Email shows Sister asked city for help for Pink Saturday

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Wednesday April 22, 2015
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Crowds cheered and had fun during Pink Saturday 2012.<br>Photo: Rick Gerharter
Crowds cheered and had fun during Pink Saturday 2012.
Photo: Rick Gerharter

An email from a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to a San Francisco supervisor shows that the drag nun group had sought city funding for years to help with the Pink Saturday street party, which has recently seen a spate of violent incidents.

Questions are now being raised about why the city is set to fund this year's party, after officials declined for years to directly support the event in San Francisco's Castro district.

Gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro, told the Bay Area Reporter that the city doesn't typically fund such events, but had to do so this year after the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence announced in February they wouldn't produce the event in June. The Sisters had organized the pre-Pride parade festival for decades but had faced concerns about violence for years.

One Sister told the Bay Area Reporter that the group has requested financial help from the city for years, but never received a direct response.

Thousands of people are expected in the Castro June 27 whether there's an official event or not, so Wiener quickly brought in the city's LGBT Community Center to help pull the party together.

The Sisters announced last week that this year's planners can't use the name Pink Saturday, and that they plan to hold their own event in 2016. This year's organizers plan to announce the new name this week.

In a recent email to the B.A.R. , Ruth McFarlane, the center's programs director, said the city "has agreed to cover the cost of this year's event." The 2014 festival cost the Sisters $80,000, though this year's celebration is expected to cost more to produce. The budget is still being finalized.


Sister Selma Soul said the Sisters has requested city help for years for Pink Saturday. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Emails reflect concerns, efforts

Sister Selma Soul wrote an email to Wiener and his legislative aide Adam Taylor shortly after a woman was robbed, knocked down, and kicked in the face as people left Pink Saturday two years ago.

In her July 2013 message, which she shared with the B.A.R. , Soul, who's also known as James Bazydola, said she was "distressed" by violence around Pride festivities. (To be clear, the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee is not involved with planning Pink Saturday.)

Soul said, "While our Pink Saturday team, composed of Sisters, nonprofit volunteers, hired security and the SFPD, were prepared and effectively handled the crowds within our event footprint, both within and beyond our scheduled event times, the fact is it is currently beyond our team's capability to address all the problems that arise when our community celebrations are targeted by thugs and, pardon my French, douche bags."

She expressed strong concerns about the event's financial sustainability, and said, "The targeting of our community by thugs continues to strain our resources and our nerves. The Sisters and I are open to radically restructuring Pink Saturday or walking away from the event completely. I believe our coordination of the event brings value to the community and would like to continue to produce this event but I don't know that we can commit to this without additional support from the city to address community concerns which affect all celebrations in this city."

Wiener responded, "I agree with you 110%. The Sisters have done heroic work around Pink Saturday," and he wrote he'd "hate to lose the organization's leadership for this event."

The problems "shouldn't fall on the Sisters alone to solve," Wiener added. "We need to work together." He agreed with Soul that they should set up a meeting.

Asked about Soul's July 2013 email, Wiener reiterated his office had been in "continual communication" with the Sisters.

Every month for several months leading up to the annual party, he said, his office had convened meetings with "five or six different city departments," the Sisters, and others.

"I can't think of any other event in the city where you have that level of interdepartmental coordination and resources devoted to a particular event," Wiener said.

The city's backing of the festival has included "10 percent of the police department being present in and around the Castro" for the event, he said.

His office has also helped by "running interference" with the city's agencies.

In response to a public records request, Taylor, Wiener's aide, provided emails reflecting that.

One exchange shows that his staff helped the Sisters get the health department's approval for food trucks, just two days before the 2014 event.

Soul couldn't say how not getting direct assistance impacted the Sisters' decision on whether to be involved in this year's party, but she said they "would have had a better experience" if they had gotten the help.

The event was "a huge financial risk for us," she said. It was an annual challenge to break even, and they risked losing money they had earned in other places.

Expenses for private security providers and other contractors "kept getting bigger and bigger" as the size of the event grew, "but income did not grow," Soul said. Money the group could have spent on things like extra lighting instead went to pay for security.

"I think he just thought we could handle it," Soul said of Wiener. "I think there's difficulty in finding the funding. I understand that. I don't think it was out of any disrespect for us." However, she thinks the supervisor "really didn't think we would walk away, because we didn't really want to."

Asked if he'd thought the Sisters wouldn't leave Pink Saturday, Wiener said, "I knew that every year there was a possibility they would."

Soul, who coordinated Pink Saturday from 2012 through 2014, said that she had talked to Wiener and his staff every year to see if the city could do anything beyond waiving fees for police and other services. Last year, she also spoke with Mayor Ed Lee's Chief of Staff Steve Kawa.

Soul said, "Generally," she'd talk with officials about getting money to hire private security staff. That expense is usually $15,000 to $20,000 a year, although she didn't remember if she ever discussed a specific amount with the city.

"I've always asked if there was a way to find creative financing," Soul said, but "those requests were always deflected. ... I never got a direct answer."

In response to Soul's statements, Wiener said, "The city does not typically fund street festivals," but he and his office had "worked closely with the Sisters every single year," and through departments including police, Muni, and public works, "a lot of city resources" have been put into the event. The city has been "highly supportive," he said.

