GLBT Float in 1995 Erie Bicentennial Parade

Gay Sponsored Float jpgEditors note: In May of 1995, a GLBT float created a bit of local controversy when it was announced around Sunday, May 21, 1995 that it would be included in the Erie Bicentennial Parade, which was being held the following Saturday, May 27. Late Thursday, May 25th, the float was vandalized. The following day, Friday, May 26th, the float was repaired. This is the article which Greg Valiga, one of the main organizers and who was also then the coordinator for the League of Gay and Lesbian Voters (LGLV) Erie, wrote that appeared in the June 1995 issue of Erie Gay Community Newsletter. Also included are some follow up letters that ran in July 1995.

by Greg Valiga

It's January (1995) and I'm reading an article in the Erie Times about this huge parade the bicentennial commission is creating. Heidi Streich and Larry Sawdy think the community should build a float. The idea has some merit, but I surely do not want to be on any float committee-work with the League keeps me busy enough. I try to kill the idea by mentioning the possibility of violence and I use an old standby-we can't find someone to work with the media when the news breaks. After discussing the idea, Heidi eventually convinces me. I reluctantly agree to call the commission for guidelines and to get a sense of their position.

The phone conversation surprises me. Michael Fuhrman, Director of Bicentennial Events, is enthusiastic about the possibility. He relates the the commission wants to have floats from as many different groups as possible. The guidelines forbid the conveyance of any type of political or hate message. Nothing can be handed out along the route. and we must adhere to the theme. Fuhrman agrees to send an information packet to me and "strongly recommends" we submit an entry. Exciting stuff, I think.

In February, Heidi begins to spread the word about the float, and tacks signs in both bars. We really needed to find committee members, especially take charge types. I talk to a woman who has been in the media before and she seems open to accepting the challenge. We call some organizations and leave messages; a small blurb is placed in EGCN (Erie Gay Community Newsletter). The response is minimal. David offers his help and Larry Levasseur agrees to get things organized. It is at this point that I step back to take on the increasing workload the League demands before each election. I have the gut feeling that the idea is going to fall flat, and I'm indifferent about it because of mounting stress over LGLV's Voters' Guide. Why should I be concerned, I reason, if there is no movement in the float planning?

Skepticism about the float begins. I fully understand that some would not want to be involved because of the possibility of failure or a reluctance to raise money. Although I never remember hearing a definite reason for the mixed feelings, I assume that most people are frightened to death of the publicity and exposure. After all, I am, too.

As I understand it, a proposal was adopted and sent to the Commission just before the April 1st deadline. A few weeks later, Larry announces the idea was accepted. We would learn later at a fund-raiser sponsored by the League that Abby Conley strongly influenced the approval by the Commission. Through her efforts, we were assured a position other than the back of the parade. Abby was also involved in the decision to allow Bridges to place a copy of EGCN in the time capsule.

Heidi and I look over the proposal while visiting Larry one night. We are startled to find that the design lacks any mention of the lesbigay community as sponsors. Larry knew and dealt with some members of the Commission, and seemed to think it would be OK with them to simply add our name to the float, and to change some things. Heidi and I are concerned when we discover a clause in the material returned from the commission that states the float could be rejected from the parade if deemed inappropriate. Imagine spending time and money on a project just to have it pulled at the last minute! I'm reminded of a failed project the League tried to pull off a month before-we tried to set up a table at the Indigo Girls concert outside the Warner only to be denied security and threatened with arrest by the Erie Police at the last minute. I was not interested in subjecting myself to that again. I later confide to Heidi that I wouldn't be involved in the project if we made changes to the original design because it was deceptive. She agrees and assures me she will call Fuhrman to get his opinion.

Heidi discovers that Fuhrman was surprised the committee hadn't included a sponsor name on the float. He states that minor changes are fine, the wording is fine, and the pink triangle idea is fine. He expresses encouragement. I feel much better, but I'd rather see it in writing. I say nothing.

The committee proceeds to peddle 5O/5O tick- It is now one week before the parade, and we are eventually selling $158 worth. Contributions from businesses, however, were hard to come by. I'm happy to be involved in two organizations which vote to donate $25 each.

