Ep. 1: Kiss the ring
Philly Pride collapsed last year amid accusations of racism, transphobia, and power hoarding. To really grasp the fallout, you’ll hear about the lesbian elder at the helm, and how she had a tight grip on these annual LGBTQ events for 30 years. But Pride wasn’t always a one-woman show. On this episode, we’ll go back to the origins of Philly Pride. We’ll hear how it struggled to gain its footing through the HIV/AIDS epidemic. How an unlikely group of grassroots organizers revived it in the ‘80s. And what happened when they passed the torch to the woman who many say is responsible for Pride’s downfall today.
MICHAELA WINBERG, HOST: Two women are standing right in the middle of a huge Pride parade in Philadelphia. And their lives are about to change.
ANNOUNCER OVER MEGAPHONE: These two have been best friends for more than eight years. Last year at Pride, they became more than friends. Let’s all watch to see what happens next for these two.
MW: They’re both wearing these matching purple t-shirts that say, “Soy queer Latina.” The women are surrounded by a crowd of people — jumping up and down and cheering.
One of the women, Elicia Gonzales, has her hair in pigtails — and her stomach in knots. She’s spilling over with nervous, excited energy.
She pulls out this small black box with a white ribbon around it. And gets down on one knee.
The other woman, Megan Hannah, has short hair, a bow tie around her neck, and this look on her face that’s like… What has this woman gotten me into? With a smile, she opens the box. It’s a ring.
They kiss, and all of a sudden, Elicia takes off her purple t-shirt to reveal a tank top underneath. It says, “She said yes.”
Megan takes Elicia in her arms and lifts her new fiancé into the air, both laughing as they’re engulfed in the crowd.
ELICIA GONZALES: I proposed to my wife in front of, like, everybody, including my ex’s girlfriend, which was amazing.
MW: That’s Elicia Gonzales. She orchestrated the proposal.
EG: I wanted it to be really over the top. And it was like our biggest Pride ever, like, when I look back over the video and things like that, it’s just filled with like, queerness, like Latinidad, you know. So it was cool.
MW: This is Pride at its best.
I know it’s not everybody’s thing. Pride is a huge spectacle. A sea of rainbow flags, gigantic corporate floats, loud megaphones, bare chests and booty shorts, that floods most major cities every June. It’s a lot.
But moments like these show what Pride is all about.
EG: This is an event where I know I, myself, have felt very seen, where I’ve connected with other people who looked like me, you know, who sometimes, you know, think and act like me, sometimes are very different from me, but it’s a space to call our own. And it’s, it’s just such a sanctuary.
MW: These public, queer events — and all the moments of connection they hold — are what made Elicia feel at home for the first time.
But just a few years later, in the summer of 20-21, that dream came crashing down… seemingly overnight.
NEWS CLIP: Following a controversial social media post, the organization behind Philadelphia’s Pride festival has shut down.
MW: Pride was canceled.
The organization that ran Philly Pride collapsed last summer. They disbanded after being accused of racism and transphobia. Accusations that they had excluded the very people they were supposed to represent.
ABDUL-ALIY MUHAMMAD: It was bad, categorically.
EG: There was just this, like, power hoarding that she did.
JOSÉ DE MARCO: People had absolutely enough of Pride and their B.S.
MW: For the first time in decades, there was no Pride event at all. No parade where LGBTQ people could come together publicly. Vendors lost thousands of dollars. And a massive rift formed in the community.
This whole thing is still unresolved. Philly Pride as we once knew it is not happening this year. Instead, a new group is trying to create something different.
From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is March On: The Fight for Pride. I’m your host, Michaela Winberg. I’ve been reporting on Philly’s LGBTQ community for years. As a lesbian, I’ve been to a Pride or two. And I’ve been feeling these long-simmering tensions in my community for awhile.
When Philly Pride dissolved, my sources started calling me. As I covered the story, I found out a lot that I didn’t know — about the history of Pride, about how much it’s hurt people, and what the community wants moving forward.
On this podcast, we’re going deep into Pride. We’re going to figure out how an event designed to uplift a marginalized community… ended up making those same people feel excluded, unsafe, and even… traumatized.
We’ll hear from the people who were around for the fallout.
NAIYMAH SANCHEZ: When I went to go look at Philly Pride’s page, it was gone. And I was like, what the freak?
MW: We’ll hear from elders about the parade’s origins in Philly.
BOB SKIBA: People were not going to march around in suits and ties, holding picket signs and acting like the best little queers they could be.
MW: And we’ll hear from the next generation of organizers, who are trying to build something new in real time.
