Inside the battle over the fate & future of Los Angeles Pride

Wealth, the whiteness of West Hollywood is out of step with most LGBTQ+ Angelenos and their allies, activist says

June 6, 2022

By Christopher Kane
The Gay Community Services Center (LA LGBT Center) then at 1614 Wilshire Blvd in 1970 (Photo Credit: USC/One Archives)
WEST HOLLYWOOD – Don Kilhefner is many things: pioneering activist, Jungian psychologist and co-founder of the LA LGBT Center in Hollywood, which is now the largest facility in the world providing multiple services for LGBTQ+ people. 
When speaking by phone with The Los Angeles Blade on Friday from his bungalow in the strip between Western Hollywood and the city of West Hollywood, Kilhefner was most firmly in touch with his roots as a community organizer.
Gay Community Services Center with Executive Director Don Kilhefner (Far left), Vice President Morris Kight, Jim Kepner, June Herrle, President Martin Field, and John Platania, 1970. (Photo courtesy ©Lee Mason/ONE Archives at the USC Libraries via ‘Making Gay History’)

“It feels as if something is happening in the heart and soul of the LA LGBTQ community,” he said. “I’m smelling something larger going on."

That something might be recognizable and familiar to those like Kilhefner who survived through the early days of gay liberation, during which time the movement was perhaps at its most political. “Stonewall was a riot,” the refrain goes. (The subtext: as you’re dancing in your harness and downing vodka sodas next to the Merrill Lynch float, flanked by members of law enforcement who are there to celebrate with you, remember the LGBTQ+ rights movement was born of a riot. An uprising, a rebellion.)

This year in Los Angeles, to use the parlance of Gen. Z, Pride celebrations; ‘hit different.’ For one thing, last Sunday’s parade in West Hollywood was the first after a two-year hiatus that began with Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns in 2020. For another, next Sunday’s parade on Hollywood Boulevard will be LA Pride’s first march since it split from West Hollywood after 50 years. 

The June 5 WeHo inaugural Pride parade down Santa Monica Boulevard had a star-studded lineup. Janelle Monáe was grand marshal. Cardi B sprayed whipped cream into parade goers’ mouths. YouTuber Jojo Siwa, clad in a rainbow-covered vest, danced on a float with girlfriend Kylie Prew. Attendees might have thought it similar to 2018’s celebration, which was headlined by Kehlani and Tove Lo and featured other artists such as Eve, Keri Hilson, Kim Petras and Icona Pop. 

Kilhefner noted one departure, though, from years past. The City of West Hollywood and its powerful Chamber of Commerce enlisted an event coordinator for Pride 2022 – JJLA, a live event and digital production agency, in a move that he stressed was intended to maximize the amount of money attendees would throw down in West Hollywood’s bars, restaurants, hotels and shops. 

WeHo, said the self-described gay tribal elder, “doesn’t look or feel like LA. It doesn’t have the racial or class makeup.” And over the years, Pride has “changed from a vibrant community-based celebration to a celebration that is now based on the wealth of West Hollywood’s residents and powerful business community.” The effect of hosting Pride in the city, as was done for decades, is analogous to an anti-poverty march through Beverly Hills, Kilhefner said. 

The parade’s return to Hollywood Boulevard is not just a symbolic rejection of the idea that a community comprised predominantly of wealthy and white gay men should be the nexus of Pride celebrations, Kilhefner said. 

It is also – regardless of what might have been behind the schism from West Hollywood – an acknowledgment of the very specific socio-political-cultural moment in which we find ourselves, the activist told the Blade. As the country grapples with another reckoning on polarizing issues concerning race and class, younger generations are leading the charge to make Pride more inclusive and more political as well as less moneyed and less corporatized, he explained. 

As Kilhefner writes in a forthcoming essay;

“L.A. Pride must also keep the other eye on moving our history forward by creating a PRIDE celebration in Los Angeles that looks like the LGBTQ community here—with all its international flair and exquisite racial and cultural features on display; with all its socioeconomic classes welcomed and feeling like it’s their PRIDE too; with L.A.’s gay north meeting gay south and L.A.’s gay east meeting gay west; a L.A. PRIDE that says something powerful about our political/cultural awareness and who we are becoming that we can genuinely take pride in—not an anachronistic bubble defined by white entitlement and extreme wealth.”

