Negotiating WeHo’s Annual LA Pride Bacchanalia (and Staying Sober)

Ah, LA Pride, the annual LGBTQ+ Bacchanalian pleasure fest sponsored this year by major corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, MAC Cosmetics and Amazon. So much to be proud of, so little time.

This past Saturday night, those entering the festival grounds, which spanned San Vicente Boulevard from the Pacific Design Center to West Hollywood Park, discovered their first opportunity to experience the Festival on their left. It was a group of bartenders selling Bud Light, with the low-calorie beer’s white logo floated on a large rainbow graphic behind them.

Several hundred feet away banners stretched across the tops of booths offering “Cocktails! Beer! Cocktails!” written in all caps.

Author Michael Jortner, right, with his friend Gordon.

People of all ages, colors, genders and preferences, not entirely, but not uncommonly, swayed backward and forward, from side to side, fighting to stay upright while holding plastic cups filled with booze. Some revelers searched for portable toilets with a strange gleam in their eye that made me wonder, “Are you that excited about using an outhouse?”

And on the main stage, a voluptuous twenty-something performer wearing skimpy clothing rapped loud and proud: “Put it in my mouth. It’s so big. Mouth wide open. So big I can’t speak. F-ck this pussy.” The crowd cheered. Turning to a young straight white couple behind me, I asked what the performer’s name was. “Cupcakke!” they shouted. “She’s awesome!”

Something Different?

LGBTQ people in recovery – however they define it for themselves – may need, want or crave a less intense, less drug-and-alcohol-infused and less sexualized Pride experience. And if that is what they want, how do they partake in Pride when much of the experience no longer lines up with their needs, priorities, and values? Can fun still be had? Is it even worth going?

(Photo by Michael Jortner)

It depends on whom you ask.

Chris, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in his late 30s who has been sober “almost 12 years,” told me in a phone interview that he was planning to go the Pride festival this past weekend to see singer Greyson Chance perform.

But he changed his mind.

Chris last attended LA Pride in 2016 to see Carly Rae Jepson onstage. “Just getting through the festival, it was so loud and there were so many drunk people. And then right outside the porta potties, I mean, it was very obvious that many of the people that were going in and out of there were doing drugs.” As a “sober man,” he said, “I really just don’t wanna be around all that craziness.”

Yet it’s not only recovering alcoholics dealing with these issues.

I, at 53, and my friend Gordon, in his mid-40s, attend Al-Anon meetings, the 12-Step program for people affected by another person’s drinking. Having grown up in families affected by alcoholism, as well as often choosing romantic relationships with men who have alcohol and substance abuse problems, we have our own challenges around Pride.

Early last week we each wrestled with whether to go to Pride this year. We both identified how prior motivations such as partying, sending and responding to overtly sexual signals, as well as hooking up, no longer feel right for us.

“Oh, I just think everyone [at Pride is] on drugs and drunk and shagging everywhere,” Gordon, who is from Scotland, told me. Does it make him uncomfortable to be around that kind of behavior? “Yeah, definitely.”

We had to ask ourselves, “Do we still have good reasons to go?”

Gordon and I both wanted to people-watch and enjoy the diversity of the human experience that can be the best of Pride. We desired social interaction that would make us feel good – not just in the moment on the day – but after Pride as well.

And, honestly, we wanted to be in an environment where we might meet attractive men, but on our own terms.  

Have a Plan

“Mental preparation is just as important as a backpack full of seltzer,” says sober journalist Molly Priddy in her Vice.com article, “How to Party at Pride If You’re Sober.”

And Beck Gee, assistant director of clinical services at Pride Institute, a recovery center for LGBTQ+ people in Minneapolis, writes on their website, because “Pride festivals seem like an alcohol manufacturers dream,” it’s best to have a plan.

Agreed. So here’s what Gordon and I decided to do, and why:

  • Go together. Sharing the experience with a friend would help deflect feelings of isolation that might tempt us to engage in our own problematic behavior.
  • Go during the day. We would be less likely to be surrounded by inebriated, partying people when there are kids and families around. Chris agreed, “When I’ve gone during the day…it’s been more fun.”
  • Go for only a few hours. We don’t need to give up our entire Sunday just because it’s Pride. We realized we could put limits on how long we participated and leave before partying amped up.

