We tried to find out how Noho Pride sold out
MOD BEHRENS and JULES MARSH
Northampton Pride had its 37th celebration this year, funded and sponsored by businesses not limited to but including MassMutual, TD Bank, Country Nissan, and Whole Foods. In addition, we learned that one of the vendors at this year’s Noho Pride, Wrap It Up, sold a confederate flag hat in a booth at the fairgrounds. Northampton is a town which prides itself on a thriving queer scene, but Chamber of Commerce driven rhetoric portraying Northampton as a New England gay hotspot has masked a growing disconnect between what is profitable and what represents its residents.
Over the past decade as LGBTQ+-friendly “pink capitalism” has become mainstream, the events which used to celebrate queer revolution have become both sanitized and promotional. Big cities spend millions to host business-friendly parades draped in rainbows, and often claim that corporate sponsorship offsets the cost of Pride events. In the documentary Pride Denied: Homonationalism & the Future of Queer Politics, responding to the commodification of Toronto Pride, Canadian writer, performer, and poet Nicki Ward states, “You don’t need corporate support to get a bunch of people together to walk down the street. It’s just not necessary.” Her point cuts through the claim that Pride parades need business backing to exist.
Noho Pride is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that exists exclusively to raise and spend funds in order to plan and conduct the Northampton Pride parade. On their “Get To Know Us” page, the organization shares its mission statement: “To foster events that honor the integrity, history and diversity of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer community and to focus on education, awareness, and unity among LGBTQ+/allied communities.” Directly below this statement, ten team members, who appear to all be white, are featured. While Northampton may have been making a statement with it’s queer-centered events thirty years ago, the “inclusivity,” it seems, serves businesses interests more than the parade’s historically radical aims.
By speaking with Ben Power, who oversees the Sexual Minorities Archive in Holyoke and Zemorah Tevah, who has done extensive research on Noho Pride, we learned about Noho Pride’s involvement with InterPride. In 2007, Noho Pride joined InterPride, an international organization, which states: “InterPride’s mission is empowering pride organizations worldwide.” (It appears that the nine Executive Board members of Interpride are also all white.) Membership includes a large array of benefits, from discounted conference registrations to discounted T-Shirts and other promotional products that, along with membership dues, cost money, and when purchased, give Interpride a piece of the sale. For instance, Interpride hawks Love & Bubbles, a Swedish producer of Brut and Rosé Brut champagne. It encourages local Pride orgs to develop relationships with international beverage providers, stating, “The benefit for our members, is an opportunity to work with an alternative beverage provider who supports the LGBT community, and who would like to establish a relationship with you!”
By joining InterPride, Noho Pride accepts the premise that a Pride organization must make purchases and thus requires sponsors. As Zemorah Tovah points out in Before We Fought, Now We Celebrate: A Critical Queer History of Northampton’s Annual Pride March, “The assumption that a Pride event requires rainbow flags and t-shirts seems benign on the surface, but is actually quite revealing when critically examined; it exposes the extent to which LGBT identities and the circulation of capital have become inextricably linked.” And according to Power, “Noho Pride became homogenized into the marketing-oriented model encouraged by the international Interpride organization when Noho Pride became a member of Interpride and sent its owners to Interpride conferences to learn how to be a ‘successful’ Pride financially. That means putting on a more costly event and having to pay for it, becoming a city travel promotion event, making bigger bucks from participating banks, realtors, health care industry, other products and services, as well as allying itself with city government and the police department.”
The website for the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, for example, puts emphasis on LGBTQ+ tourism as a driving economic factor, including a link for “LGBT Visitors,” which brings you to a page describing Hampshire County as a gay paradise: “This is a place that puts you at ease unlike anywhere else,” it says. “This is the laid-back, gay and lesbian-friendly life you always knew was possible. Maybe one day, every small town will be this welcoming.” But who specifically is being welcomed and why? Who is the intended audience, when cops are hired to police the crowd and confederate flag hats are being sold at an event supposedly centered around diversity?
Whole Foods, a sponsor of Northampton Pride, illuminates how Pride’s radical legacy has been watered-down. Their website’s “Pride” section seems more focused on corporate promotion than queer advocacy, yet it does at least mention the Stonewall riots, which is more than Noho Pride’s web page, that does not mention Stonewall, can say, and is more than the Daily Hampshire Gazette managed to do in their Pride reporting this year.
