New Orleans Pride brings on sponsors and the challenges that come with them

Walgreens, one of Pride's major sponsorships, being featured on a float in the Pride parade. Photo by Isabella Brown

Story and photos by Isabella Brown, senior at Lusher Charter School

Tulane Medical Center, one of the most LGBTQ-inclusive providers according to Human Rights Campaign, marching in the Pride parade. Photo by Isabella Brown

Parades are New Orleans’ area of expertise, so it’s no surprise that this year’s Pride was nothing short of brilliant. It was excruciatingly hot, but every drop of sweat was forgotten as excitement bubbled and overflowed in the crowd, with the roar of Pride coursing through the street. Glitter flew in the air, marchers walked down the streets bearing rainbow-American flags, men danced down the route in housewife dresses, while Big Freedia threw a rainbow shirt to a girl standing in the crowd. However, some unexpected groups were also featured in the parade: big corporations, religious groups, healthcare providers, and political groups.

This year, New Orleans put on its ninth annual Pride Parade and participated for the first time in 2019 WorldPride in New York City, one of the biggest Pride events of the year. New Orleans’ presence in New York—where they were featured in the WorldPride parade and the Luminaries Brunch—was a way to present the city as an LGBT-friendly destination. By putting themselves on a larger stage, New Orleans’ LGBT community was able to make sure their unique community was truly seen. However, as New Orleans Pride expands its reach, the struggle to both stay on message and welcome new groups—ranging from big sponsors to small political groups—becomes increasingly complex. 

New Orleans put on its first Pride parade nine years ago and New Orleans Pride keeps growing larger and more colorful with each passing year. Last year’s Pride had 23 floats and 55 different marching groups, whereas this year featured 26 floats and 83 different marching groups, with 3,000 people marching in total. While New Orleans has always fostered historical Pride communities like the Krewe of Petronius and Fat Monday Luncheon, celebrating Pride has not always been the city’s expertise. 

According to Pride Parade Captain Darryl Martin, there was a group in the late 70s whose efforts were “a bit hit and miss.” Leadership during the early years of New Orleans Pride was inconsistent, according to Martin, with responsibilities bouncing from one group to the other. It wasn’t until the New Orleans Pride Organization was formed in 2011 that the parade found a home and celebrating the LGBT community became stable.

This year, the Pride parade was sponsored by corporations such as Walgreens, Shell, and Bell’s. And while this may seem like just another money grab from big corporations, there is more to this than meets the eye. While the presence of such big companies during an event like Pride might raise some eyebrows, Martin said that it was often employees who encouraged companies to sponsor parades, “A lot of [those companies] have an LGBT employee relations group that goes to the corporations and say, ‘look, there’s a festival here in New Orleans,’” and encourage them to participate.

The last float rolling along the route of the Pride parade, waving goodbye to the crowd with a rainbow American flag. Photo by Isabella Brown

Also, Walgreens, Shell, and Bell’s are ranked among the best places to work for LGBT equality according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Despite this, many people feel that depicting all of these different corporations detracts from the fact that this parade is supposed to be first and foremost about the LGBT community and the struggles they’ve overcome.

“And that’s something that we do get quite a bit of feedback on,” Martin said. “Especially because of the origins of what Pride is—you mentioned Stonewall earlier—they don’t want it to be a big commercial. And I totally understand that.” 

Martin said he feels that there is a genuine desire on corporations’ behalf to show their inclusiveness and how proud they are of their diverse staff. Martin also touched on the fact that sponsorships like Walgreens and Shell enable parades like Pride to be “something that we can be proud of when we put it on the streets.”

Dustin Woehrmann is the owner and creative director for Communify, an organization that is helping New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC) with its marketing towards the LGBT community and during WorldPride in New York. Woerhmann is also the author of a piece titled, (Don’t) slap a rainbow on it. In his article, Woehrmann emphasizes that brands shouldn’t just ‘slap a rainbow’ on their logos and call it a day, but actually show genuine support for the LGBT community. But how is Woerhmann making sure his work with NOTMC isn’t just another way of slapping a rainbow on things?

“When I first started working with [NOTMC],” Woehrmann said. ”They really weren’t doing any outreach to the LGBT community, and their website really did have just a bunch of rainbows on it.” But Woerhmann says Communify helped NOTMC by creating the New Orleans LGBT Hospitality Alliance, an advisory board of local representatives of LGBT groups in the city that meets quarterly. “I think that group really played a pivotal role in helping our Pride event grow from having roughly 20,000 people watching to an estimated 80,000 people watching.” 

Communify has helped NOTMC produce videos and launch a program that hands stickers out to businesses around the city to send the message to customers that those businesses are inclusive and welcoming. “And that same message is what we’re taking with us to New York,” Woehrmann said.

But large corporations weren’t the only ones who left their mark on the New Orleans Pride parade. Several churches such as the New Covenant NOLA, the Episcopal Church, and the Reconciling Ministries Network of Louisiana Churches marched in the parade and emphasized that they were welcoming of the LGBT community. Some groups bore rainbow crosses and signs proclaiming “God loves you” and “Jesus said love one another.” Several organizations such as the Tulane Medical Center and Ochsner stated their support for LGBT healthcare, which only further proves how far we’ve come in supporting LGBT health since the AIDS crisis. The group NOLA Gay Families was a crowd favorite which was made evident by the crowd’s roar as children marched down the route holding signs stating, “Proud of My Family.” 

The organization End Gun Violence marching in the Pride parade and bringing awareness to the violence faced by LGBTQ individuals. Photo by Isabella Brown

The crowd also reacted favorably to organizations not often associated with LGBT issues: End Gun Violence and Planned Parenthood. The latter’s popularity was no surprise as the new six-week abortion ban is not a favorite here in New Orleans.

“We stay purposefully clear of sort of political agendas and ideologies,” Martin said. “But all we ask of the groups who participate is that they do it primarily as a show of support for the LGBT community.” Martin said that the End Gun Violence group reached out to the parade and told them they wanted to raise awareness of violence against LGBT individuals. “Which makes sense to us,” Martin said.