ASHLEY COLEMAN: We have queer babies coming up behind us that will have never experienced a Pride parade, and the joy and the community that happens.
MW: I see a lot of these conversations online, people calling for a Pride that is more inclusive and less corporate. One that’s anti-capitalist and anti-police.
We’re going to follow people who are working to make that happen. Turns out, it’s not that easy.
EG: I wish that philanthropy and local foundations would just be knocking on our door to give us money. But that hasn’t happened yet.
MW: Similar reckonings are happening at Pride organizations across the country.
We’ll hear their struggles and their triumphs. And find out what they managed to create.
To understand why Philadelphia Pride fell apart, you have to meet a woman named Franny Price.
NEWSCASTER: And with us now we have Franny Price, she is the executive director of the parade for how many years now?
FRANNY PRICE: I became the director in 1998, but I’ve been involved since 1991.
MW: Franny is a white woman and a lesbian. She ran the group that organized Pride for 30 years, called Philly Pride Presents.
She probably looks like most of the older lesbians you’ve met. She’s butch, with short brown hair. Except when it’s bleach blonde. Or bright blue. It depends on the day.
When she opens her mouth, you hear a deep Philly accent infused with a slight lisp.
But Franny isn’t any other lesbian.
She’s kind of a big deal in Philly’s Gayborhood. That’s a section of Center City, made up of a few blocks of gay bars and shops. There, she has owned multiple businesses. One was a combination gay leather shop and bagel store. And she still owns what she calls the oldest gay video store in the country.
Back in the ‘90s, Franny started organizing the annual Pride parade. She also founded a National Coming Out Day event called OutFest. It took over the Gayborhood every year for a huge block party with vendors and drag performers.
Elicia — the woman who proposed to her wife — says she and Franny go way back.
EG: It was pretty early on, and I kind of got wrapped into a community of primarily cisgender women, who Fran was sort of the leader of at that time.
MW: How Elicia remembers it, when Franny snapped her fingers, people assembled.
EG: Every Friday, like clockwork, Fran wanted a group of us to meet at Knock.
MW: That’s a gay bar in Philly.
The group started to earn a reputation.
EG: And so the folks started lovingly calling us the Knockers. And/or Franny might have made that up? It got to the point where like, they even put out a placard that said, like a reserve sign that’s like, this seat is reserved for the Knockers.
MW: Picture the Real Housewives. But they’re all lesbians.
EG: Let’s say like 12 to 15 folks or so. And we would just talk about everything going on in the neighborhood and within the gay community, or just like our lives, you know.
MW: Being in Franny’s orbit could be intoxicating.
EG: I felt very powerful, like, I felt like VIP. Because it was an invite-only thing, you know, folks would come up and almost like in a ‘Godfather’ kind of way would come up and like, basically kiss Fran’s ring.
MW: Franny was the natural leader of this group.
Even though she’s a lesbian, she married one of Philly’s most popular Black drag queens, a man named Les Harrison. They met when she was working on the lights and sound for shows in the Gayborhood. She also led Pride for as long as most people could remember.
Franny was Elicia’s introduction to the local, queer community.
EG: And I loved those times. I cherish those times because she’s an incredible keeper of history. She just knows a lot about what happened in Philadelphia. And just like LGBT history, broadly, is an incredible storyteller. When she really is deep in a story, she’ll like twiddle her thumbs like this, you know.
MW: But being in the Knockers was also a pretty big commitment.
Franny decided where and when they’d meet up. She hand-picked the people who were invited. She steered the conversations. She even had a say in when people could go home.
EG: I recall feeling, all of us would just like nervously look at one another when it came time to sort of leave the party or the gathering, because she always wanted to then go out to eat afterward. And it was always where she wanted to go eat afterward. And so we always had to come up with excuses as to, like, why we wouldn’t be able to join. And we always felt like we were letting her down.
MW: After about a year with the Knockers, Elicia was getting frustrated.
EG: Fran’s friends are very, like, devoted folks. And it seemed like Fran needed a lot more than I had the capacity to give. And also, I’m a little bit nervous to say this, but I’ll just say it because this is my experience of it. It didn’t feel reciprocal. Like Fran would go on and on about whatever type of topic. And I just don’t really put a lot of energy into relationships like that.
MW: Elicia and Franny didn’t become enemies. At least not right away.
They kept up a professional relationship. At the time, Elicia was executive director at GALAEI, one of the nonprofits that always marched in the Pride parade and had a table at OutFest.
So Elicia saw it firsthand: The authority that Franny had over her group of friends… it was the same type of control she had over the event.
