Let’s set aside for now any tension among the various pride celebrations in St. Louis and establish this: There are a million legit ways to be proud. You can catch gleaming beads at one of the city’s largest parades. You can set up a booth at a street party to let your neighbors know you exist. You can admire a radical drag show, or boogie until dawn at the prom your high school never dared to throw.
There are as many ways to be proud as there are ways to be queer. And a pride festival is often integral to one’s life journey: It can be the first time you feel like a part of the tribe — or any tribe, for that matter. Pride festivals are a crucial part of the LGBTQ experience worldwide. St. Louis is no different.
For more than three decades, the go-to vehicle for celebrating pride in our region has been PrideFest. The tradition began in April 1980, just months after the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, when local activists dared to gather in the Central West End for a charity walk. Thirty-seven years later, the organizers have coalesced into Pride St. Louis, a full-fledged nonprofit with programming year-round.
Today, the organization runs a community center. It awards scholarships. It hosts a weekend-long festival that takes over downtown, turning the city’s commercial and governmental heart into a gorgeous explosion of rainbows, glitter and the heartiest of parties.
Since the festival’s move downtown five years ago, it has become by some measures the most identifiably St. Louisan, too, with the iconic Gateway Arch serving as a backdrop for the parade.
In recent years, though, a growing number of people in the area have formed their own groups and festivals. Some of these offshoots arose from a desire to affirm a unique identity. Others were born of convenience. One emerged as a defiant refusal to be absorbed into the mainstream.
They co-exist peacefully, for the most part. In June, representatives from each converged for a panel discussion, “A Proud History,” at the Missouri History Museum.
“I think it’s a great thing, having a lot of options” says Matt Harper, Pride St. Louis president. “We’re kind of like the big brother. We like being that resource. I love what they represent and wish we could help out more.”
What remains to be seen, however, is whether these alternative “small prides” offer so many advantages that they sap the strength of the big event downtown, or render it obsolete — an outcome some observers would lament.
Steven Louis Brawley, founder of the St. Louis LGBT History Project, says that PrideFest has always been a symbolic institution, a unified flexing of political muscle, and “the one signature pride.”
Are we leaving it behind?
For Pride St. Louis, the year 2017 was wildly successful — and rocky.
On a mild and sunny Sunday in June, thousands crowded downtown to take in the capstone event of PrideFest 2017, dubbed “Community Proud.” The parade stepped off just after noon, after MetroLink trains disgorged crowds of rainbow-clad visitors from near and far.
Cleve Jones, founder of the San Francisco AIDS foundation and creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, served as grand marshal. Also on hand were people in T-shirts depicting Hillary Clinton’s myriad monochrome pantsuits arranged in a rainbow; at least two people holding signs featuring 2017’s most delightful gay meme, the Babadook, a horror movie monster; opposite-gender couples with toddlers; and a lovely young man in purple skinny jeans, stilettos, a feathered mask and nothing else.
After the parade, festival crowds jostled in line for fries, lemonade, Urban Chestnut beer and port-a-potties. All told, a record-breaking 300,000 people came out to celebrate, be visible and hold space for one another.
This happy ending could’ve been less so. As Harper acknowledged at a post-festival board meeting, “Starting out, this was one of our roughest years.”
Pride St. Louis entered 2017 with liabilities exceeding $160,000, says Landon Brownfield, the group’s secretary. The sum was the result of unpaid bills from past events, increased security costs and decreased sales in 2016 attributed to hot weather. That meant the group needed to raise more than $238,000 from this year’s festival to balance the budget.
Then came an unexpected blow: In the early spring, Bud Light, a major sponsor, pulled out. (AB/InBev declined to give Out in STL a specific explanation; Brownfield recalls company representatives saying the brewer was rethinking its marketing focus and pulling out of festivals of all types nationwide.)
Just weeks before the festival, Pride St. Louis announced a controversial plan to cover the shortfall: Organizers would charge a $5 entry fee. They also floated the possibility of distributing free tickets widely, but a backlash ensued.
The proposed entry fee roused ire on social media and at meetings. Keyboard warriors on Facebook and Twitter said they’d never go again, and that Pride was too corporate anyway. Critics faulted the board for overlooking the marginalized status of many LGBTQ people, calling their decision privileged and poorly communicated.
One of these critics was LadyAshley Gregory, a board member of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group and the leader of Queer and Trans People of Color St. Louis. She penned a full-throated op-ed on the website of Boom magazine condemning the fee.
