Opinion | Whither Pride St. Louis?

There can be little question that Pride St. Louis, Inc. is one of the most successful and visible LGBTQIA organizations currently operating in the St. Louis region. Pride St. Louis has been in existence (in some form) since 1979. In 2016, the annual PrideFest, with its iconic Pride Parade, attracted a quarter million visitors to downtown St. Louis. Over fall and winter 2016, the organization established a new Pride Center at its offices in The Grove. Its 2015 annual budget exceeded $600K. Yet, despite these successes, Pride St. Louis continues to attract criticism that has not always been successfully or sensitively addressed by its Board of Directors. Given the current success and budget of the organization, it appears time to give serious thought to community concerns lest they hamper the organization’s growth or, worse, lead to its demise. As Pride St. Louis expands its mission to encompass an urgently needed new community center—the fourth such iteration in St. Louis—the stakes of failure are even greater.

- Financial transparency. Pride St. Louis is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The IRS does not require (but strongly encourages) such organizations to issue annual reports (describing an organization’s mission, activities and goals), along with audited financial statements showing assets, liabilities, income, expenses, and current financial position. Such reports demonstrate that an organization is managed in a financially responsible manner which, in turn, inspires confidence among potential donors, foundations, and granting agencies. They are standard practice at non-profit organizations. Yet, none are available via the Pride St. Louis website. Instead, the website states that financial information is available on request but that requests may entail copying and postage costs. When I requested an annual report with audited financials, the Pride St. Louis Board Secretary could not provide them. The one financial document available (IRS Form 990 “Public Disclosure”) was a year out of date and nearly illegible. The absence of annual financial reports and creation of unnecessary barriers to accessing what should be public information does not mean Pride St. Louis is untrustworthy or mismanaged. However, it does raise questions about the organization’s commitment to financial transparency. That will hamper its ability to attract grants and other funding to support the new Pride Center and other Pride St. Louis activities.

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- Board diversity. A frequently voiced criticism is the lack of diversity on the Pride St. Louis Board of Directors. “Diversity” means more than just visible traits or characteristics, and the board is more diverse than might initially appear. But there is a stunning lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity on the current board. There appear to be only two women and one African-American currently serving (the region is 20% African-American; the City of St. Louis is 50% African-American). Lack of board diversity may help explain a certain tone-deafness to issues of race and class in Pride St. Louis activities, reflected in a militarized police presence in the 2016 Pride Parade, the depoliticization of the Pride Parade, and fundraising events held at elite venues (like Plaza Frontenac and Grand Center). Some board members have asserted that applicants for board seats are simply not more diverse. However, the inability of Pride St. Louis to attract a more diverse leadership raises questions about the inclusiveness of its mission, activities, current leadership, and organizational culture. Are under-represented groups and leaders being invited to participate in already-existing efforts? Or are they being invited to help shape the organization’s activities so they truly reflect and serve the entire community? Without a more diverse board and group of volunteers, Pride St. Louis risks being seen as a project largely by and for middle-class, white, gay men.

- Erasure of LGBTQIA people. Pride St. Louis’ marketing, promotion, and communication materials are very inconsistent in their inclusion of the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” and “queer.” In fact, all these words were missing from the October 24, 2016 announcement of the 2017 PrideFest dates and theme (though the undefined acronym “LGBTQIA+” was included at the bottom in the organization’s mission statement). Pride parades originated in the early 1970s to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots. They were an intentional strategy to claim political power through courageous acts of individual and collective visibility in public spaces—something unthinkable for lesbians and gays in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Pride parades were never just an excuse to throw a festive street party. And they certainly weren’t about “VIP experiences” or creating pink-washing opportunities for “presenting” corporate sponsors.They were about the right of sexual and gender minorities to exist freely and openly in public spaces. As current efforts to curtail transgender people’s rights to access bathrooms (concordant with their gender identities) indicate, the right of LGBTQIA people to exist in public should never be taken for granted. The absence or erasure of the proper names of the very people Pride St. Louis claims to serve and represent suggests the organization has forgotten its roots and may have lost its way…

Some of these problems stem from the entirely volunteer make-up of Pride St. Louis and its Board of Directors. However, the production of annual reports with audited financials could easily be sought as an in-kind donation from one of the area’s large accounting firms. This would be aided by hiring a part-time staff person to help with record keeping, communications, and logistics, especially in the months leading up to PrideFest.

It would also not be difficult to re-center LGBTQIA people (and the proper nouns that describe them!) on the organization’s website and other communications. Vague terms like “pride” and “community” cannot be allowed to replace words like “transgender” and “lesbian.” But this needs to be accompanied by some serious organizational soul-searching about the mission, goals, and activities of Pride St. Louis. The history and inherently political nature of queers occupying public space seems to have been lost amid a flurry of self-congratulations at the success of recent PrideFests and Pride parades.

The lack of board diversity is likely a multi-year challenge that may require tapping the knowledge and experience of other area non-profits that have struggled with this issue. It may also require an openness to reshaping Pride St. Louis and its activities to better reflect the interests, priorities, and needs of the region’s entire LGBTQIA community, not just those who show up to lead it. But until its board of directors looks more like the community it claims to represent and serve, the legitimacy, representativeness, and future of Pride St. Louis will be in doubt.

Mike Murphy is an Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is a graduate of Washington University and has lived in St. Louis since 1995.