EG: I remember seeing Fran every Pride riding around on this golf cart, face beaming red, because, you know, she’d always get super, super hot, like sweat dripping down her face. Because she was like, running the show, whether it was literally getting people to get a table or what have you, or trying to figure out how to get people in through the door, vendors and whatnot. So I appreciated her accessibility and her hard work. Like, literal heart and soul that she put into Pride.
MW: When Elicia was ready to propose to her girlfriend, Megan, she felt like she needed to ask for Franny’s permission to do it at the parade.
EG: And of course, classic Fran fashion, she just basically allowed us to shut down Pride.
Fran is a very loyal person, like I can give her that for sure. And also wants things done. She’s very much like, methodical. So for her to be able to allow me to like, interrupt her Pride felt like, you know, okay, cool. Like, I’m still in good graces with Fran.
MW: Did you catch that? Elicia was allowed to interrupt her Pride … Like, as if the whole parade belonged to Franny.
This is the part I find so interesting.
Elicia and Franny had a complicated relationship. They made it work professionally, sure. But it had been years since Elicia realized Franny wasn’t the kind of person she wanted to be close with. She felt like Franny could be controlling, maybe a little self-centered.
Still, she cared enough about what Franny thought that she wanted to keep up good graces with her. In Elicia’s eyes, Franny still held enough power that she felt like she had to ask if it was OK for her to propose at Pride.
This is Pride we’re talking about. It started as a community event that’s supposed to belong to everyone.
Coming up: We’ll go back to the very beginning of Pride in Philadelphia and see how different it was.
BS: It was the first time something like that happened here in Philadelphia. It was really grassroots. A mixture of a demonstration, a political statement, and a celebration.”
MW: That’s next … on March On.
Welcome back to March On: The Fight for Pride. I’m your host, Michaela Winberg. I want to take you back to the roots of Pride in Philadelphia.
It wasn’t always this one-woman show. It wasn’t always just a single figure, however hard-working she might be, calling the shots.
Compared to Franny’s version of Pride, it’s almost unrecognizable.
Back in the 1960s, queer people in Philly tried to earn their rights in what was thought of as a respectful way. Men wore suits and women wore dresses. They marched in a circle, holding picket signs with messages like, quote, “No society can be great without all of its citizens.”
FRANK KAMENY: I could not get a job specifically because of homosexuality, and I am not alone. I know many people who’ve done the same. I’ve seen lives ruined, careers ruined for no other reason. These were people with a great deal to offer to society.
MW: But that respectable mentality didn’t last long.
These Annual Reminders came to a screeching halt in 1969. The year the Stonewall Riots happened.
That is when Pride started to take shape.
BS: People were not going to march around in suits and ties, holding picket signs and acting like the best little queers they could be.
MW: That’s Bob Skiba. He works at a nonprofit called the William Way LGBT Center in Philadelphia, as the curator of the archives. AKA the keeper of queer history.
In the late ‘60s, not all LGBTQ people wanted to appear respectable. They wanted to wear drag, or glitter, or leather. They wanted to be able to kiss, to chant, to celebrate. They wanted to be themselves. In public.
After Stonewall, New York put together the first ever Pride Parade. That gave Philadelphia and other cities a roadmap.
So Philly hosted its first Pride Parade three years later. To give you an idea of what that was like, here is what the flier from 1972 said:
MULTIPLE SPEAKERS: The gay community of Philadelphia is having a party today and we’re all invited. For the first time, it is a come-as-you-are party, not a come-as-society-wants-you-to-be. There will be singing and chanting and marching and dancing. There will be humor and fun and festivity and camp. There will be Pride in ourselves, love for each other, unity of us all. And there will be knowledge that as of today, we are opening the doors which have hidden us away for too long. Welcome sisters and brothers to our day — the first of many.”
If you look at the pictures from this demonstration, you can feel the energy.
The event created a space for a diverse crowd to have fun — however they wanted to. There were men wearing butterfly wings and dancing. Drag queens decked out in feathers. Black folks in afros and decorative jock straps.
BS: People’s faces are luminous. It was the first time something like that happened here in Philadelphia. It was really grassroots. A mixture of a demonstration, a political statement, and a celebration.
MW: Bob says the Philly organizers kept the parade going for a few years. But then, in the late ‘70s, they started to lose steam.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic was just starting to infect and claim the lives of community members. Celebrating Pride just didn’t feel like a priority anymore.
BS: A lot of people felt like the way the community focuses its energy had to be on AIDS and how it was impacting the community.
MW: So Pride took a break in the ‘70s. But it wasn’t gone forever.
