Before the Parade passes by

The new world of economics and support in LGBTQ+ LA

There’s lots to see on Hollywood Boulevard, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might miss the door to Junior High. The LGBTQ+ arts space has no door handle, just a few words stickered on the entrance and a translucent pink heart that barely shows through the mirrored window. It’s much more visible at night, when a pink neon light glows from inside and crowds gather outside on the sidewalk to mix and mingle.

But on the inside, Junior High is always buzzing.

The arts space, opened four years ago, is home to all things LGBTQ+. Junior High was founded to create a community space in Los Angeles where queer people can safely gather, akin to a New York stoop, said Eden Hain, the space manager and booker at Junior High. Here, everyone is always welcome to come, hang out and “see a friendly face.”

Junior High has expanded its reach since then, with a quarterly magazine about arts and artists and the event space, which hosts comedy shows, gallery showings and other gatherings, all with the intent of serving artists and audiences who may be marginalized under the broader LGBTQ+ umbrella: those who are women, non-binary, trans or people of color. 

“We want to maintain a space for people who feel like they don’t have space, and who maybe don’t feel comfortable at school or don’t feel comfortable at home,” said Hain, who uses they/them pronouns. 

The economics of queer pride have been growing more and more fraught even as queerness has become more visible in the mainstream. Fifty years after the Stonewall Riots helped start the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, and Los Angeles helped cement the annual Pride celebrations, the observances every June are bigger than ever. Companies change to rainbow logos, they have queer employees march in the parades, and rainbow paraphernalia seems to be everywhere. As both the community and Los Angeles continue to sprawl, queer artistry has a bigger landscape to play with.

Which leaves LGBTQ+ rights and activism at an intersting intersection: Queer culture has a higher profile than ever, with celebrities like Taylor Swift and mainstream corporations like Chipotle all eager to claim the title of “ally.” 

But LGBTQ+ rights are under attack by the Trump administration. And even in a city like Los Angeles known for its acceptance of queer people, gay males remain the single most targeted group for hate crimes, according to an August 2018 report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The study also found that even with a 24% decline in attacks against gay males, anti-gay hate crimes remained flat in the first half of 2018 because of a rise in anti-lesbian crimes. 

For many in the queer community, statistics like these underscore the need for their own year-round spaces. Especially for those who do not conform to the stereotypical depictions of LGBTQ+ individuals’ experiences, mainstream acceptance — and the monetary reward that comes with it — doesn’t always seem to be spread evenly. And that has left both nonprofits and corporations struggling to discern what tangible support looks like. 

The monthly queer comedy show “That’s So Gay!” is held at Junior High in July

Scenes from “That's So Gay!”

This July, Junior High hosted That’s So Gay, a queer monthly comedy show founded and emceed by comedian Stephanie Wain. Click through the slideshow to get a look at the crowd and comedians in Junior High’s event space.

Pictures by Xinlu Liang.

Out and Proud

One challenge has been the scaling of the community. When it was less socially acceptable to be out, there were fewer businesses that one could expect to cater to LGBTQ+ crowds. Gay bars and nightclubs proliferated, but underage venues were much less common. 

But as LGBTQ+ acceptance grew, the once illicit art forms that blossomed in exclusively queer spaces found more conventional ways to expand their reach. Drag started as a subculture and now boasts one of the most popular reality shows — “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its spin-offs, with more than 11 seasons under its belt — and a family-friendly convention in LA

At the same time, queer art and spaces became more fragmented, offering more options than ever for spending or self-discovery. Nowadays, that also means the economics aren’t a clear one-to-one: Instead of supporting an establishment with your business and your presence, you might go to see a queer art show and not even buy anything. 

That’s part of the reason Danielle Lande, a singer-songwriter, founded Queersound. It’s a showcase specifically for LGBTQ+ musicians in LA, and she’s found that when she has shows at off-kilter locations — like a crystal shop — she’s able to focus more on her art. 

Danielle Lande, a singer-songwriter and the founder of Queersound, chats with friends after her performance.

“We didn’t even have alcohol at that one and it was donation-based,” Lande said of the show at Liberate Hollywood in April. "The constraint of being stressed about the venue is disappearing. Which is allowing me to refocus my thoughts more on what I actually want it to be.” 

