Written by: Kara Kundert
On September 9th, the California Bluegrass Association and Bluegrass Pride were officially named the Best Overall Contingent in this past year's SF Pride Parade, placing us number one out of more than 270 floats and contingents. Featuring three live bands (a youth band, an old-time band, and a bluegrass band) and a marching contingent of over 100 people, Bluegrass Pride took to the streets of San Francisco to share our love of roots music with the world and show that, despite any stereotypes that may exist, bluegrass is truly for everybody. This message struck a chord with the crowds and judges of SF Pride, who loved our unique and enthusiastic presence in the parade.
In addition to taking home the Best of the Best ribbon, we were also named one of six Absolutely Fabulous Musical Contingents, alongside the AIDS Emergency Fund/Positive Resource Center (with Beach Blanket Babylon), the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, the UC Davis Aggies Marching Band, and the Youth Pride Coalition.
The decision to join the Pride parade goes back to January of this year, when the California Bluegrass Association made the decision to break new ground – for the first time ever, a bluegrass organization would join an LGBT pride celebration. In a motion brought by Statewide Activities Vice President Ted Kuster, Bluegrass Pride was presented as the first of many potential outreach events, a chance to show people who’ve never heard a banjo roll before what bluegrass and old-time music are all about. With an audience of over one million, SF Pride was an opportunity to reach a huge number of these people. This self-funded event (i.e. the CBA put up no money for it) was a chance to be proactive and make a good first impression, to fight back against stereotypes that bluegrass is something insular and old-fashioned. We wanted to show the world that bluegrass is for everyone, and Bluegrass Pride was the first step.
The decision was not an easy one for the CBA. Despite the overwhelming board vote in support of the motion, many in the community didn’t believe participating in Pride would be beneficial to the association. They feared it would mix politics into a music they cherish as a refuge for its ability to stay “removed” from social issues.
But to LGBT bluegrassers and our allies, this was an opportunity. For so long, this music has forded along the path of least resistance, choosing not to see us but to look through us. If we weren’t actively pushed out of bands or given the cold shoulder at jams, our identities were still ignored or downplayed. To keep the politics out of the music meant to simultaneously keep us from shining our lights bright. Bluegrass Pride was a chance for us to build bridges between parts of our lives that had previously been barricaded. It enabled us to be seen, to be ourselves, and to show folks that there’s more to bluegrass than stereotypes may have led them to believe.
Now, eight months later, we are just beginning to fully realize the impact we were able to have, both within the community and abroad in our efforts to reach out to all potential bluegrass and old-time fans. With the positive response given to Bluegrass Pride, we can now move forward on further expanding the CBA’s outreach efforts. Shortly after Pride in June, the float we made was repurposed by Mariaelena Quale to represent the CBA at the Alameda 4th of July Parade, and took 2nd place in the Civilian Band category. Meanwhile, Jim Letchworth is launching our float in the 2018 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in San Francisco, which will have over 100,000 spectators.
This marks the first year that any bluegrass organization has ever represented at a Pride event worldwide, which makes this wholehearted embrace of our cause that much more powerful. We made the choice this year to be brave. This year, we stepped up as a community, took the love and acceptance and joy at the heart of this music, and invited the world to take it with them. We opened our arms to people of all different races, classes, identities, orientations, abilities, and backgrounds and said, “This is for you, won’t you join us?”
I wrote here in June about an experience I had at Father’s Day, working at the Bluegrass Pride craft corner and watching several teenagers find safe harbor in that space. They shared their identities, their struggles, and worked together to make extravagant and fabulous accessories for Pride. Some were lifelong friends, some had only met at the booth, but they all bonded immediately. Witnessing these kids let down their guard and accept each other reminded me of the real power of Bluegrass Pride. People are at their best when they feel unafraid and free to be themselves. Those kids shone bright because they knew without a doubt that they were welcome, that this space was for them.
One thing I’ve learned from playing bluegrass is that there’s always room for one more in the circle. And yes those big circles can be loud and overwhelming, cacophonous even, but they’re also beautiful, joyous, warm, welcoming, and full of love. I wouldn’t have it any other way.