There was a second coming of Philly Pride. It took over a decade, but the local movement was reborn in the late ‘80s.
KEVIN VAUGHAN: We thought, at the time, that this is what the community needed was some outlet out, you know, outside of the sickness and everything else that was going on, to really kind of, you know, fly the flag and show who we are, and kind of be out there and be proud.
MW: That is Kevin Vaughan, a Black gay man living in Center City Philadelphia.
Kevin is 67 now. He spent his life working in Philly politics. He also helped revive Pride, back in 1989. That group became the version of Pride that fell apart last year.
Back then, the group agreed easily on their mission: to throw a Pride that the entire community could enjoy.
Executing that mission, though, was another story. It started with regular meetings at Giovanni’s Room, an LGBTQ bookstore. The meetings were open to the public. About 10 people showed up on the regular.
One of them was Penny Nairne. She says the meetings were…how should I put this… dynamic?
PENNY NAIRNE: It was never peaceful. I mean, when you have a bunch of queens and dykes, you’re going to have some little discussions there.
MW: Penny’s 74 years old. A white lesbian, who now lives in South Jersey with her wife.
Bringing Pride back to life was tough. They had to write grant applications, and get city permits. They had to plan a route, and book entertainment.
Most of all, they had to really represent the community. And they didn’t even have the internet as a way to reach people.
KV: We did community meetings, those were when we got yelled at. As painful as community meetings can be, especially in a community that’s been underrepresented and doesn’t have a lot of outlets. And, you know, every conceivable issue in the world can come up, that has nothing to do with what you’re doing, but people are angry about something, and they want to tell you what they’re angry about. We did that.
MW: Kevin got the brunt of it. He was working as the chief of staff for a City Councilmember at the time. A year before the parade, they put forward a resolution that would officially recognize June as Gay Pride Month.
KV: We really ruffled feathers of the people who thought they were the powers that be. I had one lesbian activist in the city, who came to us and yelled, jumped up and down, danced just about, and said, ‘You cannot put in anything without my permission. So you should never have done this. And you should never do this unless you can win.’”
MW: Back in the late ‘80s, this was a heated debate. If you were gay, being proud was really controversial. And the conservative members of City Council were not on board with establishing a Gay Pride Month.
FRANCIS RAFFERTY: These guys are out cruising in parks just like prostitutes do. And they want us to be proud of them. I want to know why you want us to pass a resolution to make you proud of what you’re doing. Why do you want us to approve of it? Why do you want us to approve of it?
MW: So they lost that vote. Which really pissed off that lesbian activist.
KV: This person held a rally in back of City Hall to re-energize the community after this disastrous vote. And during the course of it, there was a little sun shower. And then in the western sky, there was a double rainbow that came out. And people started looking at the double rainbow instead of listening to this activist, who then started shouting, ‘Listen to me, I am speaking.’ It was so, it just said everything about what was wrong with what was going on in Philadelphia at that moment in time.
MW: For the record, this impassioned lesbian activist… was not Franny.
But this story shows that there have always been people who wanted control. Who wanted to make Pride their personal platform… instead of cultivating an organic, fun community celebration.
Still, Kevin didn’t give up. He tried again. The next year, in 1989, he managed to get the resolution passed — officially recognizing June as Gay Pride Month.
But instead of celebrating the achievement, some of the prominent activists in the community shunned him, and skipped Pride… because they were not the ones running it.
KV: It circumvented all the natural leadership of the community. It wasn’t made for the personalities of the people who thought they own the community. It was made for the community itself. That was a huge difference for us.
MW: The group was still learning. And they were open to feedback.
Some people in the community were concerned that the group organizing Pride wasn’t diverse enough. Kevin was one of just two people of color. It was a familiar feeling for him.
KV: All of my life, I’ve been, most of the time, one or two of the people of color in a room. You always think about it, but then you think, okay, how do I manage this? Or what do I do to help make change in the situation?
MW: He and his fellow organizers made a real effort to include more people. Kevin organized an anti-prejudice training for the entire group — and he visited popular Black gay bars to try to recruit more members.
KV: It was the beginning of trying to get people to think about transparency, in terms of who’s involved and how people get involved.
MW: When Philly Pride returned in June of 1989, after a decade-long hiatus, about a thousand people showed up to the march.
Kevin took it all in — the feeling of their dream coming to life.
KV: It was really kind of exciting, and in a big way, because it was like, first of all, people are out. I mean, that was great. But if you wanted to march and you weren’t out, you could be on the sidelines and watching and supporting. That surprised me too, is that there were people off in the side, and they were clapping as we came by. There was a sense of just camaraderie.
