The last complaint you’d expect to hear about an event called PrideFest, held in Boys Town the day before the Pride Parade, is that it’s just not gay enough. But that’s the criticism leveled for two years in a row by a small group of queer artists and musicians against the daylong street festival, which raises money for the Northalsted Area Merchants Association.

For the past few weeks members of the ad hoc coalition Gay Artists for Gay Artists, or GAGA, have been sticking “straight” labels above the names of the four musicians listed on the posters for this year’s PrideFest, scheduled for this Saturday. All of the headliners are dance-music divas who are presumed to be straight: Loleatta Holloway, Suzanne Palmer, Linda Clifford, and Zelma Davis.

Scott Free, a local musician who hosts the Homolatte music and spoken-word series at No Exit Cafe, founded GAGA in time to protest the first PrideFest last year. He says he doesn’t have anything against straight performers but thinks a gay pride festival should showcase more lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender performers for people to be proud of.

“I don’t think it should be required that all the performers be LGBT,” Free writes in an e-mail from Europe, where he’s vacationing. “But I do think it’s worth complaining about in two situations: when less than half of the performers are queer (last year) or when the headliners are straight (this year).”

Other acts at this year’s PrideFest are Liz Mandville Greeson, a local blues singer whom Free identifies as straight, and the Lakeside Pride Jazz Ensemble and Kimi Hayes, both of whom he identifies as queer. There’s also the Chicago chapter of the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps, a gay color guard, and the Chicago Spirit Brigade, a gay cheerleading squad.

But those names aren’t on PrideFest posters. “The PrideFest organizers put dance artists on the stages because they think that’s what gay people want,” Free writes. “Of course, they are only targeting one segment of the LGBT community, but that’s not even the problem for us. They could have openly gay dance artists like RuPaul….We are not interested in genres of music–all genres of music can and should be on the stages. The issue is, within that genre, to be representative of our own community.”

RuPaul and a lot of other big-name gay performers are beyond PrideFest’s entertainment budget, says Tony Abruscato, the president of Maximum Profile Group. The Chicago firm handles public relations for Chicago Special Events Management, which organizes about 30 festivals every year, including PrideFest. Abruscato wouldn’t say what that budget is or how much the NAMA earned from last year’s PrideFest, which drew about 4,000 people.

“I think the difference, if you would look at the cost of, perhaps, what Linda Clifford might cost and the Pet Shop Boys, this event doesn’t necessarily have the budget to be able to do that,” says Abruscato. “It would be fantastic to bring in major performers, whether they were gay or straight, as they had an appeal to the audience. The idea is that the music helps drive attendance to the festivals. And so I don’t know if anybody is not going to come–except for perhaps Scott–because someone isn’t gay or lesbian.”

PrideFest artists are chosen by a Chicago Special Events (CSE) employee who used to be a radio programmer, Abruscato says, with help from Raul Rodriguez, the owner of JumpStart Productions, a company that promotes club acts and events. Their choices are reviewed and approved by the NAMA festival committee before being booked.

“We look at the demographic that we’re dealing with for any event that we produce,” says Abruscato, “then we look at acts that appeal to that demographic. If they happen to be African-American or Hispanic, or if they happen to be lesbian, or gay, or bisexual, transgender, all the better, and if they’re not and they still appeal to the group that’s there, we book them. It’s kind of all-inclusive and not exclusive.”

Less than half of the performers at PrideFest 2003 were gay, according to GAGA. Free and about ten other LGBT musicians and writers showed up at the festival carrying signs with slogans like “Gay Pride = Gay Music,” “Support Queer Musicians,” and “Is This Shamefest?”

“Some drunk folks got very angry with us,” Free writes in his e-mail. “When people were willing to take the time to talk to us, and we explained the issue to them, it made complete sense to them. Most people don’t even realize this is going on. And once they see that this is a lost opportunity for musicians from our own community, they completely agree with us.”

Free claims he called a member of the NAMA once after last year’s event, but the person didn’t call back and Free didn’t either. He no longer recalls the NAMA member’s name. “I have to confess that I really haven’t tried to communicate with either NAMA or CSE,” he writes.

“And so now he’s going to mount a campaign because he didn’t follow through?” Abruscato says. “I think that if tables were turned and we were talking about the Wells Street Art Fair, and the Wells Street Art Fair had a gay performer, and a group went around putting stickers on their posters that said ‘gay’ for the artist, I think everyone would be up in arms, at least in our community.”

Tactics aside, GAGA’s part of a small but ongoing national discussion about who performs at gay pride events around the country.

In 2000 Deian McBryde broached the subject at the national meeting of InterPride, a nonprofit support organization for pride event organizers around the world. He’s the former artistic director of Outmusic, a New York City-based organization that promotes and supports LGBT musicians. He’s also the front man of Deian McBryde & the Pretty Girl Orchestra, a jazz and blues band that has played 14 pride festivals nationwide.

“When you book Jennifer Holliday or Bette Midler on your stage, or whomever you book, what’s the message you’re putting out?” McBryde says. “Are you saying we’re proud of Jennifer Holliday? We’re proud because we love Jennifer Holliday? We’re proud because Jennifer Holliday loves us?

“To me, the thing is, it’s not about a quota. It’s about what is the purpose of pride,” he says. “Every pride [festival] tries to have somebody somewhere on a stage who’s gay. So they certainly have a defensible position of ‘We support gay musicians and musicians in our community.’ The question is on main stages, headlining stages, names on posters, pictures in ads. Whether it’s San Francisco, whether it’s New York, Chicago, any of the large cities, they’re gonna do the exact same thing.”

He says most pride festival organizers book musicians that they think will draw the largest crowds, which in turn makes the most money for the event. But pride festivals aren’t the only force in determining what music plays well with LGBT listeners. “The national gay media puts very little emphasis on gay music,” he says. “That creates a culture where gay people don’t demand it, so it creates this nondraw.”

Russell Murphy, the copresident of InterPride, agrees that the entertainment at a lot of pride events isn’t any gayer than that at PrideFest. “The organizations that produce pride fests want to get acts that draw a crowd,” he says. “Dance acts are popular, and a lot of those people tend to be straight.”

Most of the performers at pride festivals around New York City are gay, according to Ed Mannix, the director of communications for Outmusic. That’s partly because a lot of top gay performers live in New York and are willing to sing for little or no compensation, he says, but Chicago has plenty of performers to draw from too. “I was shocked that there aren’t LGBT artists headlining [at PrideFest] when Chicago has just about the finest and richest LGBT music community in the world,” Mannix says. “I mean, I am in awe of what is coming out of there as a listener. You have Jinx Titanic, you have Stewed Tomatoes, Cathy Richardson, Scott Free, Ellen Rosner, Andrea Bunch, Aerin Tedesco. I mean, these are our headliners. Around the U.S., these are the people that are so sought after.”

A lot of those performers have played at three outlets for LGBT music in Chicago: Free’s Homolatte series, the Old Town School of Folk Music’s annual Queer Is Folk Festival (also hosted by Free), and a queer open mike that Jinx Titanic (front man for the band Jinx Titanic, formerly called Super 8 Cum Shot) hosts at Jackhammer the last Wednesday of every month.

PrideFest will be held on Saturday, June 26, from noon to 9, on Halsted between Waveland and Grace. The suggested donation at the gate is $5.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nancy Johnson.