The first scheduled work party is held two weeks before the parade on a sunny, warm Saturday. The seven people who show enjoy the work, camaraderie and hospitality of Larry. Larry displays the leadership abilities that the committee would soon become dependent upon. He guides us through the erection and priming of the main float display. Problems are easily solved and we brainstorm to come up with a change in the "Erie's Growing Workforce" slogan. We eventually come up with the alternative "contributing to Erie's prosperity", despite concern about changing the main theme of the float. I am incredibly happy with the sense of community. I feel connected in a way I rarely experience.

Dave becomes ill and cannot help with the lettering. Days begin to tick away. The committee has spent around $300 and can't seem to get commitments for the balance. Others on the committee scramble to find someone to fill Dave's shoes. Heidi recruits me to draw and letter one side; she ill do the other. I feel an obligation to help. The strain it is putting on Heidi and Larry begins to creep into me. I begin to wonder why more people aren't involved or donating.

Doubts enter my mind about the viability of the project. Though Larry is willing to foot the bills, he expects to be repaid, and I worry about our ability to raise cash after the float is finished. I dwell on these thoughts throughout the week and finally decide to recommend the project be scrapped. I make plans to enjoy the weekend after Larry leaves a message that he is feeling the same way.

It is now one week before the parade, and we are arguing about proceeding or stopping and cutting our losses. I am irritable because the weather is beautiful and I had planned to enjoy the Saturday afternoon biking and forgetting my problems. The few individuals present work through the problems and decide to forge ahead. I feel better for expressing my concerns, however, and I realize I am now intimately involved and will have to devote a large portion of my free time to the float.

I spend my entire Sunday sketching the logo and running back and forth from my apartment, generating computer stencils for the lettering. We all get excited when we discover that the lesbian and gay community float is listed among the parade units in the Sunday Times-News. We are apprehensive about the outcome of the listing.

Monday goes by quietly. I spend the entire morning finishing the logo, lettering, and painting by myself. Sally Meiser and Heidi show later to help Larry.

I make plans to paint for two hours Tuesday morning. I paint on the ladder and feel good about my work. A man and it looks like he is to do some lawn work next door. He is friendly and attractive; he questions me about the float. I reveal the gay and lesbian community is sponsoring it, and he responds with "cool." I suddenly realize that he is actually working in Larry's yard and I feel the flush of embarrassment. "Oh God," I think, "I've outed Larry to the lawn help!" He finishes gives me a message to relay to Larry. I re-tarp and go home.

After cleaning up Tuesday morning, I receive a call from Carol Pella, Newswatch 35. She wants an interview about the controversy surrounding the float. I sense exactly what is happening and I ask, "The shit has hit the fan, hasn't it?" I question her about details. She tells me an individual is making noise about the float-he is appalled that it will be in the parade and he refuses to take his grandchildren, citing concern about addressing questions from the children about the identifying words "lesbian, gay, and bisexual community" on the ends of the float, The local talk radio shows are going nuts over the issue. My blood pressure rises and I begin my all-too-familiar stammering. Feeling pressured to make a quick decision, I rise to the occasion and say yes. I feel I've been pushed without responding appropriately for the last time. I call Larry for support and he rushes over just as the camera arrives.

Wednesday ushers in a full-blown media circus. I interview with Mark Guy Findlay on WLKK after Kathy Harris of PFLAG. I am encouraged after hearing her. The interview goes well-I begin by responding to his pre-interview banter about being upset over a caller referring to him as Mark ‘Gay' Findlay. "I'm really surprised you would be upset about being called gay," I joke. "Well, I'm an old homophobe from way back," Was his reply. He asks and I relate my feelings on homophobia at my place of employment, PHB Die Castings in Fairview. I respond to his question about the float being political by saying it is no more political than any other float or business identifying themselves in the parade.

