I recently got “schooled” by a young gay teenager about the history of LGBT pride here in Los Angeles. This bright eager mind told me what he had found by Googling the history of Pride. He told me how Stonewall happened in New York City in June of 1969 when drag queens rebelled against the New York Police Department – and then how one year later – LA had a Pride protest march in 1970 on Hollywood Boulevard. And then it got moved later to Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood where it was held for the next 50 years.
I corrected him. I said “No, it wasn’t actually a protest. It was a parade”- put on first by the MCC Church and then by Christopher Street West. He indignantly declared “that’s not what it says on Google”. I smiled and patiently replied, “Well one of the founders – the Rev. Troy Perry – founder of the MCC churches told the late Morris Kight that they should have a parade – a celebration – rather than a protest march”. He said “who told you that?”. I said “Reverend Troy did – and he repeated it to me earlier this year”. His eyes got wide and he asked “is he still alive?” I laughed. Yes my dear. The Reverend Troy Perry and his husband Philip are both very much alive and living in Silver Lake!”
He asked more questions. It was like I told him I knew “Yoda” or “Moses” or some other historical figure that didn’t seem like a real person. Then it occurred to me – how blessed am I to have lived and witnessed LGBT history from the 1970’s to modern day. And not only served as an eye witness – but as an active participant in the work.
Fast forward to 2022 – West Hollywood is having its first Inaugural Pride – without the partnership with Christopher Street West – for the first time. This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because my former council colleague John D’Amico and I demanded that the annual celebration be put out to bid. Christopher Street West was welcome to bid on producing the parade/festival. But we wanted to see what else was possible. John D’Amico and I came up with some good ideas that we jointly sponsored over the years (Dog Parks in West Hollywood Park, the Pick Up Line nighttime shuttle, animal welfare laws). We also had some klunkers (like Go Go dancer appreciation day. Sounded like fun. Didn’t take off anywhere).
But this was a good one. The idea of putting Pride out for a bid didn’t come out of thin air. It came out of a long history of West Hollywood serving as a creative kettle for the advancement of LGBT equality. We weren’t just any city in America. We were a city with the highest concentration of LGBT people for the longest period of time. Usually 40% of the city’s population over the past 50+ years. We were not just a supportive City. We were the content creators for all things good LGBT over the decades. Christopher Street West was growing stale. And it was flailing about with an identity crisis. I had seen many Presidents of CSW over the years (the late Joe Toy, Gary Jonker, Bob Craig and Steve Gazell). And I had watched the inspired leadership of Rodney Scott and Madonna Cacciatori. But the young and new leadership at CSW did not appear to be anchored in history or tradition. And as such, it was floating about like a jellyfish tossed in the sea.
I wasn’t here when the City was incorporated in 1984. Individuals like John Heilman, Ruth Williams, Larry Gross, Steve Martin, Abbe Land, Steve Schulte and others were here for those early days. I was living down in Laguna Beach when the city was formed. I got a chance to meet Steve Schulte and John Heilman in 1985 when they told me about the new gay Camelot they were creating along with Mayor Valerie Terrigno. The first City in America to have a gay majority on council!
They were doing pioneer work. First domestic partnership ordinance in the USA. First city to talk about marriage equality. First city with anti discrimination on HIV status. It was ground breaking work that John Heilman and Steve Schulte were pushing forward. After the local chapter of the White Aryan Resistance put a swastika on my law office door in 1989 (for doing AIDS work and gay rights legal work) – I was ready to join this new venture and moved to West Hollywood permanently in 1990.
West Hollywood has always been a place where non conformity was celebrated. For over 100 years long before the City was formed. Where one could be unique and different. Where we didn’t have to figure out how to fit in. This appealed to me. I wanted to test the limits of what was possible in a place that had spawned the Rat Pack, Jimmy Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Hippies and punk rock and all types of counter culture.
And yet. While testing the outer boundaries of the culture, we were also fighting for principles that required seeking common ground with others. Was it possible to maintain our queer uniqueness AND simultaneously use the legislative process in Sacramento to be treated “just like everyone else” with no discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations? It was quite the challenge. How to be our own unique cultural identity – while figuring out how we fit into the American traditional virtues of equality, liberty and freedom of speech and expression.
