Sonoma County Pride to return to Santa Rosa

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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.

Other early events took place at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts before organizers decided on Santa Rosa Junior College for the festival, parading down Mendocino Avenue from 1992 to 2004, when the sponsoring organization lost its nonprofit status.

The Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence picked up the torch in 2009, reviving the parade and festival in Guerneville and sponsoring the growing festivities for the next five years.

In 2014, when the Sisters determined the event interfered with their other charitable work, a group of supporters rallied at the last minute to continue the celebration of the movement’s aims and successes, including the right to same-sex marriage.

Organizers said there is always enough volunteer help when it comes time for Pride weekend. But getting commitments from people to help ahead of time has been a continuous battle, including the last few months, when the board advertised for new members and found no takers from the river community, Donovan said.

The board began to seriously consider relocating Pride last year after the event collided with the Vineman triathlon and another river race on the same weekend, Donovan said.

The city of Santa Rosa has embraced the choice of Old Courthouse Square, and is negotiating favorable rates and permitting, board members said. The parade will run down Fourth Street, and family friendly entertainment and a “kids’ zone” are planned.

The bawdy revelry typical of the event in Guerneville will, by necessity, need to be somewhat subdued, organizers said, but there is room for collateral events throughout the weekend in both communities.

Jeff Bridges, co-owner and general manager of R3 Resort in downtown Guerneville, said he sympathizes with those in town who “feel like something’s been taken away from them.”

But the move to Santa Rosa was probably inevitable, he said, though “whether now is the correct time to do it or not I think remains to be seen.”

Christina Peppan, owner of Trio restaurant, said she was unhappy about the move until she talked to members of the board and began to understand their rationale.

“I actually think it’s a great move,” she said Monday. “I think it’s going to be better for the event overall.”

At the same time, they’re supportive of a separate event being planned for Aug. 26 in Guerneville — a parade and related activities celebrating Russian River Pride and the unique, diverse community they call home.

“Life goes on,” said Rodger Jensen, event coordinator for R3 and a lead producer of the event, “and we do something else.”

Carnivele said he hears concerns about the celebration becoming too large, too corporate. But “they’re expensive events to put on, to keep it free,” he said.

“Sonoma County is so huge,” he said. “It just makes sense.”

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