MW: They had pulled it off. And by the way, in those early years, guess who they got to come to Pride?
PN: Like we had Elton John.
MW: That’s crazy.
PN: Yeah. And Elton John very kindly said to us, you know, your parade really stinks. You need to get some bands. And you know, we’re going, you have no idea what we did to get that one band. He’s going, you need to do this. You need to do that. And we’re going yeah, we know. But thank you for being here.
MW: Elton John’s criticism aside, Pride still had what mattered most: These moments of connection.
Kevin experienced one of them firsthand.
KV: It turns out that I met my husband that day. We met and here it is, 30, 32 years later, and we’re still together.
MW: Technically they met outside the Pride festival. On Kevin’s bike ride home.
KV: He also had a bicycle and he had, the chain had come off. So I ended up helping him fix his bicycle. I’m all greasy. And I’m wearing my my my Gay Pride stuff. We talked a little bit about where I worked and everything. So two days later, it was my birthday. And he showed up at the office unannounced, and said he was there to take me on a picnic. He signed me out of the office, and we went to the Reading Terminal and picked up some things and we went and sat in Washington Square and had a very nice, long picnic. It was lovely.
MW: The parade did what it was supposed to do. It brought together the community in a lasting way.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Organizing Pride took resilience. All the logistics, plus the community infighting… it became overwhelming. Especially because they were doing it on a volunteer basis.
And keep in mind that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was still looming. This dark presence, swirling around them. Showing itself in negative space, in the missing faces at their annual parade.
For Penny, it just didn’t feel like a celebration.
PN: We kind of got a little burnt out with losing friends with AIDS at the time. And one of my best friends, Phil, really did me in when he died. And you know, and then going back and going, well, this guy from the parade, he’s gone. And that guy, he’s gone. And it was just upsetting.
MW: After a few years, both Kevin and Penny needed a break.
Penny packed up and moved to Florida. She disconnected from Pride completely.
But Kevin was still in the city. He saw the handoff of Pride to a new organizer: Franny Price.
KV: I think I met her for the first time, maybe the year or so after she took over. She had this fellow who was working with her who was a Republican conservative. And I was very, very nervous about what that meant.
MW: Right away, Kevin got this bad feeling.
He could tell: Franny and her senior adviser, Chuck Volz, brought a totally different vision to Pride.
But Kevin had his own life to live. He was moving up in city politics at the time. Plus, the way Pride was designed… it wasn’t his decision. It wasn’t his event to give away or to gate keep.
Pride belonged to the community. So the new organizers had as much right to it as Kevin did.
KV: So I think the two of them thought of it as a business venture, more than as a community venture. And so that I mean, that’s what disturbed me so much about my conversations with them.
MW: Soon after they took over, Franny and Chuck changed the name of the group to Philly Pride Presents, Inc. — and registered it as a nonprofit. Then they started charging people for tickets to enter the Pride festival.
They also took out a copyright for the term OutFest — the National Coming Out Day event that they threw in the fall. That means if someone else tried to throw the event, Franny and Chuck could sue them. That copyright is still active.
KV: The community went, certainly, and people wanted to participate. But they didn’t own the event, because Franny and Chuck own the event. And because they own the event that, you know, it was all about what they thought or what they wanted, as opposed to what the community wanted.
MW: Watching from afar Kevin didn’t always like what he saw.
It took a few decades. But his suspicions that it wouldn’t end well came true.
Next time on March On we’ll talk about how this 30-year reign went off the rails.
EG: To be so brazen as to not only work in collaboration with the police, but to try to celebrate the police at your event was not even a dog whistle. Like it was blatantly harmful.
MW: And take a closer look at the racial tension that’s been boiling over in the community for years.
MIKE HINSON: They would card every Black person that came in and wouldn’t card a white person.
PROTEST: This establishment said you couldn’t wear Timbs inside. Who the fuck wears Timbs in Phila-fucking-delphia? Black people!
MW: And what it’s like for the people living through it.
NS: It made me feel devalued in a way that I was only valued by how much I was able to spend or if I was able to get tested.
MW: March On was reported and hosted by me, Michaela Winberg. Our producer is Taylor Hosking. Engineering and sound design by Charlie Kaier. Original music by Seth Kelley. Cover art by Symone Salib. Our editor is Lindsay Lazarski. Special thanks to Danya Henninger, Maiken Scott, Elizabeth Estrada, Kenny Cooper, Emily Rizzo, Sophia Schmidt, Nina Feldman, Tom Grahsler, and Gabriel Coan.
This podcast is a production of WHYY and Billy Penn. You can find us wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.collapse
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