The float committee has difficulty focusing on the actual remaining work. We hear about angry calls being received by Mayor Savocchio, the Bicentennial Commission, and the Times Publishing Company. I decide to fax the Commission office on official LGLV letterhead, thanking them for including us in the parade. The float committee learns that Michael Fuhrman has called Joel and I from the League, requesting a "personal meeting" about his concerns over the float. I am confused about the request after I specifically state in the fax that the float is NOT a League project. Joel accepts and is taken to dinner by Fuhrman. Joel relates Fuhrman's concerns to Larry and me.

John Horan, Vice Chair of the Commission, visits the float site. He informs the committee that the float is acceptable; nothing is offensive about it. He pledges to support us and offers that he will resign in front of the media before the parade if the Commission flip- flops on its decision to allow the float to remain. During a conversation with Larry, he suggests that we remove the word "bisexual" from the float. Larry agrees.

After learning about the conversation with Joel, I decide to investigate the amount of opposition and threatening phone calls to the Bicentennial Commission. After speaking with Becca Martin, I learn that 50 calls were received against the float, and 12 in favor. There were no threats to the office or staff. A number of calls were coming from the North East area, and I cringe. The League of Gay and Lesbian Voters had been denied rental of Skateway Roller Rink for fundraisers because a fundamentalist church in the North East area threatened to pull their monthly business. I fully expect that these zealots are behind a good portion of the uproar.

On Thursday, Michael Fuhrman infuriates me by requesting a meeting, citing many violent threats and the fear of his staff to report to work. I angrily respond to his insinuations that violence had suddenly become and issue only after Commission members and his office were threatened. "I resent the fact that you believe that violence is suddenly an issue. Gays and lesbians live with the threat of violence every day of their lives." Fuhrman's intentions are obvious: pressure the community to influence the float committee to voluntarily pull the float from the parade. I calmly explain that Joel and I were not on the float committee and questioned him about contacting League people about float committee concerns. He answers, "You were the person who initially contacted me about the float and I recognized your name on the fax. Since I didn't know who was on the float committee, I called you."

After a phone conversation with Larry, we decide that I should be the only spokesman for the committee. I express uneasiness about being involved in the decisions of the committee, and Larry invites me to join. I agree. We discuss my apprehension about having walkers along the parade route and we decide to forbid it. We also discuss a possible compromise with the Commission -take all of the identifying words off the ends of the float. Larry reasoned that we had received enough media attention to make everyone aware of the float with the pink triangle. Larry relays the decision to Horan.

The negative calls and talk-radio uproar peaks. I take it upon myself to begin a phone war with the hate mongers. My remaining free time before work is spent placing calls to friends, business associates, and anyone supportive of our views. I urge them to call the Commission office and express support. The negative tide begins to turn.

The Bicentennial Commission requests a meeting with the float committee. We wonder who is behind the meeting. We can't understand why Fuhrman would again call Joel after we talked to him. The committee can't meet because of work commitments. The Commission meets without float committee representation and decides all identifying wording and symbols must come off, including the pink triangle, as in the initial plan. They would then issue a statement to the media. A small news item appears in USA Today.

I learn about the decision immediately upon returning home from work on Thursday. Heidi gives me the details as I try to listen to the dozen or so messages on my answering machine. She feels disappointed, but she is still positive. I hang up and call Larry. This is a definite defeat, and I am becoming very angry. During the course of our conversation, Larry lets his dogs out and I hear, "Oh my God, Greg, come over here, come over..." The phone dies and I know that the float has been damaged. I bolt from my apartment to Larry's place and I can see the exposed float with the fluorescent paint. We are both shaken. We hear a noise and begin circling his home; my heart is leaping out of my chest. There is nobody around. It is difficult to calm down. Larry's eyes well up and I begin pacing, inspecting the damage. "Never assholes", "fags", and "fuck you" are among the graffiti. Larry calls the police; I run back home to call Heidi and to close and lock my door. I punch her number in and a man answers-it confuses and upsets me more. He identifies himself as a reporter from the Morning News and he wants a comment on our reaction to the Commission's news release. I'm stunned. "The float was just vandalized, can you send a photographer right over?" I ask. I am still breathing heavily from the run back, and I can't collect my thoughts enough to make any sense. He presses me for a comment. I tell him that I don't know what to say, and, off the record, that I'm upset with the Commission's decision to meet without our representation. He tells me the paper is soon going to press, and asks again for a comment. The reporter misquotes me and I spend more time trying to explain what I had just said to him. Abruptly, I hang up and call Heidi again. She will be right over.

