KC’s Pride Fest isn’t such a gay time for some
OK, let’s get the jokes out of the way. As one bartender I talked to last week put it, this year’s Kansas City Pride Fest – slated for the city’s historic West Bottoms neighborhood June 20, 21 and 22 – is “an all-Bottoms party, tops not allowed.”
It’s easy to kid about it now, but in 1978, when KC saw its first gay-pride event, being out and proud in this town wasn’t easy. Gay bars were still routinely raided by the cops, and Westport’s Redhead Lounge maintained a back-door entrance that could be used by schoolteachers, who could be fired if they were seen entering a venue that catered to homosexuals.
By 1984, the festival had become a half-hearted carnival in the parking lot behind the since-razed Dover Fox saloon, at 43rd Street and Main. There might have been 100 people there, and the event lasted just three hours.
Last year’s event in Westport, the first to be presented by the nonprofit Kansas City Diversity Coalition, attracted about 1,000 people over two days, according to estimates by several participants.
Or maybe 10 times that many people showed up?
“Oh, no, I don’t have the exact figures, but we had at least 10,000 people over the two days of the event,” says Donnyel Gregory, president of the KCDC, took over the festival’s longtime production company, Show Me Pride LLC, from Rick Bumgardner in 2012.
Before Bumgardner bought him out, in 2008, club owner and restaurateur John Koop ran Show Me Pride, which ran the festivals from 2000 through 2008. Koop says the 2007 event, in Penn Valley Park, had a budget of $200,000 and attracted 40,000 visitors.
Rick Bumgardner, who owned and operated the festival as a for-profit business from 2008 through 2012, eventually moved the festival to the Power & Light District, a switch that generated criticism from the gay community.
“I kept hearing that it was a straight venue and that I was giving gay dollars to Cordish, a heterosexual organization,” Bumgardner says. “But it was a safe, easily accessible location with plenty of parking.” The KC Live Block can accommodate 7,000 patrons. Bumgardner says, “We were packed every night.”
This year, KCDC hired an outside production firm, Event Pros – a co-owner of which, Bill Svoboda, is gay – to produce the festival. “They had access to large companies and vendors that we had never worked with before,” Gregory says. Svoboda’s move to the West Bottoms means a large outdoor field for the festivities, but space wasn’t necessarily the main reason for the change.
“We were brought into the process rather late, so other possible locations weren’t available,” Svoboda says. “But we’ve got a great space in the Bottoms, near Kemper Arena, and we’ll have it fenced off with plenty of parking.”
But if the surroundings are new, there’s an old face on the scene. “I hired Rick Bumgardner to help with the entertainment and logistics,” Svoboda says.
Bumgardner is upbeat about this year’s event, but he hasn’t changed his mind about some of the things that frustrated him in the past. “We really made an attempt to please everyone, but it’s impossible,” he says of the years he operated the festival. “There isn’t any real gay pride in Kansas City. There’s so much conflict in our own community that it doesn’t know what it means to be a community.”
John Koop, best known for his stage persona “Flo,” says he also wearied of the constant criticism – even if he also misses having a stake in it. “I’d like to be involved with it again,” says Koop, who closed his short – lived Flo’s Cabaret in 2011. “I think a pride festival is still important. We need to be out there and visible in the community. Of course, the location is very important. You need a festival in a place where we can be seen. I’m not sure the West Bottoms is that place.”
“The gay-pride festival in Kansas City isn’t about the gay community here,” says Jeff Edmundson, who owns Hamburger Mary’s with his partner, Eric Christensen. “We’ve traveled to gay-pride festivals in other cities, and those events are about the history and all the facets of the LGBT community. For the last few years, the focus of the gay-pride festival has been about young boys. It’s poorly planned. There’s no focus. The fact is, there’s not a lot about the festival to make people proud.”
John Long, publisher of the gay-focused Camp magazine, says older members of the gay community tell him that the event has lost meaning over the years.
“It’s gone from being a political event to being an entertainment event,” Long says. “It’s really just a big party, and because of that, the crowd has changed. It’s very mixed now, with just as many straight people as gay. The political part of the event was the parade, which they don’t do anymore. You could march with your friends – or your parents – and feel the support from the community. For many people, that’s the best part of our pride.”