BY TROY MASTERS | The time for massive change has come. That’s the firm conclusion I came to after meeting last week with Chris Classen, President of Christopher Street West, organizers of the annual 3-day LA Pride parade and festival in West Hollywood.
And, yes, change has been called for before over the years, repeatedly. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a 2000 article by Doug Sadownick in the then-progressive LA Weekly entitled “Problems on Parade:”
“All did not go well at this past spring‘s Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade and Festival in West Hollywood. The poorly attended event lacked activist vision and once again put the spotlight more on the internal problems of its organizer — Christopher Street West (CSW) — than on gay liberation.
Now, three months later, critics are wondering if CSW is capable of handling the annual event or if control should be ceded to the city of West Hollywood.”
Another vociferous critic was the late Frontiers columnist Dana Miller who excoriated then-CSW President Rodney Scott for orchestrating an uninspiring, uncreative parade. Nonetheless, Miller found words of appreciation for the community-minded Scott, who had been the volunteer president of L.A. Pride for 12 years when he resigned in 2013.
“Over the past decade, you and I have broken bread many times discussing this fly in the champagne,” Miller wrote in his Oct. 14, 2013 column in advance of a West Hollywood City Council discussion of the issue. “In 11 years I’ve written six columns on why Pride sucks. You have always been a champ, gracious beyond graceful. You have treated me with more respect than I do myself, yet over the years our collective words have had all the impact of a Marie Osmond talk show.”
Sound familiar? Many of the same themes and controversies are being echoed today. Why? Now that we have won marriage equality, is there a belief that LGBT people are free and the struggle for LGBT civil rights is over? The legacy of CSW is to take to the streets in a joyful parade to show America, to show the world that LGBT people are out and proud and will no longer subsist shamefully in a plywood closet constructed for Mainstream America’s comfort. The Religious Right hasn’t given up attacking us and trying to repeal our hard-won rights, so it is imperative that we continue to fight back – in the spirit of love.
But CSW feels like it’s throwing just another “fabulous” gay party, with lots of corporate sponsors who want that disposable gay dollar.
It would be too easy to roll your eyes and conclude that CSW will always be just a community flash point — a sort of ‘why bother changing anything’ conclusion. It would be tragic – and a middle finger to our venerable elders – to think it’s unfixable.
A start would be to deconstruct what happened in 2016, with consideration for the future. At stake is the very existence of Christopher Street West and LA Pride.
Here’s a quick overview. 2016’s CSW board, under Classen’s leadership, found itself engulfed in a whack-a-mole of controversy. Critics slammed the organization for increasing the price of festival entry; the elimination of free Friday; a diminished time slot for transgender events and timing of the Dyke March; changing the focus of what had been seen as a festival for everyone to a festival for a younger audience; erasing Seniors; appearing to remove LGBT from the event’s branding; giving the impression the festival might become a WeHo version of Coachella; showing an alleged disregard for the event’s legacy and for LGBT history; eliminating the LGBT community leadership awards and grants; eliminating participation by local community small business vendors; ending the practice of inviting all local media to become sponsors of the event; enabling a primacy of corporate branding and enlarging corporate footprints; and making limited booth space available to LGBT non-profits. Suppliers to CSW, some critics claim, were not vetted properly for their pro-LGBT policies and no-bid contracts were allegedly given to close associates of some board members, prompting snarls about possible financial conflicts of interest.
Critics specifically suggested a possible conflict of interest business relationship between CSW and its board’s selection of sponsors, vendors and artists and Chris Classen and board member Craig Bowers, who co-own an events marketing firm called Inclusion.
Some CSW board members addressed some of the concerns but appeared to do so grudgingly and, it was claimed, with obvious hostility toward critics. But for the most part, the board side-stepped or ignored much of the controversy and criticism. That, in turn, caused public animosity toward CSW to blow up with calls for disbanding and replacing the existing board growing louder and louder.
That was precisely the point former CSW co-president Patti DiLuigi and several other speakers emphasized at a community forum held by West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister last week.
But Classen dug in even deeper during a lunch meeting with The Pride LA shortly afterward. Classen, who was personally very charming but insisted on no note-taking, said he is fiercely protective of Christopher Street West’s legacy. He also feels deeply pilloried by the community and by this paper. However, Classen energetically rejected the growing chorus of calls for his resignation as President of Christopher Street West.
Classen also admitted, without going into any detail, that reports of a significant loss in the CSW treasury are true, though he provided several plausible explanations for what may have caused the shortfall.
Prior to the community forum, it was revealed that CSW lacked funding to pay many vendors. As there are no further income opportunities in 2016 that would allow CSW to close the financial gap, vendors and consultants who are owed money will likely have to wait for 2017 revenues to flow before they can be paid.
The shortfall has been estimated at $396,000, according to WeHoVille.com. The current board inherited a surplus of approximately $300,000 – which Classen confirmed– but the organization now has cash on hand of substantially less than $90,000, a technical overdraw with several major obligations remaining unpaid.
