Jamie Lee Hamilton will never forget the hatred she felt during Vancouver's first gay-pride march 29 years ago. Hamilton, then a young sex-trade worker, was part of a small group of protesters who decided to walk from Nelson Park in the West End down Thurlow Street to bring attention to the fight for equal rights.
"I remember having tomatoes thrown at us, absolutely," Hamilton told the Georgia Straight . "It was a time to start showcasing and not fearing any of the oppression that was levelled at the community. It wasn't that long ago that all of our clubs were deemed illegal. They had to operate as private bottle clubs because you couldn't get licensing."
Contrast that with last year's Vancouver Pride parade, which attracted some 300,000 spectators, according to the Vancouver Pride Society. On its Web site, the society lists more than two dozen events this year as part of the annual Pride Festival. Canada's oldest Gay Pride celebration now attracts corporate sponsors such as Starbucks, Pepsi, and the Royal Bank of Canada, as well as more than a dozen media sponsors. And the growth of corporate participation has provoked a backlash among some in the gay and lesbian community.
When the Vancouver Pride Society recently lost four big backers–Air Canada, IKEA Canada, Citytv, and Hewlett-Packard–they were quickly replaced by the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel and Cathay Pacific.
Steve Scarrow, Citytv's regional promotions director, told the Straight that the company made a "business decision" and it had nothing to do with its long-standing support of the gay and lesbian community. He said the company was told it would no longer be allowed to hand out anything during the parade, which inhibited contact with the public.
"But they had also taken on so many sponsors," Scarrow said. "We are not big believers–this goes for everything we do–in being one of 25 sponsors at the bottom of a poster with a logo that is the size of a postage stamp. We just don't think we get any value out of that. We primarily go into things where we feel we are part of the community, we're being involved."
Even the term Pride has been trademarked. It was registered in 2003 by the organization that puts on the Toronto Pride parade and will be transferred to an organization called Fierté Canada Pride to administer on behalf of Pride societies across the country. The trademark is for "Clothing, namely shirts", as well as for staging an annual celebration for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, according to a document filed with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.
Hamilton said that last year, the Vancouver Pride Society told her she would have to pay for the right to use the term Pride to promote two events that she was organizing: Man Pride and Tranny Pride. Hamilton refused, and the society backed down. "They were essentially the Pride police, and they would determine who could use the word Pride and who couldn't," she said.
Hamilton, a long-time transsexual activist for sex-trade workers, claimed that some gays and lesbians are offended by the increasing corporate presence in the annual festival. "The history has just been evaporated out of the whole movement," Hamilton said. "I think there has been too much of a focus on the monetary aspect of Pride and less on the people. It's a liberation movement. You can't trademark liberation movements."
SITTING IN THE CRAMPED Vancouver Pride Society office on Davie Street, John Boychuk doesn't apologize for applying business principles to the annual festival. Boychuk, the society president and a cheerful 42-year-old entrepreneur, told the Straight that the Vancouver Pride Society faced financial ruin several years ago because of a huge debt. (In 2003, the debt exceeded $100,000, according to Xtra! West .) Boychuk said that last year, the Vancouver Pride Society posted a $28,000 surplus, thanks in part to its corporate sponsorships.
This year's operating budget is $134,000, with a total of $500,000 raised in cash and in-kind contributions, such as advertising space, meeting halls, airline tickets, et cetera. This summer, Boychuk noted, the society invested $25,000 in a six-month guaranteed investment certificate, which will generate income to help fund next year's parade. "If you instill good business practices from the beginning, you can be quite successful," Boychuk said.
When asked about Hamilton's claim that the society has gone corporate, Boychuk replied that the society had to pay almost $30,000 in insurance costs, even though there has never been a claim filed. The City of Vancouver provided a $7,500 grant, but the society has to pay almost $19,000 back to cover such things as the cost of garbage collection, barricades, and policing the event.
"We can either put a huge levy on a parade or march–make it a huge financial burden on the individuals to come out to be able to share and celebrate and to be recognized–or we go after sponsorship," Boychuk said. "We, as part of the Vancouver Pride Society, would love it if corporate sponsors stepped forward, gave us dollars and cents–enough that the community organizations, the not-for-profits, could march in the parade for free. That's what we would like to see happen."
Boychuk said that good business practices and effective marketing have contributed to a huge increase in attendance for the annual parade, which takes place this year on August 5 in Vancouver's West End. He said that four years ago, attendance was about 100,000. Last year, he said, three times as many people lined the streets.
