BY TROY MASTERS | Christopher Street West, the non-profit organization that produces the annual L.A. Pride Parade and Festival, apparently did not get its own memo and now four stalwart board members have resigned. With just five months to go before the big event, the question is now: what can the community expect for the annual celebration of the Stonewall Riots?
Context is important here.
In 2016, L.A. Pride faced enormous community hostilities when organizers appeared to be shifting the historic focus and mission of the LGBT event toward a more mainstream audience. At one point, for instance, they even dropped “LGBT” from its marketing campaign in favor of the broader “Parade and Music Festival.” Chris Classen, Board President of Christopher Street West (CSW), told the West Hollywood City Council last May: “Adding the word ‘music’ to the title of L.A. Pride is a subtle welcome to a younger generation who does not inherently understand the historical context of the event.”
Classen’s statement enraged activists who felt CSW’s actions minimized the important role the parade traditionally played in honoring LGBT history and the legacy of those who fought against oppression and discrimination—symbolized and magnified by the group’s decision to forgo awards that honor community pioneers, heroes and leaders. Additionally, CSW enacted other changes that appeared to minimize transgender, dyke, country-western and leather community visibility.
Finding itself under intense fire, the board eventually made changes that addressed some aspects of some of the concerns—but the damage was done.
On the morning of last year’s parade, Los Angeles and the nation woke up to the horrific news that 49 people had been slaughtered at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It served as a harsh reminder that we do not live in a “post-gay” world.
Weeks later it was announced that Christopher Street West lost $395,000.
In July of 2016, West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister, concerned about the financial transparency of City-sponsored events, initiated an item directing staff to develop policies and procedures for special events held in the City to include requirements for agreements, financial disclosures, and data collection to evaluate them. LA Pride is partially subsidized by the City (waived fees, public safety) and is estimated to generate more than $5,000,000 in tax revenues for West Hollywood, which makes protecting the event’s reputation and ensuring its financial health an important matter for the city.
Meanwhile, several board members complained publicly that the top-down management style of the board made their service useless. Among the complaints was the implementation of a non-disclosure agreement that prevented board members from discussing organizational matters outside the board. That apparently included discussions about CSW’s position on transgender visibility. The vacuum of information and sincere outreach resulted in charges that the board had lost touch with the community. That drew hostile online and community forum rage about management style. No input seemed to be taken seriously.
Fast forward to January 2017. At a time when most of are terrified Donald Trump will gut gay rights, there’s this…
Four members of the board of directors of Christopher Street West have now resigned and their reasons repeat many of the same assertions that beleaguered the group last year. The board members refused to sign a new Non-Disclosure Agreement and complain that they are bound not to talk under a previous gag order, despite continued calls for transparency. Non-Disclosure Agreements have been required of board members since 2002.
Individually, the CSW board members who resigned are representative of the issues that were of most concern in 2016. Karina Samala is a prominent transgender woman; Andy Sacher is founder of the Lavender Effect, a group that helps document the legacy of local LGBT history; Steve Ganzell is a legacy CSW president; Marlon Morales is a Latino man and chairman of LA Leather Pride Week
Samala has dared challenge that gag order, alleging that the 2017 board is not supportive of the transgender community. In a statement to The Fight Magazine, which first broke the story, she delivered the harshest blow yet to CSW.
”For the past year, myself and other board members had made every attempt to work with the current President and Leadership of Christopher Street West/LA Pride to address issue’s of inclusion, transparency, board engagement and the elimination of our rich LGBT history from the Pride Celebration,” she said. “Until last year, CSW had been extremely accommodating and supportive of the Transgender community and Transgender Pride events. Now, with this new leadership, I feel that vital support has eroded.”
Steve Ganzell said, “The current leadership is taking the organization in a direction that most of us who have been there for a while don’t feel comfortable with….It’s being driven over a cliff, and if you think you can change the direction of it, you’re nuts.”
Andy Sacher, told Wehoville.com that quitting CSW’s board “was a very hard decision for me because I really felt for a long time, almost two years, that I could make a serious impact on the organization on the inside,” Sacher said. “I hit a point where I didn’t have the hope of that anymore. So I’m focused on work I can do and things that are necessary, the work that I can do with the Lavender Effect.”
At least one prominent critic of Christopher Street West’s management in 2016, Peter Cruz, a member of a group that initiated a brief boycott of the LA Pride, says “it is my hope that the remaining board members take into the consideration the feedback and concerns that community members expressed during last year’s community forums and commit to working with the community to ensure that this year’s Pride is inclusive and accessible for ALL LGBTQ individuals.”
Wehoville also reported that a copy of CSW’s 2016 profit and loss statement reveals that “the organization’s overall revenue was $2.1 million, 30% less than budgeted. Its overall expenses were $2.5 million, 13% less than budgeted. CSW had projected a $162,000 profit.”
“Major factors in the loss included a 30% shortfall in projected revenue from festival admission tickets. CSW had projected revenue of $1.3 million (44% of the total revenue from the event), but realized only $915,710. Another shortfall was in revenue anticipated from beverage sales, which at $250,000 was down 65% from the $718,000 that CSW had projected.
The losses reportedly have been partially covered by a “substantial profit” made by L.A. Pride in 2015, before Chris Classen took over the organization’s management and President. While Classen has promised many times to make the organization’s 2015 tax returns available, that has yet to happen. The financial results for the 2016 Pride event were made available to WEHOville, which published them as CSW was telling its board members that they weren’t yet available.
Board member Craig Bowers says the financial information that was published contained errors. “The 2016 financial information previously reported was from a confidential board document that had not been audited or finalized. While I can confirm the organization did lose money in 2016, this loss will not have impact on our ability to produce a fantastic parade and festival in 2017,” he said
Classen, responding to the resignations, told The Fight Magazine: “Part of the challenge last year is that we had a few internal email leaks to the press that were confidential information. That was harmful to the organization and it came directly from one of our board members. CSW has had a [non-disclosure agreement] for years—in fact, all four of these members signed a NDA in October 2015. It’s not a gag order. It’s standard practice in any job or organization that is basically a mutual agreement that we’re not going to say bad things against each other.”
Classen, in an interview with The Pride LA, says “The entire Board of Directors was disappointed to have 4 of our members resign, but we are grateful for their service and wish them nothing but the best. The work of producing the 2017 event has already begun with the remaining 11 members who are all deeply committed to the community and to the legacy of this 47 year old institution.”
In the coming weeks a number of programs will be announced by Christopher Street West, many of them focused on the roots of LGBT history as seen through community, arts and history. The organization recently held LGBT events at the Getty Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art.