Classen said he is determined that CSW financial information remain private among CSW board members — who have signed a confidentiality agreement — and its accounting team. He adamantly refused to make the books available for public scrutiny. He chafed at the notion that CSW (a non-profit) may be required to open the books, inquiring if The Pride LA (a for-profit newspaper) would do the same.
In an email to The Pride LA, Classen sought to explain his reluctance to open the books and discuss CSW’s (and his own) choice of vendors and sponsors in a more detailed manner: “This year we worked with our Festival Producer to conduct an extensive RFP process. We found that many of our existing vendors were in fact still offering us the best available rates, and some others were replaced. While we did this to confirm we were getting the best possible prices, the results did not surprise us since many of our vendors offer us deeply discounts due to their support of the LGBTQ community.”
Classen suggests that among his concerns about opening the process up is that doing so might discourage discounted offers and some vendors may be unwilling to make them if they feel their bids will be made public. “Many of these vendors offer us discounts in confidence that we will not share publicly (which could effect their ability to charge ‘retail’ rates to their other clients),” he wrote.
“Like other non-profits, our yearly financials in the form of our 990 IRS return are always publicly available as soon as they are filed. Full access to our books is of course available to our Board of Directors, who volunteer thousands of hours each year in support of the organization,” Classen wrote, with no mention of the pledge of confidentiality or the other financial obligations.
Classen maintains that that CSW volunteers are always welcome. “Anyone wanting to come work is welcome to join our Board and come volunteer with us,” he said. “Our Board applications are open now through September 20th, via https://1drv.ms/b/s!ApUc66sx1IGqhM9x0sQqQJ001feIWg.”
At last Wednesday’s meeting, WeHo Mayor Lauren Meister noted that the city waives fees for LA Pride totaling approximately $500,000. The fees include permit costs, police, medical and sanitation services, etc. In exchange, the city enjoys a healthy boost in tax revenues generated from an influx of visitors to the city who dine locally, stay in local hotels, entertain and shop locally.
As previously reported in The Pride LA, the City of West Hollywood will now require financial transparency from any group or organization that it promotes, endorses, co-sponsors or sponsors. Financial disclosure requirements include a Form 990 for nonprofits, event budgets, and other fiscal information.
However, in an email to The Pride LA, Mayor Meister said, “My item that I brought forward (for consideration) applies to more than CSW, and it was for staff to come up with a policy – so that is not in place yet.” WeHo, in other words, has not yet determined what kind of financial transparency it will or can require of organizations that benefit from their financial patronage.
Classen and CSW, therefore, are under little substantive pressure to provide financial documentation (i.e. the checkbook and detailed account of spending and receipts) beyond what is required of a non-profit by the IRS, federal tax filings that reflect not 2016 but previous years that may not see the light of day until 2017.
This is not just some fiscal shoulder shrug. The change in attitude toward an imperious fiefdom is light-years away from the noble humility of being responsive to the LGBT community and civil rights movement. It feels like the very existence of LA Pride and its 46-year legacy under the stewardship of Christopher Street West is at stake. The organization’s pocketbook – and its heart and soul — are nearly bankrupt; city council members seem stymied, again; activists are demanding change; other Pride celebrations are popping up and the times, they are certainly a’changin.
But, if he remains CSW President, as he intend, it will be change at a snarky snails pace. “I don’t have any ulterior motive here,” he says. “I’m looking at an event that has to change a little bit every year and trying to be objective about what that looks like. This year the feedback was for more history, free components and community areas, so for 2017 we will work on incorporating those suggestion.”
From my perspective, beginning to save Christopher Street West and LA Pride requires the following steps.
- 1. The organization must learn how to listen and how to communicate with community stakeholders.
- 2. The mission of the organization must be revitalized: history, legacy and LGBT civil rights must remain at the heart of CSW and LA Pride.
- 3. The board and its leaders must learn how to be more humble about their august community responsibility and engage people in a less imperious manner.
- 4. Like other 46-year old adults, CSW always must own up to mistakes.
- 5. CSW’s board and the City of West Hollywood must submit the organization to an independent forensic accounting of 2016’s finances and every year going forward to regain public trust.
- 6. Budgets should be publically approved for Pride’s commitments and funding should be secured in advance.
- 7. Bids should be elicited from a vetted vendors and suppliers list and only from sponsors, businesses and agents that are explicitly pro-LGBT and unaffiliated with board members’ business interests.
- 8. Christopher Street West must find a way to preserve the grassroots, community orientation of the event in a way that both attracts community participation and commercial and corporate support to make it financially successful.
- 9. Due to the diminishing available footprint in West Hollywood Park for the immediate future, all of Santa Monica Boulevard should be devoted to LA Pride on Sunday with the Festival held on the eastbound side. Friday and Saturday festival could become a series of concert cul de sacs at major WeHo intersections. When appropriate the Festival can return to the park.
- 10. If Christopher Street West is unable to change, then the City of West Hollywood needs to require an open bid to run LA Pride. The organization must survive.
These are just a few ideas to jump-start a new beginning and reboot an inspiring community event. What are yours?