The annual Sonoma County Pride parade and festival, a signature event in gay-friendly Guerneville for nine years, is returning to Santa Rosa, leaving some in the river town feeling betrayed, while exciting others about the opportunity to celebrate the vibrant LGBTQI community on a larger stage.
The event will be held June 2 in Old Courthouse Square, a centrally located venue that organizers said would draw more volunteers and participants. Santa Rosa also has a larger stock of hotels, restaurants, parking and travel options to serve people who might want to come, organizers said.
New volunteers from all over the county already have come forward to fill key positions on a board that for years struggled to drum up enough help for the months of planning and coordination required to stage the event, board officers said. The board, long comprised of four members, now has 10. New sponsors have also stepped forward, and city and county officials are doing everything possible to smooth the road, they said.
“It’s already been the smarter move,” said Vicki Nicholson, 71, treasurer for Sonoma County Pride.
But many in Guerneville are reluctant to surrender an occasion that reflects the diversity and flamboyance of their river community, a stronghold of “out and proud” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people.
Sonoma County Pride is the regional kickoff to LGBTQI Pride Month, arriving three to four weeks before San Francisco’s huge bash each year. Always held the first weekend in June in Sonoma County, Pride weekend is a highly anticipated party. It’s also an important source of revenue for the Russian River region’s largely seasonal economy dominated by gay- and lesbian-owned businesses.
The board says every effort was made to engage stakeholders along the Russian River, with little success. But some Guerneville residents are critical of the way the decision to move was handled, saying they feel betrayed and sold out in a bid for larger corporate sponsorships.
“Pride was dying in Santa Rosa, absolutely dying,” said Larry Boeger, owner of Timberline restaurant. “So guess what? It came out to the river and we threw a nice party, and it flourished. It’s been growing, and last year we had 3,000-plus people out here, and, well, now it’s desirable again.”
JD Donovan, board president and a resident of Guerneville, said she understands the frustration but also wants to reach out to the larger LGBTQI community and its allies.
“There’s a reason to come out to the river: It’s the gay mecca,” said Donovan, who joined the Pride board in 2014. “There’s nothing we want to do to lessen the importance of Guerneville. We just have to represent Sonoma County as a whole.”
Pride events, more like protests and rallies at first, grew out of a June 1969 police raid on a Manhattan gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, which launched an uprising that would inspire the continuing movement for LGBTQI rights across the country.
Anniversary events subsequently sprouted up in cities around the United States, though the first event in Sonoma County was probably not until 1980, when a small picnic in Juilliard Park was held, Donovan said. Other members of the community from that time suggest a 1986 event was the first true Pride event, according to Gary Carnivele, director of marketing for Sonoma County Pride.