The project is new, but it came out of Lande’s frustration at being the only queer person performing on any given night. She started reaching out to other queer musicians to create a roster of acts who could represent the community without being tokenized. 

Currently, her shows happen on a monthly basis; it’s a side project from her work as a freelance editor for commercials and music videos. But though she says she had a vision of “getting to a place where I’d make money faster,” the 26-year-old also says that the money is “not why I do that.” 

Her goal doesn’t necessarily mean the ubiquitous rainbow merch that companies sell everywhere in June. She hopes to spotlight queer artists in a way that ensures they can connect with their community. 

“I don’t actually want this to have an industry vibe. I want it to feel like the equivalent of a living room show. And also I don't want to be in a space with it where people are stressing about numbers and shit,” Lande said.

“Right now it’s chilling in a crystal shop and it’s donation-based and I’m happy with that.”

That’s not unlike the system inside the millennial pink walls of Junior High, where the answer to the question of support has always been to push the money back toward the artists. 

“We just want to be able to uplift artists’ voices and make sure that they’re getting paid,” Hain said. “That’s pretty much our biggest priority. We have to make some money in order to pay rent and pay utilities and make sure that it can still happen.” 

If you were to attend one of Junior High’s performances (typically held at night before 10 o’clock, to accommodate all ages), you’ll typically find a venue overflowing into the lobby, cordoned off only by curtains. But just because Junior High is full doesn’t mean it’s raking in cash. 

“All of the art on the walls, like any sort of like prints you buy through Junior High direct, go directly back to an artist,” Hain said. Whatever money collected at the door (despite a standard $5 entry fee, there’s always a “pay what you can” approach) also goes into the pockets of the performers. 

“We’re just prioritizing people making money and getting their voices heard and feeling like their work is valuable,” Hain said. 

As part of that mission, the nonprofit — which is partially funded by grants from Los Angeles County and the state of California — shares details of their revenue and bills on Junior High’s website.

The goal is to provide a space where people feel safe enough to create — which often means highlighting voices that fall outside the conventional idea of LGBTQ+ folks, which is typically white and cis. 

Across Hollywood just off Melrose Avenue, the LGBTQ+-owned and -operated coffee shop Cuties strives for a similar atmosphere. 

Cuties started out as a community organization, where the most popular social events were the “Queers, coffee and donuts” gatherings on the first Sunday of every month. Ultimately, the money from those events would make possible the opening of the brick-and-mortar store in East Hollywood in 2017. Since then the shop has also started showcasing queer artists. 

“It’s a way to brighten up the space and feature other people, and be able to give other people a voice,” said Willow Fields, shop coordinator at Cuties.

It’s a safe space that heterosexual or cisgender people might take for granted. But that’s part of what makes Cuties special to those who frequent the establishment with its vibrant pastels and cloud lights. Cuties manages to feel more intimate than its lofty ceilings would imply. 

“It’s more than just meeting at a coffee shop,” said Laney Eddington, a frequent customer who uses they/them pronouns. “There’s just a sense of community and comfort around it. It’s like going home, kind of.” 

For both Eddington and Hain, Junior High and Cuties occupy the same space: a comfortable place, like their “parents’ house,” where they can gather and trust that their identity will be respected.

“There’s literally a Starbucks on my block,” Eddington said. “There’s another Starbucks two blocks over, and a Target. It’s so much easier for me to go there and get coffee, tea, whatever. But I actually drive here instead, to support my community.”

And yet despite that outreach, both Cuties and Junior High are struggling. Cuties recently posted on social media about a “summer slowdown” while nearby Los Angeles City College was operating a reduced class schedule. The slowdown would limit the hours Cuties could stay open, and would mean that the shop was more reliant on crowdfunding through its Patreon subscriber program than the owners and staff would prefer.

“Being able to operate a business the way we are, and doing it ethically, is even tougher,” Fields said. “Being able to pay people a living wage, and not just minimum wage. Being able to give them benefits — it’s costly, and we are a small business. What’s really nice is there is growth, and sales aren’t sinking, especially when we compare it to last year.”

This sign leans against the wall inside Junior High: “We’ve always told the truth! You just started listening.”