We begin placing calls to the local media, and Chris Young of LGLV-Pittsburgh gives us guidance and support. He offers to set up a reward fund. Heidi expresses her concern about increasing violence against the community; she calls the local bar and tells them to be careful. Heidi and I do some interviews and we finally begin to calm down. A friend drops by from the local bar; she lends support and her opinion about what to do. Feeling dejected and spent, we all agree to wait until the morning to make any decision regarding the float.

I return home and boot up my computer. My plan is to post an Action Alert on the Internet-an electronic mail message distributed throughout the country requesting some type of urgent action. Because I am tired, the process takes a long time. Finally, I force myself to relax and sleep.

Friday begins very early for me. I didn't get much sleep, but I am invigorated. The phone begins to ring off the hook, and I am frustrated that I can't shower and shave. Requests for interviews and comments pour in. It looks like the day will be beautiful, and I am ready to recommend that we rebuild. I make the call to Larry, and he agrees, We are both excited and ready to show Erie that we're fighters. He both hoot and holler over the phone. Plans are made to set up an office at the work site. I record a new message on my answering machine, directing calls to Larry's. so I can clean up. The phone rings constantly and I smile.

What we witness at the building site is incredible. People show up with food, money and supplies. We pack 'em in around the float, all willing to do their share. Larry uses his cellular phone and we share his cordless. We can't get away long enough to actually help with the float, and it becomes a running gag. We finally recruit a secretary. Individual acts of courage become apparent- straight people and closeted lesbigays show their faces on camera in support of the effort. Larry and I are beaming. Tears come to my eyes at different points, like when a friend calls me to her car to listen to a gay man defend himself on talk radio. A gay man donates two small rainbow flags he purchased at two consecutive pride parades in North Carolina. I promise we will use them. For perhaps the first time, I am very proud of Erie and our lesbigay community. We have become the true symbol for the spirit of the Bicentennial.

Calls come in from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. The news goes out on the Associated Press wire. A gay man from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation informs us that Church members are furious about the vandalism and he is leading an effort to jam the Bicentennial phone lines with positive calls.

Abby Conley arrives and immediately pitches in. At 6 pm, we estimate there have been about 70 volunteers throughout the course of the day. The 30 or so are blowing up balloons, painting, and fitting the skirting around the flatbed. Harry Miller of La Bella Bistro arrives with a fantastic food spread, a group of volunteers, and offers more money. Miller is one of those individuals who feel an obligation to the community and appreciates the efforts of local lesbigay organizations.

Larry places floodlights around the area and four of us stand guard over the float throughout the night. rings constantly and I smile. I return home around 5 am to get my clothes ready and take care of neglected business.

Physically, I feel horrible. I have eaten and rested little for days. I'm running on pure adrenaline at this point.

Back at Larry's, we have coffee and begin final preparation. The float looks fantastic in the glow of the early morning sun. We joke that the float should win the 'perseverance' award. Larry confides that he had a bad dream about a violent attack on the float. I leave to shower and collect my thoughts. I'm ready for the show, ready to take on the bigots, but I feel skeptical that we will be permitted in the parade. We depart for our staging area at 9 am with sunscreen, cell phone, aspirin, and mace. The float creeps along West 6th. People smile and wave. Traffic is heavy at 12th and Greengarden; a traffic cop waves us through the intersection.

We feel nervous excitement. Other floats have lined up at the staging area, and we admire them. A parade volunteer arrives and we register the float. She looks for our entry on her document and can't find us listed. My blood pressure rises. Another volunteer joins us and they then relate that our position has been changed for security purposes. We will be the last float, behind the Sheriff and before a group of fire trucks. More security will be provided. Larry thanks them for their help and the Commission's concern for our safety. After they depart, we feel manipulated again, but what are we going to do now? After some discussion, we feel the move was an attempt to keep us out of the spotlight-TV coverage will have ended and people would be leaving the parade route by the time we arrived.