The Vancouver Pride Society is a "vehicle" for gays and lesbians to come out of the closet, he said. "Kids are still committing suicide," he said. "There are still bashings that happen. There was a bashing in my building just last month. It was on my floor. It was verbal; it was literally steps away from becoming violent. It was homophobic in nature."
Boychuk said that this year's parade will highlight repression against gays and lesbians abroad. "People are a bit disappointed that it's not a big party this year, because parties make money and political statements do not make money," he said. "We said, 'That's okay. There is a statement to be made.' We have to remind people that we're not just a party organization."
STACY CLARK IS ONE member of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community who is uncomfortable with the growing corporate presence in the Pride celebrations. She told the Straight that the Vancouver Pride Society's heavy reliance on sponsorships can cause it to lose its focus on the history of the community and encouraging more people to get involved.
"As soon as you start to get very corporate, it's a double-edged sword," Clark said. "You need the money to put on the event, and then you get worried about losing the money."
Vancouver writer Michael V. Smith has questioned why companies don't invest more money in groups that feed hungry queer kids and find them shelter rather than just march in the parade. Last year, after the controversy erupted over the trademark issue, social activists helped organize the first Shame: Party Without Pride. Clark is promoting the second Shame party, which will be held at the Royal Canadian Legion at 2205 Commercial Drive on Friday (August 3). All proceeds from this gender-inclusive event will be donated to the Sista'Hood project, which is a month-long arts-and-music event.
"Nongendered, noncorporate, nonsponsored hits the nail on the head in terms of what it is we try to do," Clark said. "The Shame party is not a protest event for Pride. It's to call people out. At the event this year, we have performers doing their interpretation of what the Olympics means to them. You can only imagine how it's going to go."
Boychuk, on the other hand, said that he hopes to lure the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games as a Pride Society sponsor in 2008 and 2009. He said that VANOC officials have attended planning sessions in the past six months with Pride Society officials. "They had stated to us that they were interested in partnering with Vancouver Pride to be able to have access to the gay and lesbian market," Boychuk said.
Meanwhile, Hamilton has planned three events this year: First Nations Pride (August 4), which is a barbecue to fund the Aboriginal Sex Trade Education Project; Gray Pride (August 5), which honours elders and heroes; and the No Trademark Pride Brunch (August 6) for those opposed to the decision to trademark the term Pride .
Hamilton said that many poor people are excluded from Vancouver Pride Society–promoted events because of the cost. "What about our low-income people who are gay or lesbian or who have HIV or AIDS?" she asked. "They're left out of the celebrations. I think that's just wrong."
Boychuk said the trademark was registered to prevent so-called gay-for-a-day businesses from cashing in on Pride without giving anything back to the community. "There is no interest in actually going forward and restricting any one organization or any contributor to the community in the use of the word Pride ," he said.
Boychuk claimed that if every business that benefits from the Vancouver Pride Society bought a $20 membership, that would pay for every entry in the parade. (Companies pay between $750 and $2,000 to be in the parade, whereas nonprofit groups are charged $150.) Boychuk added that the parade and the festival generate $34 million in economic activity for the city, but none of this flows back to the society, which is run by volunteers. Last year, the organization started a parade-subsidy program, which enabled five groups to join for free, and get $100 for decorations. "Could that happen without corporate backing, without corporate sponsorship? Absolutely not," he said, adding: "We don't want to exclude anybody."
This year, however, the city capped the number of entries at 140. In mid-July, the Vancouver Pride Society informed the Georgia Straight that it would not be allowed in the parade because it missed the application deadline. The Straight has participated for years, supported equal rights for gays and lesbians, and also published the country's first gay-rights column. When asked about the exclusion of the Straight , Boychuk said 14 applicants, including the Straight , were put on a "standby list".
Two days after the interview, the Vancouver Pride Society decided that the paper could participate. Boychuk denied that the earlier decision was linked to the Straight not being a sponsor.
Muriel Honey, manager of the city's film and special-events office, told the Straight that it was necessary to impose a cap because the parade route isn't long enough to accommodate an unlimited number of floats. She said that the city wouldn't let the parade cross Burrard Street because the Cambie Bridge already has limited traffic as a result of the Canada Line construction.
Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the parade, which could mean more applicants. Honey said that she has discussed changing the parade route with the directors of the society. "We've asked them to look at going up or down Robson [Street]," she said.
Boychuk said there is a possibility of a half-million people watching the 2008 Pride parade. "We think this city is going to see something that has never been seen before in travel tourism," Boychuk predicted.
For her part, Hamilton plans to continue holding community events. "I would love to see the parade turned upside down: a free-for-all, not this orderly procession," she said. "It sort of reminds me of the PNE parade. It's so sterile."