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When Ronald Jason Palmieri first walked in the Los Angeles LGBT Pride parade, it was 1977, and Anita Bryant was pushing legislation across the country that legalized discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“It was a much more dangerous time,” Palmieri said. “You could lose your job much more readily for coming out, or place your family relationships at risk. Police were raiding bars, and people were harassed and physically abused. So the parades were much smaller, and far less representative of the gay community than the ones today.”
Palmieri was involved with a number of different LGBT and AIDS advocacy groups, and he continued to take part in the Pride celebrations through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when he said the parades became angrier and more politically oriented, as people demanded action from a government they felt was ignoring them.
These days, Palmieri said, Pride has become more of a social event for him. He has brunch with old friends on Santa Monica Boulevard, then watches the parade from a nearby rooftop.
“At this point, L.A. Pride is an enormous demonstration of support and power, and a wide representation of the LGBT community, with judges and mayors of multiple cities marching, businesses seeking out gay money and politicians seeking out gay votes,” Palmieri said. “All of that shows the increased awareness of gay rights, and it shows the power of gay people politically and otherwise.”
Last weekend, thousands of people — gay, straight, male, female and everyone in between — gathered at the 40th Annual L.A. Pride Festival in West Hollywood where they watched the parade, enjoyed appearances from Kelis and Russell Simmons, and donated time and money to LGBT advocacy organizations.
For many festival-goers, however, in particular younger members of the LGBT community, Pride now mostly represents an opportunity to party.
On Monday morning, many young West Hollywood residents’ Facebook walls were littered with references to hangovers and feeling sick at their desks at work. Michael Lewis, a 29-year-old African-American gay man, said he feels very differently about Pride than he does about Black History Month.
“I think there are some people doing some really great things,” Lewis said. “But for ninety percent of people who come to the festival, it’s just about hedonism, just an excuse to party and get drunk. And that’s not just in L.A. I’d say the same thing about Pride celebrations all over the country. I’m not proud of it.”
Brad Coffman, a local 28-year-old gay man, agreed that for many people, Pride was mostly about hedonism. However, he also stressed the continued importance of the event as a gathering of the LGBT community.
“I think it’s definitely about getting drunk and getting laid for most people,” Coffman said. “But I still think there’s a sect of people out there who really feel very proud to express their difference in a myriad of ways on that day. With the push for gay marriage, the focus has been on aligning with heterosexuals, and there has been a tendency to assimilate. Pride is the time of year that people are forced to see that the gay community encompasses a much wider array of difference: there are trannies and drag queens and leather daddies and threeway relationships. It’s an important time to challenge current perceptions.”
Rodney Scott, president of Christopher Street West, said that showcasing the diversity of the LGBT community is one of the primary goals of Pride.
“We are every race, creed, economic status — we’re everywhere,” Scott said. “We’re part of the fabric of California and the United States and this world, and we want to create greater visibility for the LGBT community.”
Scott also noted the cultural events that go on during pride – plays, concerts, poetry readings, roundtable discussions about gay rights. Still, he stressed that the celebration itself was a vital part of the event.
“As gay and lesbian Americans, we’re the minority,” Scott said. “Once a year, we take over the streets and we celebrate and we celebrate and we celebrate, because some of those people wake up on Monday morning and have to go to school and face the fact that they’re gay, or go to work and ask permission to display pictures of their families on their desks. Pride is an individual experience and you can celebrate in any aspect that you want.”
West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman added that not everyone enjoys the kind of acceptance that the LGBT community does in West Hollywood.
“Living in West Hollywood, sometimes we take for granted the sense of freedom we feel,” Heilman said. “People who come here from quite a distance can’t necessarily walk around with rainbow flags every day. I ran into a couple of people who are currently in the military. They were just so thankful to be able to have fun without worrying about someone wondering whether they were gay.”
In addition, Heilman noted that many people who come to the event to party often end up getting involved in other ways.
“The partying isn’t limited to the younger generation,” Heilman said. “Many people in the older generation also see Pride as an opportunity to go out and get hammered. But there are also people who go out, maybe they get drunk later, but before that they sign up for organizations at different tables, or sign up for AIDS Walk, or end up connecting with something more meaningful.”
Even some of the local bars along Santa Monica Boulevard offer history lessons. At Here Bar, on the wall behind the go-go dancer and the shirtless bartender serving beer from an ice bucket, signs labeled “Did You Know…” offered facts about the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, which inspired the annual Pride celebrations around the country.
Nick Lam, a bartender at another West Hollywood Bar, said he thought many members of the LGBT community in their 20s and 30s had some understanding of the movement’s history, since most of them had struggled to come out of the closet. He said many of the people who are just turning 21, however, have been out of the closet since they were very young, and have little understanding of the history of the LGBT movement.
Palmieri said he isn’t sure those who helped earn the rights and acceptance that the LGBT community now enjoys are fully appreciated.
“I don’t think those people are appreciated, and a lot of them are dead, to be frank,” Palmieri said. “There should probably be more written and expressed, so this generation understands how they got the freedoms they have. Every culture cherishes its heroes, but I don’t think the gay community does.”
Still, Palmerei takes great pride in how far the gay community has come since he first got involved.
“I take great pride in Pride,” he said. “Back when I started, Pride represented an opportunity to declare that I had rights at a time when those rights were being severely denied, and it was one of the only more safe venues, being surrounded by a lot of other people that permitted a gay man to express himself. Now, I think it represents, for those of us who did come out and march thirty-five years ago, that what we were marching for has partially been accomplished and the fight continues to go on.”
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