Op-ed: How San Francisco Pride Has Failed Bradley
Writer Victoria A. Brownworth
believes San Francisco Pride's messy grand marshal debacle makes a mockery
out of the tradition of pride in general.
May 10 2013
It’s hard to believe what’s happening in San Francisco
only a month before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Two
weeks ago Bradley Manning, the whistle-blower being prosecuted (many,
including the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, say
persecuted) by the Obama administration for leaking documents about
America's role in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several covert wars while an Army
specialist, was named grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade.
Then the honor was withdrawn. San Francisco Pride
president Lisa Williams issued a statement from the board attacking Manning
as a traitor who put thousands of lives in jeopardy. She also said the
choice of Manning was made without the board’s full consent and that service
members and veterans had protested the action.
Protests about rescinding the honor followed.
But this wasn’t just a little local flurry of
discontent among a handful of activists and the corporate pride
organization. Manning’s notoriety catapulted the incident from a local LGBT
story to a mainstream press news item.
S.F. Pride fought for damage control, but Wednesday,
20 San Francisco activists led by David Waggoner, former president of the
Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, as well as five organizations, including
San Francisco ACT UP, filed a complaint against S.F. Pride with the San
Francisco Human Rights Commission.
Also among the notable signatories is Lt. Dan Choi,
himself a grand marshal in 2009. Choi, a 2003 graduate of West Point, served
in combat in Iraq. Choi supports the choice of Manning for grand marshal.
The five-page complaint alleges that the S.F. Pride
board’s action violated a series of city codes as well as the organization’s
own policies and also, because S.F. Pride receives city grant monies,
violated the provisions of that funding as well.
The complaint asserts that the board’s action "has
caused embarrassment, discord, and outrage in the community and has resulted
in scathing criticism from San Francisco to London to Cairo. We therefore
respectfully request that the Human Rights Commission take immediate action
to ameliorate the Board’s prejudicial, discriminatory and unlawful action
against those members of the Electoral College who nominated and voted for
The debacle has put a harsh spotlight on queer
politics in this era of mainstreaming LGBT issues. If all politics is local,
then the small but very queer town that is San Francisco is providing a
litmus for what activism means in 2013 and what direction that activism
About 125 activists showed up for a meeting hastily
convened by the S.F. Pride board Wednesday night. But only 20 were allowed
in as other protesters chanted "You say court-martial, we say grand
The situation devolved quickly. San Francisco activist
Tommi Avicolli Mecca said that police were called on the protesters, but
that they were more reasonable than the board of S.F. Pride. There were no
arrests, but Avicolli Mecca said a tense situation was exacerbated by the
way the community was treated by the board.
As someone who has detailed the inhumane treatment of
Bradley Manning for three years — his third anniversary of incarceration is
next week — I have been personally stunned by the ignorance with which his
case has been met within the LGBT community. I’ve received dozens of emails
from gay men — some former service persons — attacking me for detailing
True progressives and especially LGBT activists must
recognize that Manning has been unjustly imprisoned and penalized for an act
of heroic dissent that has benefited all Americans. Manning’s actions
provided a level of transparency that has been withheld by the Obama
administration, which pledged to be the most transparent administration in
Instead the draconian Espionage Act of 1917 was
revived nearly a century later, specifically to quell dissent about this
president’s overt and covert wars and stifle whistle-blowers like Manning. (Obama
several whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act.)
The LGBT community has embraced President Obama for
his belated comments in support of same-sex marriage (after spending nearly
four years filing numerous court cases in support of DOMA); acceptance of
whatever Obama says regarding wars or Manning has also been given tacit
Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistle-blower from
1971, was an early supporter of Manning. A haunting photo of him at the
protest last week in support of Manning and against the S.F. Pride board
shows Ellsberg, now 82, holding a hand-lettered sign reading "I Am Bradley
Ellsberg was Manning 42 years ago, doing exactly what
Manning did. But he wasn’t prosecuted and instead was on the cover of
Time magazine. With that sign, however, Ellsberg has made clear that
any dissenter to the Obama (formerly Bush) war machine will be viewed
through the prism of Manning’s actions.
Ellsberg, who was one of the few allowed into the
meeting Wednesday, explained to me, in contradiction to Williams’s and S.F.
Pride’s early and vituperative condemnation of the young gay soldier, that
"Manning’s release to WikiLeaks of a State Department cable revealed U.S.
knowledge that an American atrocity which the government had denied had
actually occurred, without leading to any prosecution of the perpetrators.
That publication forced [Iraq prime minister Nouri] Maliki — who had been
inclined to allow President Obama to keep 10,000 or more American troops in
Iraq beyond the end-of-the-year deadline agreed by Bush — to insist that
there be no immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts for American troops
remaining. Obama couldn't keep American troops there — to be accused,
perhaps correctly, of atrocities — without immunity. He had to pull them all
out." Ellsberg explains that Manning saved lives, rather than causing harm
to thousands, as Williams had claimed.
Photos of the meeting called by the board tell a
sordid tale. The transparency promised by Williams et al was rendered moot
by the setting. Many people were crowded into a tiny space. Ellsberg
described the room to me as "the size of a closet," which he found an
unsettling metaphor for the LGBT community. Speakers were restricted to a
minute’s time — literally 60 seconds — to speak. Rainey Reitman of the
Bradley Manning Support Network attended the meeting and noted that the
board said in unison that no "indecorous" speech would be allowed.
