mission.

    I worked with him to train two staffers do the Parade lineup and assembly—each moving on after one year, and then had to step in to sub for volunteer Parade co-chairs that quit in the week or so before Pride. Finally, he and Joe Wagenhofer invited me to lunch in 2000 and said it was ridiculous that I had succession-trained so many and then had stepped in at the last minute, that they offered me a contractor role as Parade Manager, a position I held until the end of 2017. In January of 2018, I was hired as Community Relations Manager, which I still hold, and my assistant Mike Taft was promoted.

    Alas, after Teddy moved on in 2006, and sometime afterwards, history repeated itself and at least once more, after Brendan Behan did a short turn as Interim Executive Director, and as a result of subsequent less than effective hires, the organization was sent into another fiscal decline. In 2013, a slate of candidates calling for “transparency and inclusion” successfully was selected, after an extremely contentious election, and the hiring of George Ridgely as the new executive director gave SF Pride the stability and accountability it had lacked. After almost 7 years under his direction, SF Pride was able to continue making large grants back to the community, put away a sizeable reserve fund, hire more staff, and most importantly, increase its diversity as well as meet many of its inclusion goals.

    It’s been a rollercoaster adventure with moments I will both treasure and lament, but I have loved and been loyal to San Francisco Pride because of the way it centers our community first, keeping our event one of the last free Prides in California and possibly the United States, too. That’s a legacy we can be proud to live up to.

    Marsha H. Levine is a 42-year Pride veteran, Founder of InterPride (a 40-year-old international organization for LGBTQI+ Pride organizers) as well as one of their Vice Presidents of Global Outreach and Partnership Management. She also serves as the Co-President of the United States Association of Prides and is currently employed by San Francisco Pride, which she has consistently been involved with for 37 years, as their Community Relations Manager.

    Published on June 23, 2022