Tens of thousands of celebrants will once again converge on Downtown Long Beach this weekend for one of the nation’s biggest and oldest gay pride parades and festivals.

There’ll be music headlined by acclaimed hip-hop artist Big Freedia and food and drink from across the globe. The parade, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the seminal Stonewall uprising, will feature more than 200 marching groups and floats.

But behind the scenes of this joyous gathering, not everyone will be swelling with pride. The non-profit organization that stages the two-day event—Long Beach Lesbian and GayPride Inc.—has been beset in recent years by financial shortfalls, warring factions, lawsuits and allegations ranging from undisciplined spending to vote-rigging on the board.

Critics, including some former Pride executives, say the organization seems to have lost its way as it tries to balance its stated mission of serving Long Beach’s LGBTQ community with the demands of staging a successful million-dollar festival.

Faced with fiscal problems in recent years, Long Beach Pride has all but abandoned the dozens of grants it once made annually to groups supporting the area’s LGBTQ population. What’s more, the group has put up for sale a 10-unit apartment building it has owned for nearly two decades, where destitute individuals with AIDS/HIV have lived and received services.

“The motto went from, ‘what can Pride do for the community?’ to ‘what can Pride do for me?'” former board member Sergio Macias says of the organization’s leadership.

“Now,” says Macias, who quit Pride in 2013 after 15 years on the board, “it’s just an expensive party.”

Pride President Denise Newman acknowledges that the organization has had to evolve and rethink its approach in recent years, transforming itself from a “mom and pop” operation to a more professionalized one that increasingly relies on paid consultants for help.

“We’ve had to kind of grow up,” she told the Long Beach City Council last year while unsuccessfully pushing for a break on police department security fees and other city costs associated with the festival and parade.

But Newman, her supporters and lawyer insist that much of the controversy surrounding the organization in recent months—including a lawsuit filed by a fellow board member seeking to oust her—is rooted in personal vendettas designed to drain the organization’s resources and undermine its leadership.

These individuals, says Long Beach Pride attorney Lawrence R. Cagney, are engaged in a relentless “cyber-smear campaign” and “public crusade” against an organization committed to advancing the interests of Long Beach’s LGBTQ community.

Then and now

Long Beach’s first pride parade was launched 36 years ago, in 1984, as the AIDS epidemic began stealing lives.

Judi Doyle, the first president of the newly incorporated Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride organization, marched in a bullet-proof vest at the insistence of police because of death threats she’d received on the eve of the parade.

The city, meanwhile, maneuvered to keep marchers off the streets by requiring exorbitant liability insurance and imposing other restrictions that the courts would later rule discriminatory.

Since those brave and proud early days, when the parade lasted a mere 30 minutes, the two-day event today draws some 80,000 people, generating an estimated $12 million for the local economy. The parade now is three hours long, and festival entertainment has featured such big-name acts as Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Sheila E.

Despite some recent moves toward sponsorships, the event has been almost entirely underwritten by $20-per-day festival tickets, merchandise sales and vendor payments. The organization’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that, since the mid-2000s, Long Beach Pride has been generating total revenues of anywhere between $1.4 million and $1.6 million.

Along the way, as the event mushroomed, the once-small non-profit spent liberally, with some board members taking personal advantage of the financial growth, according to ex-board member Macias, who also served stints as the organization’s president and treasurer.

For example, Macias says, some board members would travel to conferences and symposiums in the U.S. and abroad at Pride’s expense. But once there, they’d attend no meeting or sessions, treating the trip “like a vacation.” In fact, the organization’s tax records from the early 2000s show as much as $36,000 being spent in a single year for “conferences, conventions and meetings.”

More recently, while discussing cost-cutting measures during a board meeting, president Newman acknowledged that the organization had been “loosey-goosey.”

As an example, she noted that hotel expenses might be one area where the organization could do better. Pride’s financial records show that in 2017, it spent $45,000 on hotel bills during the event for board members and volunteers, eclipsing the $26,000 it spent the previous year.

Newman suggested during the March meeting that some board members might consider commuting to the event each day. “If you have an opportunity to stay at home because you live close by,” she said, “that’s a savings for the organization.”

Newman’s cost-cutting message followed a string of budget deficits that put Pride’s operations under the microscope.

Since 2015, Long Beach Pride has reported overall annual losses at least three times, forcing the organization to curtail its community grants. Its steepest deficit—$130,214—came in 2017, the most recent year for which Pride’s tax records are publicly available. (Pride’s attorney, Cagney, would not discuss the group’s 2018 finances.)

The organization blamed the shortfalls mostly on escalating city fees and appealed to the City Council for relief. But the city manager’s office said Long Beach Pride itself was largely responsible for the run-up in costs.

City auditors found that Long Beach Pride had made operational changes that required more city staff time. Those included increasing the length of the event, serving distilled spirits and boosting the number of parade entries.

Rather than giving the organization a break on fees, the city manager’s office instead handed Long Beach Pride a series of recommendations to cut expenses, some by potentially significant amounts.

Those included scaling back the festival’s footprint and changing its traditional May date to avoid competing for attendees and equipment with other major Southern California festivals held around the same time, such as Coachella and Stagecoach, as well as the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas.

Although Long Beach Pride has no plans to change the long-standing date of the event, Newman announced in April that the organization was downsizing the festival “to create a more intimate setting.” The organization this year also opened the door to sponsorships of music stages. Anheuser-Busch and Nissan North America, among others, signed up.

“We need to keep this event prosperous,” Newman said in a press release, “so that we can carry on the support of the LGBTQ+ community service organizations that heal us, provides the basic services that are sometimes denied to us and that fights for our right to be human.”

