Pro-Gay Parade's About Face On Whistleblower: San Francisco Pride Honors Chelsea Manning

The SF Pride board seeks to correct last year's mistake: rescinding its decision to pay homage to Chelsea Manning.

A mural of Chelsea Manning.
Photo Credit: Timothy Krause/Flickr

Last year, the San Francisco Pride organization invited scandal upon itself by revoking a popularly elected Grand Marshal status from whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and bungling the subsequent public relations nightmare that followed. One result was Manning supporters coming out en masse to form one of the largest contingents in the history of the parade—itself the largest of its kind in the United States.

Another result seems to be a dramatic turnover in the organization’s Board of Trustees.

The new SF Pride board, elected in the fall of 2013, is composed heavily of candidates who ran on a democracy and transparency slate following the Manning scandal. Now, one of its first public moves is a public reversal of its predecessors’ party line: Chelsea Manning will be an honorary Grand Marshall for the 2014 Parade and Celebration.

The decision was reached unanimously at a February 4 board meeting. Recognizing that opinions within the LGBTQ community vary widely regarding whistleblowers, Board President Gary Virginia says that Pride mishandled the electoral process for community grand marshal in 2013, and that this move to honor her in 2014 reflects the membership’s wishes.

“I want to publicly apologize to Chelsea Manning and her supporters on behalf of SF Pride, and we look forward to a proper honor this year,” Virginia said in a late-February press release.

The press release elaborates:

Many of SF Pride’s members have called on the board to recognize Chelsea Manning at this year’s event, thus making amends to her and the LGBT community for the handling of her election as grand marshal last year.  Private Manning had been elected a grand marshal for 2013 but the honor was later revoked by the 2013 board, provoking sustained controversy and serious objections from the membership. The board’s action to honor Manning in 2014 reflects the membership’s wishes in this matter.

Joey Cain, who served on the board previously from 1998 to 2006, including four years as president, is among the new board members from the dominant pro-transparency slate.

“I felt like I needed to be on the board in order to provide an experienced, historical perspective,” he says.

Cain was active in the grassroots effort to have Manning reinstated as a community marshal in 2013, and blames procedural and governance breakdowns for the incident last year.

“To me that was indicative there was probably something deeper that was wrong about how organization was being handled,” he says. “I've since come to find that many of the people on the board at the time didn’t know about the decision until after it was made.”

Still, Cain says, the way the board handled the situation only aggravated the situation, alienating many members of the LGBTQ community.

Cain also believes that political pressure was likely exerted on the 2013 board to revoke Manning’s honorary marshal status.

While such evidence may never appear, it is impossible to conceive of the 2013 controversy in a vacuum. A specific but vocal group of pro-military gay soldiers had balked when Manning was initially announced as a marshal. Meanwhile, Manning herself, on the eve of her court martial remained a controversial figure liable to worry some of the parade’s corporate sponsors—as poignantly noted by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. Then there was the presence of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a prominent Democrat under Obama, who on video had already declared Manning guilty prior to trial.

Whatever went down behind-the-scenes last year, the new SF Pride board says it is committed to honoring transparency along with Manning going forward. These may not be the only changes people can expect at the SF Pride parade this summer.

The controversy around Manning’s grand marshal status in many ways awoke a sleeping giant in the form of members of the LGBTQ community long dissatisfied with what they perceive to be a whitewashing of Pride’s more radical history. Many, for instance, were unhappy with the presence of a military recruitment booth set up in the celebration pavilion adjacent to the parade’s Market Street route. Dozens surrounded the booth in protest late in the afternoon of parade day, effectively shutting it down. This year, that might be taken care of in advance.

A recent town hall hosted by Pride provided community members the opportunity to weigh in on some of these contentious issues, and the organization is currently in the process of reviewing measures to limit and reduce the military’s involvement in its 2014 celebration.

“Pride looked at a number of reasons, pro and con, and had a public forum, where people the vast majority there were not in support of allowing recruiters on site,” says Cain. “For me, a major part of that, is that they still discriminate against transgender people.”

Virginia says this is simply “embracing constituents’ input” and that the board will be performing due diligence in listening to all opinions. Should Pride experience any backlash for these decisions, he says that although the new board is committed to considering all sides, he and his fellow members “know who our allies or enemies are in the fight for LGBT equality.”

Both Cain and Virginia say they hope that Manning’s supporters will join the parade again this year.

“I'm asking the community who supports her to come out in support of Pride,” says Cain. People should let the Pride office know they support the decision.”

The SF Pride parade will be held June 28 and 29. People interested in joining the contingent celebrating Grand Marshal Chelsea Manning are encouraged to contact or call 510-488-3559.

Michael McKee is an organizer with Courage to Resist.