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July 2 , 2010

Akron’s first downtown Pride was a fine time before rain

Event dampened more by dissent than late-afternoon shower

Akron--A late afternoon downpour and high winds did not dampen Akron’s first downtown Pride festival, but controversy over the location fomented a boycott of the event and questions about the queer cultural competency of the organization that now runs the city’s LGBT Pride Center.

According to Community AIDS Network director Dawn Jones, around 1,000 attended A Day in the Sun at Akron’s Lock 3 Park entertainment venue, and 125 attended the drag show afterward at Greystone Hall three blocks away.

The outdoor event featured a cornhole tournament, food, and an array of bands. Around 5:30, a thunderstorm dispersed the crowd earlier than planned, but the festivities went off flawlessly until then.

Lock 3--of the19th-century Ohio and Erie Canal--is located on Main Street in the center of downtown, next to the Civic Theater.

The city of Akron considers it an entertainment venue, and operates it under a different set of rules than any of its parks, which is the genesis of the controversy.

According to Akron deputy mayor David Lieberth, who oversees Lock 3, the venue cannot be rented. It can only be used if the city is a sponsor of the event.

A Day in the Sun was sponsored by the city and the organization that now encompasses the Akron Pride Center and the Community AIDS Network, that came about when CAN absorbed the LGBT center in January.

The new organization is governed by CAN’s board and directed by Jones.

According to Jones, who identifies as straight, nine of the eleven members of the board are openly gay or lesbian. However, board member Jeff Bixby’s biography on the website is the only one citing an affiliation with an LGBT group. The site also has no LGBT symbolism, which has been the source of activist criticism, especially since the merger.

‘Family friendly’

The fracas over the event’s location concernsr several issues.

The city describes Lock 3 as “family friendly,” and has rules for use that include a dress code and rules for the entertainers on stage.

Shirt and shoes are required, and “you can’t say ‘fuck’ on the stage,” said Lieberth, who adds that nothing can happen there that “is offensive to people of normal sensibilities with children.”

“If someone took their shirt off at Hardesty Park [a large Akron city park] no one would say anything, “Lieberth said, “but if someone took their shirt off at Lock 3, they would be asked to put it back on.”

That “family friendly” environment, however, meant the drag show had to go elsewhere, the source of the most protest.

Lieberth said the accurate way to portray it is that the city “declined to sponsor” the drag show.

CAN board member Steven Antalvari--the only remaining Pride Center board member--sent a message on the event’s promotional postcard reading, “We are incredibly fortunate that the City of Akron has permitted us to use Lock 3 and in fact the city is a co-sponsor of the event. Lock 3 has rules regarding appropriate attire and requires the events be family-friendly, which is why the drag shows are being held in a separate venue this year.”

That mid-June postcard prompted Facebook pages and emails urging the event be boycotted, calling it transphobic, ignorant of the role of drag queens in LGBT history, and as such, an inappropriate use of the word “Pride” and an inappropriate venue.

“I found the whole thing to be pretty homophobic,” said Jack Gover, a former Pride Center member.

Gover was involved in the early planning of the event and initially supported Lock 3 as the venue.

“Anything the city said, they agreed to,” Gover said of CAN’s accepting the Lock 3 rules.

“What kind of Pride is this? Why no drag performers on stage? It’s just people in costume,” Gover continued. “They have had people in costume on the stage before.”

Asked if drag performers such as Ru Paul or Harvey Fierstein could be sponsored at Lock 3 by the city, Lieberth said, “I don’t know. We would have to confront it when it occurs.”

Lieberth said the organizers enforce their own rules, too, “which depend on circumstances to some degree.”

“There is no hard and fast rule or guideline,” Lieberth said. “Had there been crossdressers on the property, no one would have been asked to leave.”

The promotional materials for the event were also insulting to some on Facebook, in addition to Antalvari’s statement.

The posters and cards contain no LGBT symbols, not even rainbow colors. If one did not know what the event was, it would be difficult to tell this was a “Pride” celebration by looking at the promotional materials.

“We used pastel colors,” said Jones. “It was not intentional to not use LGBT symbols, it was just not an issue to anyone on the board.”

“The man who designed the flyer is a gay man,” Jones said.

Jones also said she was unaware of the meaning of the word “Pride” to LGBT people, or the negative connotations associated with using “family friendly” to describe an event, especially to LGBT people of certain ages.

“Family” has been used as a code word by anti-gay activists for decades, including the names of organizations like the American Family Association and Focus on the Family.

Lieberth and Jones both said that all parties knew of the rules at Lock 3 when the event was booked. He said that talks began with the Pride Center a year ago.

Jones said the location had been set before the organizations merged.

The Pride Center had previously held the event at parks outside Akron where no such regulations on dress, language and entertainment existed.

“They wanted the downtown location,” Jones said, calling previous locations “hidden.” Downtown was “where people could be out and proud of their sexuality. That was the reason for here, because it’s open to everyone.”

“The board felt strongly that to be required to wear a shirt in public is appropriate,” Jones said. “You can’t go to Cedar Point without a shirt.”

Shirtless men--and a few women--are a common sight at Pride events in other Ohio cities.

‘Naked butts’ unwanted, not drag

“It upsets me that there is so much dissention in the gay community,” Jones said. “The gay community doesn’t always embrace diversity within its own community. That upsets me.”

“Many past participants of the Day in the Sun event had expressed a desire the entertainment activities for the day be diversified to accommodate the diverse interests of the entire community,” Antalvari wrote. “In keeping with those requests, we have added several children’s activities . . .”

Erika Collins of Akron, a lesbian with two gay fathers, said she has no problem with Lock 3 rules.

“I have no objection to crossdressers,” said Collins. “I have objection to naked butts and chaps.”

“Those are the ones [LGBT people] who want to flaunt it,” said Collins’ partner Lauren Seever.

“Those are the people who give gay people the stereotype,” Seever continued. “That’s not who we are.”

“My view of Pride is being proud of who you are,” Collins said. “I am content with my lover and our lives and everything.”

“We appreciate Akron permitting us to use this facility,” Collins said. “I have no issues with drag queens. My issue is with illicit clothing. Those things are an indecency.”

Jones said the division in the LGBT community caused by the event will rally the community to having discussions.

Asked if CAN, as an organization, should look to increase its queer cultural competency, Jones replied, “All but two board members are gay. I don’t think so.”

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