A symbol of retrenchment?

Long Beach Pride also hopes to right its finances by selling its building on Seventh Street, which has long housed chronically homeless clients with AIDS/HIV—a move that some critics say illustrates the group’s diminishing ability to maintain an impact beyond the festival.

Long Beach Pride purchased the property in 2002 for about $400,000. The sale price now: $2.1 million. Real estate listings offer a special inducement to would-be buyers: they note that property’s rents are well below market value so there’s value to be unlocked.

Services and programming at the property have long been run by Alliance for Housing and Healing. The organization’s communications director, Jack Lorenz, says Long Beach Pride has been a good landlord. That’s why “it was a bit of a surprise,” he says, when they learned of the sale not from Long Beach Pride executives but from the property manager.

Lorenz says the six clients who were living in the building have been relocated to other Alliance group homes, including a restored Craftsman on Elm Avenue in Long Beach.

Pride’s lawyer, Cagney, calls the decision to sell the property “the most economically rational course.” He says the organization is facing a maturing loan on its headquarters building on Obispo Avenue and needs to concentrate its resources there.

City Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, whose district includes the parade route and festival venue, says she’s committed to working with Long Beach Pride to resolve its financial challenges.

“It’s one of the city’s best events every year,” she says, “and it’s important that we work to support them.”

Pearce says she also would encourage the group’s board to recruit new members with fresh ideas.

“What makes Long Beach amazing is its diversity,” Pearce says. “And the more we represent that as a city and in organizations like Pride, the stronger we will be for it.”

That sentiment is music to Maria Ulloa’s ears. But the former Pride member isn’t so sure the organization’s leadership will play along.

“I was always being shut down,” says Ulloa, a human resources consultant and publicist who left Pride in 2017.

Among other things, Ulloa says, she wanted to negotiate contracts with new vendors who could potentially offer better deals and reduce the organization’s costs. But the board stuck with the same vendors because, she says, many of them were friends.

“Instead of looking at ways they could save money, for them it was just easier to go to the city and ask for a break,” Ulloa says.

The final straw, Ulloa says, came after she was put in charge of the Latin music venue for the 2016 festival and recruited a lineup of new, diverse entertainers. She dropped an act that one of Pride’s founder’s had favored for years. Her changes, she says, brought more money into the Latin venue.

The next year, Ulloa says, the board removed her from overseeing Latin entertainment with no explanation and brought back the old act. “It was a success [in 2016] so I don’t understand why they wanted to go back to what they were doing before.”

At that point, Ulloa says, she decided to quit, along with a number of other boardmembers, who, she says, were fed up with the “cliques” and “petty politics.”

A court brawl

Long Beach Pride’s internal conflicts erupted into public view for the first time in December 2018, when transgender board member Alexa Castanon filed suit against the organization and its two ranking leaders—Newman and her partner, vice president for administration LaRhonda Slaughter.

Among other things, Castanon accused them of rigging a board election to force her out because she’d become an outspoken critic of the leadership—particularly over what she claimed was a lack of recognition and respect for the transgender community.

Castanon said that when she asked to see the ballots at a board of directors meeting, she was handed an empty envelope. The suit alleges that the votes had been tossed in the trash and later retrieved and destroyed by Newman and Slaughter.

The Long Beach Post recently viewed an undated security video that appears to show two volunteers and a security guard counting slips of paper at Pride’s headquarters on Obispo Avenue. An unidentified woman enters the room, writes something on an envelope and puts it on a table. The counters then brush the slips into a trash can as they laugh and high-five each other.

Beyond the vote controversy, Castanon’s lawsuit claims that Newman and Slaughter also engaged in various other types of “gross misconduct,” including vandalizing Pride property, intimidating internal critics, violating the organization’s bylaws and misappropriating, wasting or diverting organizational funds or assets.

Pride lawyer Cagney says his client “categorically denies” any conspiracy to rig the 2018 board election. Nor is there any merit, he says, to the other allegations. He says that even though Castanon was reinstated to the board, she continues to “inflict litigation expenses on the organization.”

As for the suit’s allegation of bias toward transgender individuals, Cagney says he finds that “perplexing.” In fact, he says, the Transgender American Veterans Association is leading this weekend’s Pride parade.

Cagney blames the accusations on a “long-standing and bitter feud” that Castanon’s lawyer, Leslie Smith, has with Long Beach Pride. He says her tactics have included not only litigation but also scathing op-ed pieces and a critical website she created.

Smith’s vendetta began, he says, when the organization stopped making annual grants to community groups—including California Families in Focus, in which Smith and Castanon have played key roles.

“If a personal vendetta means that I take it personal when people use their positions to victimize others, or to cheat and steal from the community,” Smith responded, “then I guess I have a personal vendetta.”

For years, longtime LGBTQ activists have watched from the sidelines as Long Beach Pride has faced its organizational ups and downs.

One of them is Larry Forester, a revered pioneer in the gay community. A four-time mayor of Signal Hill, he was one of California’s first openly gay elected officials to disclose that he was HIV positive. In 1994, he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Forester says he’s long heard complaints about the internal politics of Long Beach Pride—the “personality clashes” and leadership problems. But he says the organization helped bring greater public awareness to the AIDS/HIV epidemic at a critical time, and for that he’s personally grateful.

He’s also optimistic that Long Beach Pride will confront and overcome its latest test.

“I know it’s had its problems over the years,” he says, “but it’s always been there as a support for the community.”

Kelly Puente can be reached at [email protected]