Pride Celebrations Everywhere Are Evolving

Not only Angelenos in recovery face these challenges. “More Pride celebrations are taking sober people into consideration,” continues Priddy. On Vice.com she writes how World Pride in New York City organized a sober walk and river cruise, Houston Pride will have Skate Sober, a family-friendly roller-skating event, and San Francisco’s Pride will feature the Castro Country Club Sober Stage.

LA Pride is no exception. #SIZZLE a carnival of attraction is billed as “an alcohol and drug-free event,” according to their branding, accentuated by a disco ball graphic reflecting rainbow-colored hues. Gordon and I attended #SIZZLE on Sunday afternoon. Ensconced within the garden patio just outside the West Hollywood Library entrance, about 150 people of all ages, and wearing a truly significant number of rainbow patterns, milled about, generally in small groups.

Booths featuring Alcoholics Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, and organizations like Safe Refuge, an addiction treatment center and sober living facility based in Long Beach, welcomed festival-goers eager for information. Some attendees stood in line to play carnival games in the hopes of winning prizes such as stuffed animals while a middle-aged deejay spun tunes to get people dancing.

And a booth selling fresh smoothies and sliced fruit looked to be doing strong business.

Being of Service

Jimmy Palmieri, a dark-haired man in his 50s, is with the Tweakers Project. He said the organization provides a safe space online via its Facebook page. People in need of help can reach out to those who understand round-the-clock.

Paul, a handsome, bald man wearing a long-sleeved, lime green t-shirt featuring the #SIZZLE logo, said 2019 was his second year volunteering. “It’s part of giving back recovery.” Sober for just under three years, he added, “I’m of service here helping other alcoholics and drug addicts stay sober.”

What does he get out of it? “It’s beautiful to look around and see young people here. What I see is they feel at ease and safe here. And that’s huge. I can’t imagine what it would [have been] like when I was 16 or 17, to have the kind of support that’s being provided by the community here. It’s amazing.”

(Photo by Michael Jortner)

A Successful Day

Our plan worked. Gordon and I met at about 11 a.m. on the southwest corner of Melrose  Avenue and Robertson Boulevard, in front of the John Varvatos store. Then we walked north up Robertson to watch the parade on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The vibe from the people around us was positive and inclusive, likely helped by the warm, sunny weather. We saw Congressman Adam Schiff wave to the crowd, the LGBT Center march by with its numerous contingents and law enforcement organizations such as the LA County Sheriff and FBI roll past.

A couple hours later we entered the festival grounds. Because it was early afternoon the park was not yet crowded. We had plenty of room to wander around comfortably, snap photos in front of motivational slogans like “Be” and get beverages. After I completed my note taking and interviews for this article, I indulged in a vodka lemonade while Gordon stuck with spring water from a bottle.

Our Pride Sunday concluded at about 3 p.m. after we strolled east along a very crowded Santa Monica Boulevard. Stopping at Body Energy Club next to the gay Starbucks, Gordon got a protein shake and I enjoyed a Middle Eastern wrap downed with berry-flavored collagen water.

We did see a handsome young male couple who appeared to be tweaking, and every once in a while someone had to be held up by a couple of friends, presumably due to having had too much to drink.

But the overwhelming majority of celebrants were in easygoing, cheerful moods. Of course, many of them wore all too colorful outfits and/or outlandish makeup. Many others just wore what they would normally wear on a Sunday afternoon in June like shorts and a tank top.

What was different from any standard weekend afternoon? So many of the people we saw, whether we complimented their attire, gave them a flirtatious smirk, or simply completed an everyday business transaction, said to us with genuine, toothy smiles: “Happy Pride!”


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weho adjacent
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weho adjacent

Meanwhile, Grindr HQ is looming over the festival while simultaneously facilitating the largest exchange of drugs between LGBT people via their app. Diamond emojis galore! It’s shameful.

WeHoMikey
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WeHoMikey

I always chuckle just a little bit that an Asian-owned site doesn’t shut down folks writing “no Asians” in their profiles…