“To those of you, family, who say it’s just five dollars,” she wrote on May 5, “I dare you to stop and check your privilege and think less about what you do have and more about what others may not.”
On May 9, the board reversed course, announcing it would nix the fee. “At its core, the Pride movement is about protecting, empowering, and celebrating each and every member of the LGBTQIA+ community,” the board wrote in a press release that was widely shared on social media. “Our previous decision to charge a mandatory fee, though made with no intent to exclude, would have created another barrier for those who already face so many challenges.”
Instead, the board cut its budget by about a quarter. It raised more than $40,000 through direct donations online and suggested donations at the festival entry. It also doubled the cost of bracelets sold for alcohol purchasers, to $2.
Through this belt-tightening, donations and upcharging for the privilege of buying booze, PrideFest has become officially debt free. Brownfield says the board is “cautiously optimistic” and plans to continue budget-cutting and cost controls to avoid falling into debt again.
LadyAshley Gregory now offers tempered praise for the organization’s choice to pull back the fee.
“When you realize you were wrong and you try to make it right, that is a form of success,” she says. “It could have come a lot sooner, but hopefully, they learned their lesson. Transparency in a community role is key — when you say you support a community, the community needs to know what you’re doing.”
Sayer Johnson is executive director of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group. He attended the May 8 board meeting just prior to the board’s course reversal. He challenged the board to consider the outcry and not leave anyone out.
“We certainly appreciate that they didn’t charge the fee,” he says today. “It alienates and marginalizes trans folks. Statistically speaking, we struggle financially.”
So PrideFest isn’t perfect. But it probably doesn’t need to be. While it’s certainly fair to call it the main festival, PrideFest isn’t the only show in town — and hasn’t been since the nineties.
St. Louis Black Pride, for instance, boasts of being the second oldest black pride in the whole country. The group held this year’s celebration on the weekend of August 18.
“Black Pride is steeped deep in tradition,” says Leon Braxton, the organization’s vice president.
It was born during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and nineties, when the group Blacks Assisting Blacks Against AIDS held an outreach event called B-Boy Blues Festival in 1995. Since 1999, it’s been known as Black Pride.
Braxton says that Black Pride, while certainly a party, will always be focused on the health and wellness of African-American LGBT people, who face major health disparities.
According to a 2012 study, “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families,” families of color have reduced access to health care and lower rates of routine care and prevention, and being LGBT has a multiplier effect on these negative outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2015, gay and bisexual men accounted for 67 percent of HIV diagnoses, with black men leading that cadre.
Braxton, who also serves as director of diversity and inclusion at Pride St. Louis, says Black Pride now includes a drumline, recognition of trans women of color who have died, a basketball tournament and a Greek step show.
“It gives us time as a community, as a black community, to see where we are and where we can go,” she says.
In 2014, two straight moms from St. Charles were working to forge connections for their gay kids. The women were staffing a booth for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, at PrideFest. They asked each other where the celebration was on their side of the river and realized there wasn’t one.
With that, Pride St. Charles was born.
“We wanted to give people opportunities in the outlying counties,” says Jason Dunn, vice president of St. Charles Pride.
Dunn says the festival was only conceived of as a family picnic, but it’s grown every year. Now organizers host monthly coffeehouse events and family-friendly parties all year long.
“After we had announced Pride St. Charles, we had someone call and say ‘How much is your vendor fee?’ and we were like, ‘Vendors?’” Dunn recalls.
Despite apprehension that no one was going to come, 3,500 people showed up for the inaugural Pride St. Charles, a rainy weekend in the courtyard of St. Charles Community College. The second year, 7,000 came. This year, 11,000 partied in Frontier Park.
For residents of St. Louis, where the mayor routinely marches in PrideFest’s parade and both public and private buildings fly rainbow flags for all of June, it’s hard to fathom a pride event triggering backlash in 2015, but Dunn says such fears were real.
“We were worried when we started Pride St. Charles we would get protesters, the city would say no. Most people welcome us with open arms,” he says. “This year at Pride St. Charles, we had ten faith-based groups.”
Growing up in a Catholic family in conservative Troy, Dunn struggled to reconcile his faith and his identity.
“I remember praying that God would just change me,” he says. “It took going to my first Pride to realize this is who I am, this is how God made me.”
Never mind the challenge of getting permission as a teenager to make the drive into St. Louis for PrideFest.