In a recent interview about Pink Saturday, Wiener was defensive. He expressed gratitude for the Sisters' work, but repeatedly talked about the support he and his office had provided them, and how they'd had to rush to make plans after the Sisters announced their withdrawal.

He said that when the Sisters made their February announcement, he and others "had to scramble to find an alternative community partner, and there was no way someone was going to step in with four months' notice" and be able to pull together "all the financial resources they would need to run an event of this size."

"As a result," Wiener said, "the city is going to need to provide direct financial support."

It seems that the city wouldn't have to provide the extra support for the Castro street party this year if it had done so before, but the supervisor said, "The Sisters didn't come to us and say, 'We need you to provide financial support or we're going to withdraw'" from the event.

There have been some warnings that the Sisters' efforts weren't guaranteed.


Mixed signals

However, the Sisters seemed to have sent mixed signals.

The emails from Wiener's office include a December 10, 2014 news release the Sisters had prepared that indicates the Sisters had decided to produce the festival this year.

"The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have voted to produce Pink Saturday in 2015," the news release says. The event "will be formatted differently than in years past ... The Sisters are committed to providing a fabulous and safe, multicultural, multigender, and intergenerational event. The Sisters please ask that while we work through this new format that both the press and community hold off on judgment with the understanding that more details will be shared in the future."

But the news release was misleading.

Soul said in an email exchange with the B.A.R. that the statement wasn't meant to signal the Sisters' definite involvement in the party. Instead, she said, the Sisters voted in December "to authorize a committee" to proceed with developing plans for this year. There had been an "unofficial committee" before the vote, and the vote gave "official status" to that panel, she said.

"The expectation was that the committee would come up with a plan that would address safety and financial concerns," Soul said, but after several meetings, "the committee came to the general membership in February with the recommendation to cancel Pink Saturday."

She said a committee member created the December news release.

"It was not vetted by the board and was perhaps overly optimistic about options for Pink Saturday 2015," Soul said.

Soul said Wiener and others had provided "great" support for the event, and messages to the supervisor's office also express gratitude.

A December 10 email from Sister Maryin A Mann to Wiener and Taylor says, "I thank you for the assistance that you and others have already given and for your commitment to partner with the Sisters to produce this coming year's event. Personally, I am excited and appreciative of our new relationship."

Along with his husband, Mann was attacked at last year's Pink Saturday. The incident heightened concerns about safety at the party.


Sisters approached

In the interview, Wiener said the center approached the Sisters and asked them to partner on the event this year, "and the Sisters said 'No.'" He said he'd also asked the Sisters if there was anything he or others could do to change their mind on producing the event, "and the answer was 'No.'"

In an email, Soul said the center approached her about a possible partnership.

"I said I couldn't speak for the order but I thought that unless their plan for this year could address our concerns for safety for event participants and volunteers I doubted that there was support to partner with them on an event most Sisters feel should be canceled or held outside the Castro," she said.

Soul said Wiener "may have offered assistance when we canceled," but "[i]f we thought there was anything specific the city could offer this year that would have made producing Pink Saturday feasible we would have requested it before canceling the event."

In response to a question about the center approaching the Sisters, McFarlane, with the community center, said, "We are honored and humbled to build off the tremendous work and legacy of the Sisters. ... We are currently in conversation with the Sisters about what role, if any, they would like to have in this year�s event."

The center is working with E. Cee Productions to put on this year's festival. E. Cee's Eliote Durham is serving as executive producer.

On the phone, Soul said, "If they need to pick my brain about anything, I'm here for them. ... We still haven't figured out if we're going to be working with the center this year. We haven't had a clear conversation yet."

Soul said she thinks the city's increased involvement is "great."

"It's about time they stepped in to help support the event in a more concrete way," Soul said. "I don�t know if it's just a matter of them being ready now, and they weren't before."

Over the years, the Sisters raised thousands of dollars for local charities through Pink Saturday. McFarlane said organizers "plan to continue the fundraising aspect of the event" and "are working with the Sisters" to structure the beneficiary arrangements.



Other people associated with the Sisters have also weighed in on recent developments.

Sister Kitty Catalyst commented on a Pink Saturday story on the B.A.R.'s website this month that "our city supervisor screwed over a leading group who wanted to keep doing the event" but was "forced to give it up due to a lack of city support â€" from him."

Catalyst, who wouldn't provide another name for herself, also called the supervisor's recent work "a fairly naked attempt to save a queer event after he had for years turned his back on doing a minimum of help."

The sister didn't mention Wiener by name, but it's clear who she was talking about.

Wiener called the Sister's comments "incredibly inaccurate."

He referred to his work to support the Sisters and said, "I don't think it's appropriate for Sister Kitty or anyone else to start lashing out and blaming other people."

But Kenneth Bunch, a former Sister, also had harsh words.

In another comment on the B.A.R .'s coverage of the Pink Saturday developments, Bunch said, "We worked our asses off for 20 years, took abuse and endured violence, barely breaking even financially, begging the city for financial support and getting ZERO ... . As soon as another LGBT group takes over, Wiener gets the city to pay for ALL of it ($80,000+). It's insulting, and almost like Wiener and the city are saying a bunch of drag queens do not deserve the same level of financial support."

However, Brunch said, "I wish the center well."

The mayor's office didn't provide comment for this story.