A grand marshal in the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Parade doesn’t do very much. Mostly the job requires waving at onlookers while riding in a convertible.
And Bradley Manning, imprisoned on charges of leaking U.S. military documents through the WikiLeaks website, could not even have done that.
But the symbolism of the role looms large in the San Francisco LGBT community. So, the selection of Manning as a grand marshal is causing a crisis for the Pride organization.
In a statement issued Friday, SF Pride board president Lisa L. Williams said that Manning will not serve as grand marshal in the June 30 parade and that his nomination was an “error,” which will require revising the selection process.
The decision prompted a demonstration by some of Manning’s supporters, as well as a counterdemonstration by his detractors, outside the Pride office in San Francisco Monday night.
The controversy has drawn in Daniel Ellsberg, who made headlines in 1971 by leaking the Pentagon Papers. Originally invited to represent the imprisoned Manning in the parade, Ellsberg now plans to attend the event on his own to express support for Manning. It will be his first appearance in the parade.
“That’s the place for me to be on that day, on June 30, in that parade, expressing support for Bradley Manning, loud and clear,” Ellsberg said. The 82-year-old Kensington resident said walking in the parade will be hard because of a recent hip replacement, but worth the effort.
The controversy began when a former grand marshal, Joey Cain, nominated Manning. “I felt that he was an important and heroic person both for the larger world and as a gay man,” Cain said. “He released documents that put no one in harm’s way and exposed crimes on the part of the U.S. government, stuff that the American public should have known but was covered up.”
Cain said he knew the nomination was controversial, but the history of gay pride is full of controversy.
What he did not expect was the fury of the backlash after the Bay Area Reporter announced that Manning was among the marshals. The American Military Partners Association, which advocates for same-sex military families, called on the Pride organization to rescind the invitation. And so did the Log Cabin Republicans of San Francisco, a gay GOP organization.
“When we first became aware of what appeared to be a formal decision, we were very alarmed,” said Fred Schein, a Log Cabin spokesman. “Bradley Manning has been charged with some serious crimes. Many of our members regard him as a traitorous fellow. He may have caused members of our armed forces to lose their lives. And we don’t believe such a person is appropriate to represent our community.”
Such opposition apparently swayed the leadership of the Pride organization.
“Bradley Manning is facing the military justice system of this country,” Williams said in her statement. “We all await the decision of that system. However, until that time, even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform — and countless others, military and civilian alike — will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.”
The statement said that a Pride staff member “prematurely” contacted Manning, based on “internal conversation” within the organization, and that the staff member has been disciplined.
So what was the nature of the “error”? According to Williams:
Specifically, what these events have revealed is a system whereby a less-than-handful of people may decide who represents the LGBT community’s highest aspirations as grand marshals for SF Pride. This is a systemic failure that now has become apparent and will be rectified. In point of fact, less than 15 people actually cast votes for Bradley Manning. These 15 people are part of what is called the SF Pride Electoral College, comprised of former SF Pride Grand Marshals. However, as an organization with a responsibility to serve the broader community, SF Pride repudiates this vote. The Board of Directors for SF Pride never voted to support this nomination. Bradley Manning will have his day in court, but will not serve as an official participant in the SF Pride Parade.
The statement seems to imply that grand marshals should not have been allowed to select future grand marshals, at least not without approval of the board of directors. But Cain said that’s the way the system has always worked.
Grand marshals are separately selected by the Electoral College, by a vote of Pride organization members, by a vote of the general public and by the Pride board of directors. The parade often has about 10 grand marshals chosen by these various groups, said Cain, a former board president, who can’t remember a decision by any of those groups being overturned by the board.
If the board didn’t like Manning, it could have appointed someone with an opposite political view as a grand marshal alongside Manning, Cain said, because that’s the the way Pride has handled such controversies in the past.
Williams did not respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, the flap has raised larger questions for the 43-year-old annual event. Does a grand marshal have to do something to advance the interests of LGBT people? Or does a more general contribution qualify as long as the person identifies as LGBT?
“Some people have said, ‘What had he done for the gay community?’ ” Cain said. “That’s ludicrous.”
A person’s contribution should count even if that contribution was not specifically for the benefit of LGBT people, he said. However, Manning attended demonstrations against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against LBGT people even before leaking military documents.
And during his imprisonment he was held in harsh conditions — sometimes kept naked, said Cain. “I think that’s partly because he was a gay man.”
With Manning’s court martial scheduled for June 3, the controversy is likely only to intensify.
From an Associated Press report in 2011:
“Lawyers for Pfc. Bradley Manning began laying out a defense to show that his struggles in an environment hostile to homosexuality contributed o mental and emotional problems that should have barred him from having access to sensitive material.”