Coffee with Cuties

Cuties is a unique space for the LGBTQ+ community to gather in a nonalcoholic environment, serving up coffee, doughnuts and good vibes on a daily basis.

Shop coordinator Willow Fields and customer Laney Eddington spoke with Natalie Redington to help convey what makes Cuties so important for the East Hollywood and LGBTQ+ community. Download the video here.

A scene from Los Angeles Pride 2019.

Deep history, deep pockets

Once July hit, and companies changed their avatars from the rainbow logos back to their regular ones, many in the queer community cried foul. From their point of view, mega pop stars and corporations put on rainbow gear for one month, while for them it was a year-round struggle. 

“You can’t talk about economic justice when you have Fortune 500 companies marching in your parade,” Bill Dobbs of the Reclaim Pride Coalition told The New York Times, referring to New York’s Pride March on June 30 and his group’s plans to hold an alternative march on the same day. “This is a clash of values. … Their march stands for corporate pride and the status quo. Ours stands for change.”

The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade winds down on Santa Monica Boulevard, Sunday, June 25, 1995, West Hollywood, Calif. An estimated 6,000 people participated in the parade. (AP Photo/Holly Stein)

That’s a far cry from how the contemporary celebration started almost five decades ago. Los Angeles has long asserted the title of the first Pride Parade ever, hosted in 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots. (Though New York would also be hosting a rally that year to mark the first anniversary, LA organizers strove for something a bit more festive, thus their claim that they started the modern tradition.) Getting the idea off the ground wasn’t easy.

“(The authorities) asked ‘who do I represent’ and I said ‘the homosexual community,’” the Rev. Troy Perry, one of the co-founders of the march and nicknamed the “godfather of gay pride,” said in a 2017 interview with Only in Hollywood. “And then they tried to make fun of us.” 

The Los Angeles Police Commission put it to a vote, ultimately in favor of the parade. But Perry notes that wasn’t before commissioners placed conditions on the parade permit: “They were 1) you’d have to put up a bond for a million dollars to pay out the businesses when people throw rocks at ya’ll 2) you have to put up a cash bond of $500,000, and 3) you’ve got to have at least 5000 people marching.”

Nevertheless, the parade happened. And the joyousness of that first Pride became a tradition that spread worldwide. As Pride grew bigger and bigger, so did LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance — and businesses recognizing potential value in taking part in the celebration. By the 1990s, corporate sponsors had made their way to the festivities, and counterprogramming (like a separate Dyke March in Boston) was formed as a reaction to this trend.

In many cities, Pride is now a well-funded affair, extending far past a single parade. This year, the Los Angeles Pride Parade boasted 85 corporate donors that contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the event. Many had their own floats, enabling employees to participate in the parade. 

That makes sense, now that Pride is big money: According to a 2010 study by Harris Interactive, LGBTQ+ acceptance is very important to consumers. Of the LGBT adults surveyed, 66% said they “would be very or somewhat likely to remain loyal” to a brand they believed to be very friendly and supportive to queer communities. 

But organizers have acknowledged that Pride as we know it wouldn’t exist without corporate patronage.

“We wouldn’t have been able to grow into who we are today, the size and scope of the events, without the corporate sponsorships,” James Fallarino, media director for NYC Pride, said in a 2017 interview with Market Watch. “I don’t know if we’d even be able to produce just the march and two other events without corporate donations.”

The question is how to most effectively support the communities. Brands like Chipotle have struggled with how to best put their activism foot forward. Many perceived the fast-casual restaurant chain as tone-deaf after the Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage when the company posted an image of a burrito covered in rainbow foil with the phrase “Homo Estas?” in its promotions. In the years since, however, Chipotle has contributed heavily to Los Angeles Pride, and donated proceeds from limited-edition Pride merchandise to the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youths.

There are, of course, plenty of corporations that simply put on a proud face: There’s no shortage of companies that (despite waving rainbow logos and receiving top marks from the Human Rights Campaign) donate thousands to politicians who are fighting against LGBTQ+ rights, as journalist Judd Legum reported in his Popular Information newsletter. 

But there are also corporations that are investing in community outreach to queer spaces, and working hard to make sure that there are more LGBTQ+ people on a wider level. For companies like NBCUniversal, that means starting with an understanding that it’s best if their workforce matches their consumer base.

