Although the Greater Palm Springs Pride parade is among the last to take place during the nation’s LGBTQ pride season, which begins in June to honor the Stonewall Riots of 1969, it’s first in terms of family-friendly atmosphere and entertainment. “It’s unlike any other pride parade in the country,” says Ron de Harte, president of Greater Palm Springs Pride.
The annual event has a hometown feel with marching bands, moms and dads, local businesses, and civic leaders. Yes, there are parade entries like Dykes on Bikes and muscled Leathermen from places like The Tool Shed and Barracks, but many first-time visitors to Greater Palm Springs Pride are surprised at how wholesome the parade is. Void of the disco decadence you see at festivities in major cities, our pride events are unique, much like Greater Palm Springs itself.
The Desert Business Association, a group of gay and lesbian hotel and bar owners formed in 1979, originally started the event. From the beginning there were stumbles and squabbles as leaders in the community disagreed on the type of celebration to have. DBA president Bob Hoven wanted an event that focused on friends and neighbors suffering from HIV and AIDS, according to Jim Suiguitan, whose online memoir (dejaival.com) chronicles gay life in the desert from the early 1980s onward.
From 2007 when the Pride Festival was held at Palm Springs Stadium until moving to downtown in 2013.
Others disagreed and wanted a traditional parade. In the end it was decided, because of the intense June heat, to throw a party indoors at the Riviera Palm Springs hotel.
Aptly named “Sizzle” due to the soaring temperatures outside, the musical-comedy revue featured local musicians, singers, and, of course, a bevy of drag queens. The event was considered a smashing success. The next year, however, due to some off-color jokes and poor production value, most were calling the event “Fizzle” and the organizers decided to try something different, according to Suiguitan and de Harte.
Local businesses march alongside community groups in the parade.
From then on Pride became nomadic — each year seeking a different location and trying newfangled events: a festival in Demuth Park; a reception at Desert Fashion Plaza (the old downtown Palm Springs shopping mall); there was even a “Pride” show at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, featuring drag entertainer Charles Pierce. Some years were more successful than others. People still rave about Eartha Kitt performing at the Renaissance Palm Springs in 1989. But a Pride festival held the following year at the Cathedral City Auto Mall was considered a flaming disaster (almost literally) with temperatures so hot people’s shoes were melting into the asphalt.
Pride celebrations have traditionally been held in June to commemorate the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Late at night on June 28, New York City police officers raided the popular Greenwich Village bar The Stonewall Inn. Fed up with the harassment, gays, lesbians, and more than a few drag queens fought back, culminating in riots that lasted three days and beginning a decades-long fight for equality.
But history was no match for the Palm Springs heat. After a few rag-tag parades and festivals down Mesquite Road toward Demuth Park, the board of Greater Palm Springs Pride voted to move the celebration to November to take advantage of the cooler temperatures.
The parade route traveled down Ramon Road, but it was still a side street: gas stations, churches, and condos with their gates closed.
PHOTO BY BRUCE HOWELL
Ross Mathews and partner Salvador Camarena were Celebrity Grand Marshals in 2013.
When the Pride committee applied for a permit to march down Palm Canyon Drive, a local conservative church made their opposition known. Suguitan remembers a particularly contentious city council meeting where church members signed up their kids to speak before chambers. There were children crying, claiming that seeing gays and lesbians march down Main Street would scar them for life. “It was really ugly,” says Suguitan.
The move was made with the support of council members Ron Oden (who would later be elected Palm Springs’ first gay mayor) and allies Jeanne Reller-Spurgeon and Deyna Hodges.
In 1995 the Pride parade marched down Palm Canyon Drive with singer/composer Michael Feinstein as grand marshal. Since then, Pride has grown, bringing in an estimated 100,000 visitors and $22 million to the local economy annually. But it’s not just the good weather that brings people back. Greater Palm Springs Pride now takes over all of downtown for two days of music, art, and civic engagement.
Greater Palm Springs Pride Parade, 10 a.m. Nov. 4 starting at the intersection of Tachevah Drive and Palm Canyon Drive. pridespringspride.org
VIDEO: Hear from Ron de Harte, president of Greater Palm Springs Pride, on what makes the parade unique.