“It’s important to point out we’re entering very perilous territory,” Kilhefner said.  With the leaked draft of the U.S. Supreme Court opinion presaging the reversal of women’s reproductive freedoms established in Roe v. Wade, it is becoming clearer that even the most hard-won rights are not irrevocable, he noted. 

It’s a lesson “that Harry Hay used to tell me,” Kilhefner said, referring to the late activist who co-founded America’s first gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, as well as the Radical Faeries movement, of which Kilhefner is also a co-founder. It is intersectional; this idea that progress can backslide, that the fight for justice and equality is ongoing in perpetuity. Black people worked at all levels of the federal government until President Woodrow Wilson came to power and imposed a form of Jim Crow segregation, eroding much of the progress toward racial justice that had been made in the decades prior, Kilhefner noted. 

Looking backward to move forward 

It is important to acknowledge the historical significance of LA’s first Pride celebration in 1970 to fully understand the importance of its return to Hollywood Boulevard this year. 

“The 1970 parade was largely created through Gay Liberation Front in LA,” Kilhefner explained. “We were contacted by leaders in the New York Gay Liberation Movement who said, ‘we think it’s important that first anniversary of Stonewall be commemorated.’” Stonewall, of course, refers to the series of riots that took place over three days in New York City’s West Greenwich Village around the mafia-owned bar, the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969 that are widely credited with inaugurating the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

LAPD Chief of Police Edward M. Davis in 1975

“We needed a permit from the Los Angeles Police Department to hold this march on Hollywood Boulevard,” Kilhefner said. Then LAPD Chief of Police Edward M. Davis refused, arguing that to do so would set a precedent obliging him to award permits to prostitutes and thieves and others engaged in lawless conduct. Kilhefner explained, “We took it to the ACLU, and eventually the judge forced the LAPD to give us a permit.”

Reporting in the Los Angeles Times turned what would have been a sparsely attended march into an mega-event with 30,000 spectators and marchers, Kilhefner chuckled. “It provided momentum to us pioneers,” allowing activists to push the gay liberation agenda from the closets to the streets – attaining a degree of visibility that was critically important for building momentum to fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights. 

The very first LA Pride parade June 1970, Hollywood Blvd (Photo credit: Archives of the Los Angeles Times)

Nearly five years after that first march, Davis was Invited to the 1975 celebrations. He declined in a letter in which he wrote, “I would much rather celebrate ‘GAY CONVERSION WEEK’ which I will gladly sponsor when the medical practitioners in this country find a way to convert gays to heterosexuals.”

Young people push for a different direction for Pride

Rainbow capitalism, as it is often derisively called, has long been associated with Pride celebrations, in cities from LA to Key West and across the globe including cities like Tokyo. It is now, as evidenced by these tweets and others highlighted in this story in The New York Times, fertile ground for jokes – a possible harbinger that young people want something different and more substantive from Pride than a show of solidarity from Exxon Mobil.  

Kilhefner has seen the emergence, and then the saturation, of corporate actors in Pride celebrations, which he considers tantamount to the co-opting of gay liberation for capitalist gains by members of the ruling class. “There were some people who felt it was progress” to see parade floats from multinational companies. “By and large, this has changed,” Kilhefner said. 

“I spend a lot of time listening to young people and I’m impressed by their understanding of race and class issues in this country,” he said. “There’s been a radical shift in consciousness. The younger generation has become more militant as well as sharper about race and class.”

“We are beginning to see pushback,” he said. When employees at the Walt Disney Company flagged their objections to the company’s contributions to legislators and others responsible for Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, “it smelled like gay liberation.” 

Likewise, in Los Angeles, young people fighting for justice “see themselves as being engaged in guerrilla warfare,” Kilhefner said. “It’s David versus Goliath.”

This Mail Chimp mailing is produced cooperatively by Don Kilhefner and Danny Battista.
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Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., All rights reserved.

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