The 1969 rebellion at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn was the biggest turning point in the 20th century LGBTQ+ rights movement, when members of the community rioted against the NYPD during an attempted raid. This was led by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of color, and involved sex workers, houseless people, and others who were targets of police violence during a time when homosexuality was criminalized. A year later, in 1970, the first Pride parades began taking place in big cities all over the country, directly influenced by the fight for their rights which had taken place in New York. In recent years (as homosexuality and trans-ness have become a tool for corporate promotion and a way for cities—and illiberal countries, like Israel—to congratulate themselves on progressive politics) the story of Stonewall has fallen further from the public consciousness. What’s left has been distorted to remove the pieces which do not fit the modern narrative promoted by governments and businesses who want a financial reward for their inclusivity. Now the same police forces who once raided communal safe spaces are commissioned for crowd control to make sure our revolution stays non-violent and non-threatening to those in power.
This year’s May 5th parade was a reminder that Pride in Western Massachusetts has become more about an image than anything politically valuable: an opportunity to drape shop windows with rainbow feather boas, flags and flaunt our “Lesbianville, USA” title while ignoring systemic local issues that affect other minorities such as POC, sex workers, the houseless population and even trans people. Though sexworkers were allowed to march in this year’s parade, what are the sponsor’s of Noho Pride doing to contribute to the liberation of sex work from state oppression and surveillance? It’s hard to believe this is the same event which was put together for free as a protest in 1982, when the parade included the UMass Labor & Relations Center, a local Committee on El Salvador and featured anti-war and anti-racism activists as speakers. This year, Mayor Narkewicz, who is straight to the best of our knowledge and doesn’t always have a progressive track record, read a proclamation in support of the LGBTQ+ community, according to The Gazette.
The truth is that though we know that we did not feel comfortable attending the Noho Pride parade this year, we realized we don’t know that much about Noho Pride as an organization. In an attempt to learn more about the way Noho Pride spends its money and the way decisions are made in 2018, The Shoestring reached out to the organization so that we could better better understand its operations from the people who run it. We also contacted the Northampton Police Department, the Chamber of Commerce, and a number of local businesses to learn more about their involvement and how they stand to monetarily benefit from a corporate sponsored local Pride parade.
We were able to learn a little bit about the finances of the company through our own research. According to its non-profit tax documents, Noho Pride raises approximately $45,000 a year and the president, secretary, and treasurer of the organization do not receive any payment for their work via the money the organization raises. (Here are the orgs 990 forms for the years 2014, 2015, 2016.) Its sponsors are listed on its webpage and it doesn’t take much time to do the math and figure out how much each sponsor gave to the organization.
Whole Foods, a business owned by Amazon and a Pride sponsor, has been known to sell goods made with prison labor in the past. TD Bank, a green level sponsor ($2,500 donation) for this year’s Pride, gave $10.5million in 2016 to fund the GEO Group (according to In The Public Interest), one of the two largest for-profit private prison companies in the US, whose prisons have shown staggering rates of sexual assault from employees and poor or nonexistent medical care for those with mental disabilities, among other issues rampant across the corrupted private prison system. When Shoestring co-editor Will Meyer called TD Bank to complain about their funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an employee said that while he appreciated Meyer’s concern, TD is involved in supporting the communities they serve, including outreach to the LGBTQ+ community. What the website, and the organization don’t reveal, is the process by which Noho Pride decides to to have sponsors and which sponsors and vendors make the cut. Is there a company Noho Pride wouldn’t do business with?
The one person who answered our inquiry was Police Chief Jody Kasper, who revealed that the NPD was paid $4,317.50 to provide,“15 traffic and security details and one event supervisor to assist with road closures and signage, divert traffic, ensure the safety and security of participants and bystanders, and to address any issues that may arise” at this year’s Pride Parade. Yet, many queers, especially queers of color, do not feel safe or secure around cops. As the NYC chapter of Black Lives Matter stated in 2016, “Stonewall, was a radical statement that the foundation of safety is organized community and not the police.” And as BreakOUT!, a New Orleans based group that envisions a city where transgender, gender non-conforming, and queer youth of color can live without fear of harassment and discrimination, after withdrawing from the New Orleans Pride due to police presence in 2016, stated: “As a community we must be willing and determined to chart a course forward that doesn’t rely on state systems, but rather community, to keep us safe.”