In the midst of those struggles – we had to take on the huge burden of fighting the AIDS epidemic. Often just by ourselves. Gay men remain deeply indebted to the lesbian sisters and straight allies who picked up the yoke with us to save ourselves from despair and annihilation. This wasn’t just text book stories for us. These were our life stories. We paid with our tears, pain and sweat. And we believed that we could create a New World where the next generations would NOT have to suffer the indignity of the closet or secret lives or hatred that we had endured. That it might be possible to live openly without any secrets about our relationships, about our sexuality, about our life choices.
I sometimes watch the current battles over the colors of the rainbow flag or the use of pronouns and shake my head in bewilderment. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – we didn’t have the dubious luxury of dissent and differences. We were under attack by the churches, by the US Military, by the courts and by the governments – both federal and state. It wasn’t really a time to debate how unique or different we were – at least not from or with one another. I didn’t really give a damn what your politics dictated or whether you were a traditionalist or a conservative or a sexual libertine or radical. The only question was “what can you do to help? Who did you know? How would we change not only the laws – but also the American culture to not just tolerate us – but to fully accept that gay was good!
And we did that. We passed the laws. We integrated into the military. We achieved marriage equality and recognition of our relationships. And we made it possible for us to be anything we wanted to be – drag queen, sports figure, clergy member – or even US Secretary of Transportation.
I worry about the future of our nation and world. It’s a country now where one finds value in how many “likes” we get on Facebook. Or how many followers we have on Twitter or Instagram. Or how we show up on Tik Tok or Snapchat or Reality Shows. What about merit? Achievement? Hard work? Study? Building community? Helping others? The good old fashioned American values and virtues were being replaced by a strange Narcissistic society where value is obtained in approval from strangers, in make believe worlds, social media outlets or other faux realities. What about the current actual reality?
Here is the Truth – there are hard right wing forces out there who wish to have our existence eliminated. Not in concentration camps (although some wouldn’t object to that). But annihilation of our culture and community by making us invisible once again. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in the Deep South of the USA. It is happening severely in the Republican party which now includes Proud Boys, Neo-Nazis and Christian Nationalists.
But there is also extreme intolerance on the left which demands that we must all adhere by the strict notions of how we should think, what we should believe and how we must use language and expression. I am all for making sure to respect transgender community members with the pronouns they wish to be addressed by. But please do not mandate that I must also select pronouns or an identity that is dependent upon your point of view.
If you demand equality, then you must extend it.
If you demand diversity and tolerance, then you must practice it. Especially with those that you vehemently disagree with. The cruelest form of intolerance is to demand that everyone be just like me! Yes. Be free and unique. But understand that there are other notions of the “Good Life” out there that you may find reprehensible. But if you are asking to “ be free to be me” – then we must allow others to also be free as they see fit.
We once dreamed of creating a world where our people could flourish in all of their unique creativity and outrageousness. But we never dreamed about dictating one world view – according to our side and to hell with yours!
The world around us is growing intolerant and cruel again. It’s hard to watch and exist in this reality without feeling anxiety and fear. But maybe it is all about starting local and keeping it simple. Maybe Pride can be many different things to many different people. Without judgment or critique. I plan on being at the festival and parade this year. Like I have every year since 1979 (except for the two COVID years). Maybe it will look the same. Maybe there will be something new I haven’t seen before. I see the progress pride flags. Good for you! As for me – I cherish the old rainbow flag. Not designed around concepts of racial division or difference. But designed by my old pal the late Gilbert Baker – who chose the symbol known the world over as the rainbow after a storm. As light broken up into its many parts when life giving water is added. But which ultimately stands for hope over despair. Light over shadow. And a day after the turmoil……..
How odd that over 40 + years I now find myself advocating for tradition and time tested virtues when I once was about radically turning over the old outdated ideas that imprisoned me. Maybe that’s what the young ones at pride are doing today. Challenging the old ideas that they feel shackle them. So be it. I was young and idealistic also. But with decades of experiences, a new serenity settles in. That there is a time to every Season. And a reason to be. And I don’t need to compare or contrast it with anyone else. Just going to Let It Be.
Happy Pride Weho. Your past is glorious. Your happy days are now. And the best days lie ahead. It’s all going to be alright. I am really not the old guy shouting “you kids get off of my lawn”. Just someone with a bit more time than many in and around this community – who realizes that the longer I exist – the less I truly know. And I am better for it. Happy Pride y’all!