How Grassroots LGBT Organizers Rebooted Pride in Cleveland

How Grassroots LGBT Organizers Rebooted Pride in Cleveland
Emanuel Wallace
State Representative Nickie Antonio was driving back from the DNC, exhausted and sleep-deprived from her busy week in Philly, when she heard that the Pride Parade had been canceled in Cleveland.

"I thought, this can't be possible," she told Scene. "I could not imagine — I cannot imagine — not celebrating Pride in Cleveland. Right away I started making phone calls. I was determined that we would do something else."

Phyllis Harris, director of the LGBT Center in Cleveland, was one of the first calls Antonio made. Harris told Antonio that she'd been getting and making calls too. Immediately following the announcement by Pride Inc. that the 28th Annual Pride Parade had been nixed due to a "changing social climate," it was as if the entire LGBT community in Cleveland hopped on a massive group text. Though there was a fair degree of speculation and gossip, the principal aim of this wave of communication was to express support for keeping the spirit of Pride alive.

A group was gathering on Sunday, July 31, to put their heads together, Harris told Antonio. Antonio said she'd be there. 

"We have specific job descriptions and responsibilities," said Antonio, when asked why being at that meeting was so important for her. "As a legislator, I have a responsibility to work on public policy, to provide constituent services. But beyond that, as someone from the LGBT community, I have an additional responsibility. And when something like this happens, it's a time when I have a responsibility to step up and say, 'Okay, there's a situation. So let's address it and move forward.'" 

City Councilman Kerry McCormack, who, like Nickie Antonio, is openly gay, attended the Sunday meeting as well. He described a two-and-a-half hour session at the LGBT Center with more than 20 representatives from local organizations, all committed to the same thing: saving Pride.

"The first question was: Do we want something to happen?" McCormack said. "And the answer was a resounding yes. The second question was: What's it going to look like?"

McCormack said the meeting became primarily logistical — brainstorming about locations and routes and entertainment — and that the planning (expectedly) has not stopped since. Antonio said that despite the fact that this ragtag group of community members is putting together an event in 13 days that, to be done well, takes a full year to plan, they've been undeterred.

"The important part is that it's happening," Antonio said. "This is about educating the general public and affirming the lives of all the people who may or may not be able to march."

Ryan Zymler, the Community Relations Coordinator at the LGBT Center, said he hopes the community recognizes that "Pride in the CLE" — the name of the alternate event to be held this Saturday, August 13 — won't be the same as parades in years' past. The compressed timeline has been an obvious challenge. Nonetheless, he said seeing the event come together so quickly, with the support of so many devoted local advocates, has been "inspiring."

"I'm super confident about it," Zymler said. "The Center wants to be a hub for the community, and this is a perfect example. The community is totally behind this. Every time I drive by Public Square, I get excited for Saturday, to be so visible, in the heart of downtown."

Visibility is of course a key component for Pride parades nationwide. Being 'Loud and Proud' at festivals and parades for the LGBTQ community doesn't only connote celebration; at root, it's a response to years of societal oppression. That's one reason why the "changing social climate" referenced in the Pride Inc. cancellation press release sounded suspect to so many folks who planned to attend. 

"Of course we are always concerned about safety," said Nickie Antonio, "but that's why we've been doing Pride for all these years in the first place — we're doing it anyway. That's the whole point, that people in the LGBT community, going back 30 years, did not feel safe. That's why Pride was so important. It's a day to be in public, to gather with each other and our allies and say: 'We're gay, we're proud of that, and we are going to walk together in solidarity to stand up to anybody who has a problem with that."

Antonio said she wasn't able to speak directly to Pride Inc. Executive Director Todd Saporito — nor, for that matter, was Scene. Saporito has not responded to two reporters' requests for comment — and said she wasn't privy to the group's internal operations. 

McCormack was especially surprised by the cancellation because, he says, his office had been signaling its support for months.  Cleveland city council members get one event every year in which they can invest additional resources: For McCormack (City Council's newest member) that event is Pride.

"The cancellation had nothing to do with safety," McCormack said. "I can tell you that. The City of Cleveland — the Mayor's administration, myself, the safety forces — were all ready and willing. The police have shown themselves to be able to host great events, controversial events, with huge numbers of people. We hosted the Gay Games in 2014! We were ready to go."

Todd Saporito placed blame on McCormack, in interviews with both Channel 5 and, for not facilitating communication between Pride Inc. and the city's safety forces. McCormack disputes that accusation. He told that Pride Inc. wasn't being transparent about their own logistical troubles. He told Scene that he met with Saporito two weeks before the cancellation and at that time, once again, he volunteered his assistance. 

"I said, 'What can I help you with? What can I do'" McCormack said. "[Saporito] was concerned about the safety piece, but Deputy Chief Tomba had said that there were no threats against the LGBT community in Cleveland and I just said, 'We're here, we're here, we're here.'" 

For now, McCormack and others are looking ahead, not behind. Though an online petition calling for Todd Saporito to immediately resign is now circulating, and though questions linger about Pride Inc.'s internal operations, the collective energy at the Sunday planning meeting  (and thereafter) has been positive. McCormack, Antonio and Zymler all said that there was little, if any, finger-pointing or venting about Pride Inc.'s decision to cancel.

"We spent very little time focusing on 'how did we get to this point,' and the majority of the time on 'how do we make this happen?'" said Antonio.  

Said McCormack: "Out of the cancellation has come something beautiful, and I think it's going to continue into the future." 

(The LGBT Center has advised that for those planning to attend Saturday's event, the last day to register to march in the parade is Wednesday. Folks are also encouraged to use the hashtag #PrideintheCLE.)   

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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