“My parents were definitely not going to let me drive across the bridge,” he says. “So this is my way of supporting those kids.”
On the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, Metro East PrideFest began in 2008. Some see it as the kickoff to pride season since it occurs the weekend before its St. Louis counterpart.
“People who were just starting to come out, young kids — we felt that St. Louis Pride might be a little overwhelming for them,” says Sarah Gool, co-founder and past board president. “We wanted to offer something that’s kind of a stepping stone for them.”
It began with about 1,000 people turning out and rubbing elbows with neighbors, religious leaders and politicians, including Belleville mayor Mark Eckert. The next year offered 3,000 people, 66 vendors and the vocal and comedic stylings of Belleville native Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Like the other pride events, it has continued to grow each year.
One area event did emerge out of conflict — and as a direct response to changes to PrideFest.
Starting in the 1990s, PrideFest was held in Tower Grove Park. It eventually outgrew its cozy sylvan berth and moved downtown in 2012. But plenty of people were unhappy. A Facebook group called Keep Pride in Tower Grove became a forum for those who disapproved of the move and those who disagreed with Pride St. Louis’ general direction.
One of them was Michael Powers, then a neighborhood stabilization officer in the 21st Ward. In his view, the big move downtown was “a kind of mainstreaming.”
“You slap pride on everything and you put a rainbow on a product label,” he says. “It becomes this kind of catchall for acceptance.”
Powers teamed up with two others, Angelo Olegna and Melinda Cooper, to launch a parallel pride event near the old location.
On January 22, 2013, St. Louis Magazine ran a Q&A with Olegna in which he criticized Pride St. Louis for the move and detailed the new plans for Tower Grove. “Pride is continuing along Grand,” he told the publication, “but under new management.”
The magazine’s editors received a swift response from Pride St. Louis’ then-president Staci Stift. She objected that they didn’t contact the nonprofit for quotes or verification. (Such was the magazine’s standard practice for Q&As.) Stift and her board wrote a rebuttal, which the editors welcomed and published two days later.
The board wrote that Olegna’s comments were “not factual.” They revealed that they had sent him a cease-and-desist letter, accusing him of “infringing on [Pride St. Louis’] intellectual property” by insinuating through the use of the term “pride” some affiliation with the nonprofit.
Powers says his group never responded to the letters, but that the controversy had a galvanizing effect on him, Olegna and Cooper.
“We all had a wakeup moment,” he recalls. “If we wanted things to be different or better, we have to step up and take leadership roles.”
Five years on, Powers says the two events have arrived at a more peaceful place.
“Most of those board members, most of the folks that had generated that animosity toward us, are no longer involved,” he says. “The relationship now is much stronger.”
Tower Grove Pride does not take place in the park, but it’s focused on that neighborhood and is anchored to South Grand Boulevard, where rainbow flags fly all year long. It’s a grassroots and radical alternative — and it has struck a chord with many.
“I think Tower Grove Pride did an outstanding job this year,” says Liz Van Winkle. Van Winkle is the mastermind behind GutterGlitter, an underground party-planning group of “queirdo, antiracist, antifa, intersectional feminists” that runs the monthly drag show WILDE at KDHX. She’s also a critic of PrideFest as too corporate, too police-friendly and nowhere near radical enough to represent LGBT struggles. At the Tower Grove event, she says, “I ran into so many activists. As long as they keep those people involved, I think they’ll be good.”
PROMO communication director Katie Stuckenschneider, for example, says this kind of fete feels right to her.
“South city people who identify as super queer, people like us go to Tower Grove Pride,” she says.
According to Powers, 7,000 revelers attended this year. He says the board is trying to find ways to improve the event by disseminating an online survey to vendors and revelers through Facebook and by word of mouth. And while they can’t make the sidewalks any wider or the weather any nicer, Powers says they’re happy to adjust to the feedback.
“If you leave the community out of the festival, you don’t have the engagement you want,” he says.
Part of that is keeping vendor fees low — $75 this year, compared to a minimum of $250 downtown. Vendor vetting is also important, Powers says. The application asks would-be vendors to explain their connection to the community.
“When we work with you as a sponsor or partner, we have expectations that the festival is not just about getting some brand recognition for you.”
While it’s great to have options, there will always be a place for the biggest, flashiest, most photogenic pride.
“They give a place for baby queers to go experience their first taste of queerdom,” says Gregory of Queer Trans People of Color. “For so many people who are just starting to know themselves, maybe Pride is a success. It’s helping people come out and discover people who are like them.”
