Later this month, for the first time in its existence, Houston’s Pride Parade will wend its way through the streets of downtown rather than Montrose, long Houston’s (and arguably all of Texas’s) epicenter of LGBT life and culture. The move was announced last fall after the event’s board voted behind closed doors to abandon lower Westheimer in favor of the shadow of City Hall.

As Pride Houston president Frankie Quijano said at the time:

Pride Houston has outgrown the space required to produce quality activities associated with the Houston LGBT Pride Celebration. Downtown is already host to many successful annual festivals and parades. The downtown location also ensures greater access to parking, public transportation, hotels, emergency personnel and other facilities within walking distance of the celebration.

Quijano went on to say that there will be more space for vendors and shade for partiers at the all-day festival preceding the evening parade; a larger family area; multiple stages (featuring Big Freedia); misting stations; and a fireworks display closing out the shindig. 

In addition to the space and infrastructure aspects, Quijano says the move is symbolic of the mainstreaming of LGBT people and culture over the last 30-plus years:

“The time has come for the Houston LGBT community to come out of the closet. The original purpose of Pride in the 1960s was to break down barriers and show that as an LGBT community we refused to be ignored. There is no longer a need for a segregated community in Houston. Therefore, the move downtown will help break additional barriers of inclusion and integration.”

That opinion was echoed by Andrew Edmondson, former chair of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

The move downtown is a fabulous idea. It symbolizes how far the parade has come, the vibrancy and clout of Houston’s LGBT community, and the dizzying advances that the LGBT movement has achieved over the last decade.

Moving Pride downtown is not a new idea. Back in 2007, Pride Houston, Inc  floated the idea of relocating the parade to the city’s center and quickly withdrew it in the face of fierce opposition from the LGBT community. “That was when we created POMPOM,” chuckles John Nechman, a Houston attorney, referring to the opposition group People Opposed to Moving Pride Out of Montrose.” POMPOM marched in the parade, and, according to Nechman, “Almost everybody was telling me that some of the loudest cheers were for our little rag-tag group and our big sign.” 

This time, there was no trial balloon. The largest such shindig in the Southwest (organizers claim more than 400,000 people attend yearly) was moving downtown and that was that.

“I think it’s a huge mistake,” says Nechman. “I think there is a seven-person cabal on the board that met in secret, without any input from the community. They just went and did this, voted on it, and didn’t tell anybody until after. This is so different from 2007. Some might say they learned a lesson back then.”

Another foe of the way the move was announced was Jack Valinski, the Houston Pride Parade’s founder and, like Nechman, a former grand marshal of the event.  “I am not necessarily against the move, I am against the idea that they moved it without really talking to the community,” Valinski told the now-defunct News 92.1 FM at the time. He also noted that while the Pride committee had consulted with the police, the fire department and Mayor Annise Parker’s office, they shut out the LGBT community. “This is where our heart is and this is where the center of our universe is, Montrose and Westheimer. And the fact that they’re leaving that area without consideration of even talking to people is a real slap in the face to the community.”

Nechman understands the argument that the LGBT community at large has made huge strides in the city and beyond, but he does not see that fact as a reason to move the parade, one he has attended every year since coming out as a 17-year-old in the early eighties. “I’d love to see something that would broaden our community into downtown, but the Pride Parade has always seemed like a way to bring the outside world to our world,” he says. “The outside world got a chance to see this amazingly quirky unique neighborhood where our history speaks from every corner.”

That world, that neighborhood is changing at a breakneck pace. People have been lamenting the death of Montrose as a gay / bohemian enclave since the seventies, but there’s a sense that this time it might be for real, as high-dollar townhomes replace old bungalows, as luxury apartments replace funky low-cost crash pads, and craft beer bars, high-end coffeeshops and hot chef-helmed restaurants replace icons of the LGBT nightlife scene. And yet it remains the heart of LGBT Houston, Nechman believes.

“No matter how many yuppified bars open up on the Westheimer curve, this is still the area where the collective spirit of the community resides. That’s where the blood’s been shed. That’s where people were arrested in clubs, where people like Annise Parker were part of huge marches that lead to widespread change. And what other event has brought the city numbers like the Pride Parade? I love the Art Car Parade, always have, it’s a great event, but this is a very unique celebration.”

Downtown Houston has a whole different connotation in the minds of many LGBT Houstonians, Nechman says. “For many people there is still a disconnect. Many of think of it as a place that has traditionally neglected us and arrested us and basically in many ways just humiliated a lot of us. If I look at downtown I don’t think I can name you one business right now that really seems to go out of its way to cater to the LGBT crowd. Yes, some are very supportive, especially some law firms. But there is nothing really: Our bars, our cleaners, our massage parlors, whatever, they are all in Montrose.”

And then there are the aesthetics of the event, the vibe of Houston’s only after-dark parade. A big part of the event’s charm was that it was so at odds with Houston’s workaday soul: for one night, Houston threw off its shackles and acted like New Orleans. People whooped it up in a residential neighborhood, Mardi Gras-style. Downtown, this parade runs the risk of becoming just another in a litany of corporatized, sponsor-driven events, some of which—like the Houston International Festival (once a marquee event for the whole region) and the annual Thanksgiving Day paradeare dead now (the former) or on life-support (the latter.) 

And while Houston’s skyline is an awe-inspiring sight from a distance, like a lava-spewing volcano, it is best appreciated from afar, especially in the heat of high summer. Thanks to all the concrete, it’s a few degrees hotter than relatively shaded Montrose. And when you are standing amid and under those skyscrapers, you can’t see the concrete glass and steel forest for the trees. As a distant vista at dawn or around sundown, it’s a breathtaking prospect. Up close and personal, it seems sterile and inhuman.

CultureMap Houston editor Clifford Pugh shares that view:

Now instead of winding its way down Westheimer past Montrose Boulevard, the spiritual home of Houston’s gay movement, with bars, organizations and shops that gays and lesbians still gravitate to, the parade will move down a concrete canyon of soulless skyscrapers that could be in just about any city in America — all in the name of progress.

Nechman does not believe the parade needs the shot in the arm Quijano implies it will get from the move.

“They want to make this into an event where people will come from all over the world,” he says. “They’ve been coming! What other Houston even draws 400,000 people? I mean, it was 107 degrees the year I was one of the marshals. One of the highest recorded temperatures in a hundred years and it set an attendance record. It succeeds because it so uniquely our community. I’ve seen parades that were probably more impressive by sight, but there was something about ours that I don’t think they are gonna capture in a six-block parade downtown.”

Nechman says a splinter group is planning a second parade on the old Montrose route to coincide with National Coming Out Day in October. A third faction, this one lead by Ray Hill, Houston’s renowned LGBT and prisoners’ rights activist, is planning a Montrose Homecoming Walkabout on the same day as the downtown parade, the event’s battle-cry: “The big return! They are trying to tell you that you do not belong in Montrose anymore…IT’S NOT TRUE! We are all coming home.”

Should either of the rival LGBT gatherings gain traction, it would be in keeping of a sad Houston tradition. For more than a decade, the Bayou City has been home to dueling MLK Day parades. Celebrating diversity is a competitive sport here.

Nechman says he will attend the downtown Pride event this year. He does not want to see it fail, he says. “Maybe they will pull off something amazing this year, like some bigger floats,” he says. “I am sure Budweiser will have a huge float, but that’s not what the Pride Parade has always been.”

“This has always been our parade,” Nechman said. “Montrose’s parade.”

(Image: Thinkstock)