Since we hadn't eaten, we make plans to pick up some food. Dave, a friend who has begun the process of working through his fear of coming out, arrives to wish us luck. I think about the long journey Dave is just beginning, and I am happy to be able to provide some encouragement and support. This is the reason I became active in the lesbigay rights struggle, and Dave is one of the stipends. (Editor's note: Greg Valiga is referring here to Dave Mulholland, who would later go on to succeed Valiga as coordinator of LGLV Erie and become a spokesperson in his own right.)

We begin the long wait and become mostly silent. The breeze turns into a gusting wind and our balloon design disintegrates into a giant blob. We eat and breathe dust. Occasionally, an observer will walk by and offer a kind word. We thank them profusely.

Abby Conley arrives and lightens the atmosphere. She will ride with us in the cab. Her attitude and drive is what inspired me to come out in the media and take a strong stand. I will be forever grateful. The parade bogs down. We hear rumors that people have had heart attacks and the large balloons are holding up the parade. We feel vulnerable-most of the units have left, and we are among only a few floats in a sea of dust. Heidi has visions of violence.

The float is finally ushered onto the parade route at 4:3O. Tension builds. We are jammed into the cab and are uncomfortable. We wonder aloud where all the security is; our float seems to be alone. Larry guides the flatbed slowly and Heidi chides him for following the preceding unit too closely. As we approach Liberty Street, couples and families leaving the parade wave and cheer. We see the crowd ahead. I'm feeling anxious and tired.

Suddenly, people are everywhere. I feel as if we have just surfaced from along swim underwater; we are happy to be breathing the air and experiencing the reality of our own environment. Police suddenly swarm around us. Some people wave and applaud politely, but the majority look rather shell shocked. Is it because of our appearance, or are they just exhausted from the length of the parade? We begin to recognize faces. The support encourages us to wave and offer thanks to the crowd. Our grumpiness fades and we feed on the crowd reaction. Lesbians are cheering and jumping up and down, essentially outing themselves. Gay men wave and point to their clothing which bear pink triangles, large and small. A gay man, Bobby, enters the street and begins to walk with us. I feel the swell of emotion. A man rushes the float with his son and proclaims he is from New Jersey; he is ecstatic we have persevered. They follow us.

We arrive at the first reviewing area. The announcer seems to be confused about our presence, but he finally lets the crowd know the float is by "the gay and lesbian alliance". I laugh. We don't get much of a reaction from the crowd. As we turn onto State Street, we feel tension. Heidi comments that the crowd seems hostile. I don't know what to expect. An odd man unfolds a sign that reads "Jesus save Erie, PA". He is twitching and talking to himself. He avoids looking directly at us, as if we are the queer Medusa.

The crowd now erupts into applause when our float is announced. A large group of lesbians burst with enthusiasm. Lesbians seem to be everywhere, and they are not afraid to show their support. Are we still in Erie? We hand out our rainbow flags to a few who are walking with us. A family now steps out to follow. We are proud and empowered. Heidi and I are bouncing around the cab and we all shout thanks while giving the thumbs up sign.

Perry Square is mobbed with people. We receive an enthusiastic greeting and an incredible ovation when we are announced. I see Mayor Savocchio, Judy Lynch, and Commission people standing and applauding. Representative P Bebko-Jones is jumping up and down and nearly falls off the reviewing platform. Larry is honking the horn and Heidi, Abby and I are going wild.

We turn onto Third Street to disband. A reporter greets us with a barrage of questions and awoman takes some balloons off the float for her child. We sigh and laugh. We have finally finished our incredible journey, and we can relax now. Larry drives us back home and we are greeted by Joy Greco, who congratulates us.

The Float Committee (Greg Larry, Heidi and Dave Tingley) would like to thank all of the many people who helped make the float a success!

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