“I think that most companies want to diversify, but if they’re in a community that is not diverse, they’re just not going to put as much thought and effort into it,” said Julia Mira, senior human resource manager with NBCUniversal. Her company, she says, benefits from being not only in Los Angeles but specifically in Hollywood.

For a big corporation, that kind of public outreach can be tricky: Parent company Comcast, which has owned NBC since 2011, is a frequent political donor, spending more than $3.6 million in 2018 — with some of that money going to politicians who received a score of zero on the Human Rights Commission’s congressional scorecard.

At the same time, NBCUniversal has several employee resource groups, including Out, which provides a forum for LGBTQ+ employees and their allies to participate in professional development programs and community outreach. 

Sometimes that means providing volunteer and charity opportunities, or partnering with nonprofits in the area. Other times it’s advocating for an inclusive work environment. 

Corporate Outreach & the LGBTQ+ Community

Corporations such as Comcast NBCUniversal have also provided both long-term employment opportunities and outreach into the LGBTQ+ community. Jed Alexander connected with two administrators from Universal regarding their ongoing endeavors.

Given how large the company is, Out’s co-hub leader Mariano Federovsky says that NBCUniversal often relies on employees to further the programs themselves. 

“It’s always just about the employees knowing that they’re the ones that have to really raise their hand and get involved,” Federovsky, who uses he/him pronouns, said. “No one’s going to come knock on their door and say, hey, look, you know, we want to promote you. It’s more about what can I do to be involved and find the opportunities out there.”

Their goal, first and foremost, is to make sure that queer employees at NBCUniversal feel taken care of, so that the company can effectively attract and retain employees. A byproduct of that is extending the work that used to be confined just to Pride month so that it occurs more year-round. In a few months, Federovsky said, Out is launching a mentorship program to link at-risk youths to employees at the company. 

“There are several levels that we can reach out to the community,” Federovsky said. “It doesn’t have to just be monetary.” 

An event at Los Angeles Pride sponsored by Bubly.

Queer-friendly businesses in Los Angeles

This map can’t list every LGBTQ+-friendly business in the Greater Los Angeles Area, but it can show a small sample of areas where some of these companies thrive, including nonprofit resources.

Each marker represents both the business’s location and parts of the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. The map does not include major corporations.

Does Pride still rock?

All that outreach doesn’t necessarily connect, though. For people like Eden Hain of Junior High, Pride no longer represents a “safe space” for them and their friends. 

“I would love it if there wasn’t Pride month, and there was just places where queer people could feel safe all year round,” Hain said. “That’s just not how it is yet.” As long as “corporations care for like a day, or for like a month,” Junior High will have to fill in the gaps, Hain continued.

This year Junior High didn’t even do any Pride month programming. Hain and co-workers felt that the more important thing to do was keep to their mission of uplifting marginalized voices. 

“I think that it’s just important to see yourself represented because it’s important to feel like, ‘I could do that too,’” Hain said. 

With Queersound, Danielle Lande also hopes to keep her organization grounded in the LGBTQ+ community. When she sees the opportunity to scale her project up, it’s not through grants or outreach, but rather the concept of being “organic.” The most important thing to her is to preserve the safety of the Queersound brand. 

Danielle Lande performs her new single to close out Junior High’s That’s So Gay! comedy event.

“There is something special about playing to an eager queer room that’s listening and really really happy to be there,” Lande said. “I want it to be just an enjoyable gathering where it’s OK if only a couple people come specifically for you.”

For many LGBTQ+ Angelenos, the diversity that comes with tolerance means being more conscious of where they put their money.

“It’s been pretty amazing to watch the community rally around Cuties,” Laney Eddington said. “It’s just really important for the community to step up. And if they want community spaces, we have to step up and support them.” 

And though it’s not always easy, Queersound, Junior High and Cuties have found connections with their communities. 

“We asked for help, (and) so many people came to help, and really signed up to support Cuties,” Fields said. “It’s definitely not over, we’re still struggling, but we’re getting on our feet, and we’re almost there. 

“It’s not only for us, it’s for the community. And being able to hold the space for the community is really important.” 

Keep Pride rolling

Interested in checking out some of the groups quoted in this story? Follow them on Twitter.