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We're Here, We're Queer, We're All Tied Up in Knots

Ron Russell | May 14, 2013 | Story Politics

This was supposed to be the summer that the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee emerged from its prolonged funk. Supporters say that the group has turned the corner on the worst of its financial struggles, including a $225,000 debt in 2010. Gone is any lingering talk at City Hall about possibly finding a different organizer for the event. And in new chief executive Earl Plante, hired last December after a stellar career leading numerous nonprofits, SF Pride appears to have landed a suitable candidate to address criticism that it has strayed from its roots.

This was also supposed to be the summer that the gay community was galvanized by the Supreme Court decisions on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. If the rulings (expected sometime next month) went as the community hopes, Pride weekend would unleash an outpouring of joy unseen in the city since Gavin Newsom legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. And if the justices disappointed, Pride would provide, at the very least, a venue for cathartic outrage.

Then Bradley Manning happened.

Manning is the imprisoned army private accused of leaking national security secrets to the WikiLeaks website, making him a traitor to some and a heroic martyr to others. He faces trial by court martial in Maryland this month, with the prospect that he could spend the rest of his life in prison. He also happens to be gay. And the brouhaha that arose when he was selected as a grand marshal—albeit in absentia—for the June 30 parade, only to be unceremoniously dumped less than 48 hours later, has divided SF Pride supporters like nothing else in the event’s 43-year history.

In abruptly announcing in April (via Facebook) that Manning’s nomination had been “a mistake and should never have been allowed to happen,” SF Pride board president Lisa Williams didn’t just remove the former intelligence officer; she vilified him, stating that his actions had “placed in harm’s way the lives of our men and women in uniform—and countless others, military and civilian alike.” She said that an unnamed staffer had prematurely notified Manning’s representative of the selection and that the staffer “had been disciplined,” even though the organization had notified Manning that he had been chosen by the group’s “electoral college” of former grand marshals.

To further confuse matters, after the Facebook post unleashed a wave of angry rebuttals, Williams and Plante dropped out of sight for days amid the uproar. Their dodging of public scrutiny in the midst of the group’s worst PR crisis in memory only deepened the mystery about what had happened and who was responsible. In fact, many SF Pride insiders were surprised by Williams’s screed. “Her response and the way the Pride leadership disappeared seem so out of character that a lot of people don't know what to think," says Joey Cain, a former board president who nominated Manning for the grand marshal honor.

Not unexpectedly, given grumbles in recent years over SF Pride’s increasing reliance on corporate help to balance its annual $1.7 million budget, many suspected that the about-face might have been due to pressure from one or more of its corporate sponsors, among them Bank of America, Wells Fargo, AT&T, Bud Light, and Clear Channel Media. Indeed, SF Pride has ventured even further onto mainstream turf under Plante, with plans for an LGBT speaker series at the Commonwealth Club this summer and, in the fall, a food and wine tasting at the W Hotel.

There was little doubt, however, about the pressure coming from another quarter: Ever since Manning’s name surfaced, LGBT members of the military (current and former) deluged SF Pride’s Market Street headquarters with phone calls and emails opposed to his selection. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Sean Sala of San Diego, a gay ex-navy operations specialist and blogger who helped “get the word out” within the American Military Partner Association, which serves LGBT military families and others.

To add insult to injury (or, more accurately, injury to insult), Plante finally emerged days after the imbroglio started, claiming that he had been hospitalized after slipping and hitting his head. In a phone conversation with San Francisco, he admitted that “mistakes were made,” but asserted that he’d had nothing to do with the decision to revoke Manning’s invitation. He was adamant, however, that the decision would stand, echoing the SF Pride board’s latest rationale for its earlier stance: Because Manning doesn’t reside in San Francisco, he is disqualified under Pride’s bylaws from serving as a community grand marshal. Plante also told the magazine that the disciplined staffer, whom he refused to name (but whom several sources identified as SF Pride veteran Joshua Smith), had been fired.

If true, Plante’s claims may only inflame passions further, adding fuel to the gay community’s smoldering unease about the future of SF Pride itself. Besides being annoyed by the sloppy way the affair was handled, many Pride die-hards complain that political correctness is threatening to overtake an event long rooted in rebellion. “If you think about all the people who could be considered offensive, the list is as long as the parade itself,” says Calvin Gipson, one of at least four former SF Pride presidents opposed to Manning’s removal.

Others, including activist Gary Virginia, who served as a grand marshal last year, say that the organization’s credibility is at stake. “If Pride’s leadership is going to screw up something like this,” he says, “how can we expect them to manage a two-day celebration that draws a million people?” Virginia and others also worry about damage to SF Pride’s image and future fundraising.

Indeed, the Manning debacle couldn’t have come at a worse time for SF Pride, a mere four months after the arrival of a new leader who everyone hoped would lift the group’s profile and morale. “It’s just really a disappointment,” says Cain, who was part of the search committee that brought Plante in to work under board president Williams. “What impressed me about Earl was his broader political understanding that LGBT issues go beyond gay marriage and gays in the military and include social equality and economic justice. In short, he sounded like the kind of guy who would never let this happen.”

Although Williams caught the brunt of the early criticism, and her name alone was attached to the press release doubling back on Manning’s appointment, Plante’s role has also left SF Pride supporters scratching their heads. Although the new director reportedly took bereavement leave around the time that the controversy erupted (just before his alleged accident), a source close to Pride says that he was still conducting at least some organizational business.

In any case, many in the gay community have let it be known that they won’t be happy with anything less than Manning’s reinstatement as a grand marshal, something that Pride’s leaders have now resolutely taken off the table. “It’s incredibly disheartening and shameful,” says Rainey Reitman, cofounder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, which claims to have raised more than $1 million to cover the soldier’s legal defense.

Their frustrations will be voiced at this year’s parade by none other than Daniel Ellsberg, whose leaks of the Pentagon Papers hastened the end of the Vietnam War. The 82-year-old activist has pledged to march in Manning’s honor, and Manning supporters have vowed to wear T-shirts showing solidarity.

It could present yet another embarrassment for the organization: a Pride parade in protest of a Pride parade.

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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