The rest of our inquiries went unanswered…sort of.
After not receiving a response to our initial email to email@example.com and after leaving four messages with Syd Bear, the contact provided by the Noho Pride website, we reached out to an online queer forum to find out how we could talk with someone from Noho Pride. Someone suggested we get in touch with JM Sorrell, who we learned is the media spokesperson for Noho Pride. The Noho Pride website does not provide JM’s email, so we Googled them, got their email and began what would become a bizarre and sad exchange.
Through email, we asked JM if we could email them questions and offered to meet in person if that would be better for them. In response, they told us that they only answer questions about Pride leading up to the event and that they could answer questions for us next year, a policy which the organization neglects to mention on their “Contact Us” webpage (and invites questions and comments if one desires “more information on [the] event”). We responded that we had important questions about this year’s parade and past pride parades, specifically about how they are funded and who that benefits as well as who it might exclude. In response to that email, J.M. said that we “seemed uncertain about pride” and proceeded to tell us about Noho Pride’s history (in which they did not include Stonewall). They told us that if we wanted things to change that we should join a committee, “If you have concerns about programming or inclusion, my best advice to you is to get involved next year.” And though we did not ask for their advice on anything, they offered us some saying: “Want an ally? Be an ally.”
Despite the fact that they refused to answer any of our questions, they told us, “As I mentioned, it is a fluid organization with a clear mission to serve the needs of our community. Inclusion is a core principle within the context of unity.” And went on to encourage us to think of the bigger picture, “Given the larger, often hostile world we live in, it is essential that we work together to create this annual event.” We responded that we are queer journalists who have some questions for Noho Pride (if indeed Noho Pride is available to answer questions from someone in the queer community.) We did not receive a response.
While we don’t know exactly where all of Noho Pride’s money goes or how those decision are made, the volunteer section of their website makes clear that they need the unpaid labor of those who are not board members to make their parade run and that they will accept a diversity of types of people to offer up their unpaid labor:
Ever wanted to help run a parade? You can at Noho Pride! Ever wanted to work on a stage crew to help pull off the perfect show? You can do it as a volunteer! We need volunteers to help with running the stage and green room, selling merchandise, setting up, taking down and many other areas! You’re sure to have a great time!
We encourage people of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, physical abilities, religious beliefs, ages, sexes or educational backgrounds to join us in creating exceptional events in the Western Mass area.
We also wrote to Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Beck with a few questions regarding the Chamber’s involvement in the Panhandling Work Group as well as a few questions regarding Northampton Pride’s effect on local economy. Since small business owners have been a loud driving force in local policy, we were curious if there was a relation between the renewed focus on solicitation and the quickly upcoming Pride festivities. Though she initially responded that she would get back to us within days, we never heard back from Beck.
The lack of transparency and accountability from Noho Pride, an organization that claims to represent the queer community, is shameful. There is a logic perpetuated in Northampton that we have it so good as queer people, that we should shut up and not ask for more. Don’t we know that queer people used to march in Noho Pride with bags over their heads?
But when our local Pride organization excludes Stonewall from our queer local history, it is participating in the erasure of black trans women in our history and in our community. Despite Noho Pride’s condemnation of the occurrence 24 days after it happened, when a vendor is selling a confederate hat at this year’s Pride festival, there is something very very wrong. And when our so-called progressive, inclusive Pride organization, instead of answering questions about their operations, asks us to help them raise corporate profits with our free queer labor, it is a damn shame. Neither of us went to Pride this year, but maybe next year we will with bags over our heads.
To read our full email exchanges with Noho Pride the Northampton Chamber of Commerce click here.
The Shoestring will continue it’s investigation of Noho Pride and the incident in which a Confederate hat was sold at this year’s parade.
Mod Behrens, whose last piece for The Shoestring was “How Musicians are Responding to the Opioid Crisis,” dropped out of college to write about music and social inequity. A former DIY booker, current roadkill chef and self-proclaimed astrological expert, he lives in Northampton.
Jules Marsh is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton, MA.
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