Initial talk of moving to a larger space was
immediately quelled. Ellsberg joked that perhaps it would be a secret
location like where Dick Cheney had been holed up during the post-9/11
San Francisco activist Lisa Geduldig, who had
organized the original protest with Avicolli Mecca and Michael Petrelis,
described the meeting as farcical and said the use of a Sharper Image
speakerphone by the board’s attorney was more reminiscent of the set of a
Charlie’s Angels episode than addressing serious complaints from an
Geduldig noted, "In the one minute I was allotted for
public comment I said that the Pride parade used to be more political. It
was more about gay politics and gay freedom, and I think we should stay true
to that. Bradley Manning represents me more than someone from The L Word
Where Geduldig used her minute to plead for a return
to activist pride rather than an increasingly corporate pride, Ellsberg used
his to defend Manning.
"There were 10,000 to 20,000 American combat troops
who would be in harm's way in Iraq at this moment, and some of them would
already have died, if our president had had his way. It was due to Manning's
revelations that they are not in Iraq right now. And hundreds of thousands
of American troops had been put in harm's way. Over 4,000 had died, along
with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis because no Bradley Manning in 2002-03
had existed at a high level to do what he did in telling the truth about
ongoing policy, which was then lying us into a wrongful war."
At left: Daniel Ellsberg, the U.S. military analyst
who, while employed by the RAND Corp. in 1971, released the Pentagon
Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making in
relation to the Vietnam War, to The New York Times, delivers
remarks December 22, 2011, at the gate to Fort Meade, Md. Ellsberg spoke
on the similarity of his case to that of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.
Under Williams’s direction, S.F. Pride has tried to
quell dissent over the Manning pick just as the Obama administration has
tried to quell the dissent Manning’s actions instigated.
As Waggoner’s complaint reads, "The Board’s
invalidation of a democratic vote by executive fiat is unconscionable.
Moreover, it’s illegal. The Pride Board must reinstate the will of the
Electoral College. Failing that, the Human Rights Commission should
investigate this complaint of discrimination and take whatever steps
necessary to ameliorate its harmful effects as soon as possible."
In a statement released after the complaint was
filed and just before the meeting to discuss the issue, Williams said the
choice of Manning violated the board's policy because no one outside the
community could be grand marshal.
Really? That’s what you came up with a full week
into the furor and months after the vote was first presented? Had this San
Francisco-only clause actually existed, then the first statement from
Williams would have said that and only that — those who nominated Manning
were unaware that the bylaws stipulate that only San Franciscans be grand
marshal. Period. There would have been no slanderous accusations about
Manning, no self-righteous statements about "disciplining" those who had
chosen Manning. It would have been simple and straightforward.
And there would have been no controversy.
But the controversy continues and likely will until
Manning is either reinstated solo or made co-grand marshal with a member
of the San Francisco LGBT community. As Avicolli Mecca said, "This is not
The story of S.F. Pride versus Bradley Manning and
S.F. Pride versus the activist community of San Francisco is an ugly one
that illumines the maggoty underside of assimilationist politics and
policies. In the quest for straight acceptance that has propelled the LGBT
community headlong into the arms of two of the most historically
repressive institutions, marriage and the military, dissent has become
anathema. The values of ads that used to pepper the personals in queer
newspapers and magazines "seeking straight-looking, straight-acting, no
fats, no fems" have become internalized within the community.
The controversy over Manning highlights what has
happened in the juggernaut move toward equality — there’s no room for
outliers. Either you are a Lisa Williams-style straight-acting,
straight-looking martinet with no temper for dissent or you are like the
people who signed the complaint — activists all — who recognize that our
queer story is not going to be told simply through marriage equality and
being able to enlist openly in the military.
Marriage and military equality are important, but
they aren’t our only issues. Manning took the actions he did because of
his outrage over DADT, which was still in effect throughout his
deployment. But he also acted like so many patriots have over our nation’s
history — out of loyalty to American democracy. Manning thought the
government was lying to the people.
So he told them the truth.
S.F. Pride has been unable to tell the truth to the
LGBT community in San Francisco. It denied access to the community in what
was billed a community meeting.
The problems in San Francisco are problems we face
as a minority community. What are our objectives 44 years post-Stonewall
with another state validating marriage equality the same day as the fracas
in San Francisco? Is straight tolerance so important to us that we are
willing to throw any gay man or lesbian under the bus who doesn’t adhere
to that singular goal?
The debate in San Francisco began over Bradley
Manning but has become about the very roots of our movement: Where do we
go from here?
Manning exposed the government for who and what it
is. In San Francisco, Manning has exposed the LGBT community as riven —
are we a community of activists or a community of assimilationists?
Carol Queen may have answered that question with her
comment at the board meeting. Queen, who was a grand marshal in 2001 and
2008, saw the board’s recent actions as conservative and concerning. "I
came out in 1973, and I just want to say on an historical level that this
is a more conservative community than it was when I came out."
In 1973, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Bradley
Manning would have been our unequivocal hero — like Ellsberg was. If an
82-year-old straight man who stood up against another war can identify
with Manning’s actions and fight for justice for him, shouldn’t LGBT
people be doing the same?
That’s a question not just for San Francisco but for
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist who
has won the NLGJA and Society of Professional Journalists Awards for her
series on LGBT issues. She is the author and editor of more than 30 books,
including the award-winning Too Queer: Essays From a Radical Life.
She lives in Philadelphia. Find her on Twitter at @VABOX.