Growing Pains | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Growing Pains 

The Utah Pride Center weathers controversy as it gets on in years.

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On the Utah Pride Festival website, the usual sights await: photographs from glorious festivals past, and tabs with information about how to volunteer, buy tickets and learn about the festival's modest beginnings 41 years ago, when local gay rights activists staged the first Pride festival in a public park.

The festival, and LGBT rights in general, have traveled a long, storied road since that first Utah Pride Festival in 1974. Same-sex marriage is now legal, and laws are on the books in many states prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But perhaps no barometer is more acute at measuring the success of a once-fringe movement than the free market, where the embrace of a counterculture by corporate behemoths is often what awaits at the finish line of a civil rights victory.

This embrace is apparent by scrolling down the Pride Festival's web page, where three bottles of Bud Light stand against a rainbow kaleidoscope, the words, "Be Yourself" printed below.

The discomfort some gay rights activists feel with the presence of corporations like Adobe, Visa and Budweiser, percolated to the surface this spring, as the Utah Pride Festival has grappled with controversies stemming from its popularity.

Local business owners and community organizations—miffed about vague deadlines, or none at all—posted to the Pride Center's under-construction website, were told all parade slots were full.

Michael Sanders, owner of the antique furniture store, Now & Again, and a leader of Utah's leather-and-kink community, says his group, Black Boots, was told it could not have a slot in the parade because it asked too late.

Meanwhile, Sanders says, many corporations—29 by the Pride Center's count—were given spots. Community outrage from the perceived infiltration of the parade and other Pride festivals by corporate America prompted a town-hall meeting on May 5 at the Pride Center, where community members voiced concerns about everything from the commercialization of the parade, to mismanagement by Pride officials and the lack of HIV testing at the Pride Center.

While Pride officials attempted to soothe the community's concerns, apologizing for communication lapses and the shortcomings of its website, Sanders says he hopes that as the festival continues to evolve, that Pride leaders don't cave in to outright corporate domination, as he says is the case in other cities.

"We love the [corporate] support," Sanders says. "But we have to keep in mind that Pride parades around the country are starting to shift. Make no mistake, corporations are here because it's good for their bottom line."

Connie O'Brien, the parade director, told the crowd that while corporate support of the Pride festival grows, it is still largely a community event, with nonprofit organizations, local businesses, religious groups and education interests taking up 74 percent of the parade slots.

During the meeting, O'Brien told the crowd that this is the first year that she hasn't been asked by the Pride Center's board members, its donors or other powers, to break the rules and just let someone into the parade at the last minute.

O'Brien said that when she informed Sanders that he'd be put on a waiting list for a parade slot, she knew that she was going to hear about it. An onslaught of social media attacks ensued, feelings were hurt and at some point, the politics behind the parade got personal.

Carol Gnade, the Pride Center's executive director, says O'Brien and the rest of the staff's efforts to strive for integrity and professionalism can be greeted with disdain by some members of the public, but are important steps to helping ensure that the Pride Center doesn't lose its way by kowtowing to powerful donors.

"We're trying to make that stop happening so we can keep that integrity," Gnade says.

The controversies surrounding the Pride Center are the latest in a sweeping series of issues that have come to light in recent years. Before Gnade took the reins less than a year ago, the center's former executive director, Marian Edmonds-Allen, resigned after 11 weeks on the job. In media reports, Edmonds-Allen said the Pride Center was in a state of financial crises and suffered from deteriorating programs and lack of donor support.

During the 2015 celebration, members of the transgender community and other LGBT subgroups, protested what they said was Pride's failure to be inclusive.

And, just as the town hall meeting came to a close, and both sides of the issue seemed to be healing from the dissention surrounding corporations in the parade (by May 10, Sanders said he and several other organizations on the waiting list had received a slot), Dominique Storni took the microphone and challenged the Pride Center on its decision to honor two controversial figures with its "Icon" award.

Christopher and Teinamarrie Scuderi, longtime LGBT advocates, drew fire in 2011 for their response to an incident involving a transgender person who was forced to remove makeup while trying to procure a state ID.

Although Gnade originally said the board would not withdraw the award, on May 8 the Utah Pride Center in a Facebook post said the Scuderis—in a show of unity—declined to accept the honor.

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