It’s also the festival that has earned the first-ever proclamation from a Republican governor — Eric Greitens’ plaudit was displayed at the post-festival board meeting — and is considered a must-attend by mayors and megacorporations such as Monsanto and Peabody.
PROMO’s Stuckenschneider echoes Gregory’s sentiment. She says that PrideFest, and the parade in particular, are crucial for newly out people and those from outlying rural areas. For those people — and she was once one of them — seeing corporate giants flying rainbow flags is life-giving.
Others are wary of these allies. Both Monsanto and Peabody, for example, have come under fire from environmental groups. But without them, funding concerns become intractable.
“Corporate sponsorship of pride may often be the difference between fiscal survival and the less-than-admirable alternative,” says Brett Hayhoe, the Australian co-president of InterPride, the international association of pride organizers. “As prides grow, a fiscal reality occurs. Essentially someone has to pay the bills and the corporate sector is a perfect partner for this.”
Johnson, of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, was full of praise for Tower Grove Pride. He also attended and staffed a booth at PrideFest where he interacted with crowds of trans people, but didn’t march in the parade this year.
“Our community is unique and different and beautiful and sits better with being more localized,” he says. “I’m also a both/and person. We wouldn’t have reached hundreds of trans people [at PrideFest] had they not wanted to come out. That’s why we did both prides.”
Steven Louis Brawley has a unique perspective on all the sturm und drang: He is the founder of the St. Louis LGBT History Project and this year’s recipient of the Lisa Wagaman Lifetime Community Service Award. He’s been making a study of the city’s LGBT history for years. So he knows better than most that tension within the family is not exactly new.
Even the first festival in 1980 had its share of controversy, he points out, because two or three groups wanted to run it.
Each annual celebration, he says, “has reflected the times it occurred in.”
Pride celebrations may be splintering right now because, in a way, the community itself can afford to. More and more, American society — be it in the courts, in politics, in business or in pop culture — is embracing the wide spectrum of gender and sexuality. Even beloved St. Louis sports institutions got into the act this year, with the Blues and Cardinals hosting their first-ever Pride Nights in January and August, respectively.
As acceptance has grown, so too has the confidence to make finer identity distinctions. Look no further than the acronym: In 2016, the advocacy group GLAAD updated its media reference guide to list “LGBTQ” as the preferred term, since it includes the multifaceted “queer” category alongside “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” (For some, the “Q” encompasses still more letters, such as “I” for intersex and “A” for asexual.)
On the other hand, there’s still plenty of need for a united front. It’s true that the 1969 arrest of nine men at the Onyx Room in Midtown St. Louis for “masquerading,” or being in drag, seems almost unfathomable. But as the website LGBTQ Nation reported in June, by that point in 2017, thirteen transgender people had been murdered across the U.S., eleven of whom were trans women of color — and the current figures are surely higher.
Furthermore, federal marriage equality may now be law of the land, but LGBT people in most of Missouri can still legally be fired, denied housing and excluded from public accommodations such as restaurants simply for being queer. Meanwhile, annual efforts to pass laws such as the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act have met resistance and apathy in the GOP-controlled state capitol.
The more that small prides peel off, the greater the risk of diluting PrideFest’s symbolic power, and by extension, the political juice of the LGBTQ demographic. If there’s strength in numbers, strength could dwindle once the numbers divide and scatter.
Seen through a different lens, though, the sprouting of smaller prides doesn’t necessarily sap the strength of the whole. In fact, it might rather be a sign of strength. After all, if national trends apply here, then the St. Louis area is home to about 100,000 people who identify as LGBTQ, with fewer impediments to coming out than ever before. It would be odd if they didn’t argue about how to celebrate.
And for all the pride-related squabbling in recent years, it’s easy to forget just how much the members of LGBTQ St. Louis have each others’ backs, how much they actually agree on — and how much things have improved overall.
Brawley recalls a man coming up to him and weeping at a History Project booth the first year PrideFest was downtown.
“He said, ‘Steve, I was at the ’80 Pride. I was wearing a mask. I was afraid to be seen. I was afraid I’d lose my job. Now, I’m walking down St. Louis’ main street, out and proud. I never thought I’d see the day.’”
Melissa Meinzer arrived in St. Louis in 2010 and has been trying to discern the city’s secrets ever since. Don’t ask her where she went to high school. You can reach her at [email protected].