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Brokeback Festival: How Financial Mismanagement Marched Pride to Brink of Disaster 

Wednesday, May 4 2011

When the troupe of tracksuited drag kings launched into a thumping Marky Mark cover, this much grew clear: It was going to be one hell of a party. Ice cubes clinked in cocktails as men and women in matching gowns grooved to the good vibrations. Mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty threw his hands in the air like he just didn't care and danced like nobody was watching. It was last year's San Francisco Pride "40 and Fabulous" gala. And everything was, well, fabulous.

And then the bill arrived.

A birthday is reason enough for a party, but Pride had additional motivation: It needed to bring in the big bucks. Former Pride board members claim they'd been assured the gala's hundreds of attendees would provide tens of thousands of much-needed dollars. But Pride managed to lose funds on its fundraiser. Throwing spectacular, well-attended events — and losing money prodigiously — has become a recurring Pride motif. By the end of last year, the nonprofit that runs San Francisco's massive yearly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender parade and festival was deeply broke.

Worse yet, it didn't even know it was broke — while comatose at the fiscal wheel, its board and staff didn't realize they'd veered sharply into the red until the organization outspent its revenue by nearly 25 percent. Pride spent at levels far exceeding the prior year. The organization then blithely doubled its paid staff, right as revenue slowed to a trickle.

In the months since, Pride has also experienced a leadership exodus befitting a Central American junta. Its dysfunctional board has burned through four presidents in eight months. Virtually none of the organization's full-time employees returned after being furloughed. With Pride weekend looming on June 25 and 26, newly installed interim executive director Brendan Behan has been forced to assume the role of a fiscal battlefield medic. He's charged with stopping Pride's bleeding — with a tourniquet if needed — and pulling off this year's event, despite being $160,000 in debt.

No one SF Weekly spoke with said this year's parade and festival wouldn't happen. The permits have all been granted; the actual staging of the event is handled by veteran, professional contractors; and — come what may — some 1 million revelers will flock downtown on the last weekend in June, fully expecting to eat, drink, and be gay (or at least gay-friendly).

But after the main stage is dismantled and the last eventgoer heads home to Duluth, Peoria, or the Outer Sunset, the world-famous festival may change drastically. Both of San Francisco's openly gay supervisors have stated that Pride must be placed under new management — whether it likes it or not. "Pride is an organization that is no longer viable," David Campos says. "We have tried to be helpful. We've given them the benefit of the doubt. But you do reach a point where you have to fish or cut bait."

Adds Scott Wiener, "We're seeing an organization that has really atrophied. ... This is a good opportunity for us to take Pride to the next step and align it with a stronger organization." Both supes noted that government intervention could be necessary, as Pride belongs to no organization or individual, but to the community. Pride's attorney, however, notes that "the community" hasn't trademarked the phrase "SF Pride."

Yet this debate — along with notions of "governance" or "cost recovery" — means little to the throngs that attend San Francisco's free yearly event. For them, regardless of who's running the show, Pride offers an opportunity to openly and unabashedly live their lives the way they see fit. Or, less altruistically, to have a killer weekend. Either way, they're coming — and so is their money. From humble origins, Pride has grown into a multimillion-dollar cash cow for San Francisco businesses — the organization's in-house surveys calculate it brings $80 million to $100 million into the city. In 2006, the Convention & Visitors Bureau honored Pride with its annual Silver Cable Car award for contributions to the city's "visitor industry" (fellow winners include Fisherman's Wharf, Willie Mays, and, yes, sourdough bread).

But Pride doesn't just bring money in — it also doles it out. The festival has given more than $1.7 million since 1997, and serves as a vital payday for area nonprofits benefiting from the event's philanthropic largess. Put bluntly, there's too much money in Pride for it to cease; it really is too big to fail, even if the organization putting it on does. But what the festival will look like in years to come — and what defines "success" — is as clear as a pint of Guinness.

In 1978 — the same year Harvey Milk paraded down the street wearing a floral necklace and a mile-wide grin — Gilbert Baker asked for some money. He got it.

The artist was awarded $1,000 from the parade committee of what was then called Gay Freedom Day, and acquired spectacular quantities of multicolored cotton fabric. Working with teams of volunteers at the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove St. (don't look for it, it's not there anymore) Baker crafted two 30-by-60-foot rainbow flags, creating what is now a worldwide icon. Asked whether the first flags are still around, he laughs. They weren't built to last. They're long gone. So, too, are the smaller and more homespun Gay Freedom Day celebrations, when tens of thousands of attendees might end the day with a picnic — or a "gay-in" — at the park.

Pride is now attended by millions, and funded via hefty sponsorships from mainstream corporations. Virtually every elected official — the treasurer! the public defender! — rolls down the street in gorgeous automobiles. Revelers take in concerts from the Backstreet Boys or Lady Gaga and wander amid more than two dozen gay-themed pavilions while sipping on ballpark-priced beers or margaritas. Milk's time feels like ages ago — because it was. Accordingly, the situation that last year revealed Pride's deep dysfunction would not have been conceivable in the era when Baker's flags were first marched through San Francisco.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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