Transforming Austin PRIDE

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Pride is often likened to gay Christmas—one big event that you’ve waited all year long to celebrate. In that case, Austin PRIDE may be more like gay Hanukkah, because it’s an entire week-long celebration and you get a really cool present every single day. Austin PRIDE would not be nearly as big or as fun if the Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation (AGLPF) wasn’t involved. This small group of volunteers works hard year-round to put on this week-long celebration, full of fun events and entertainment for the entire LGBTQ community and their allies to enjoy.

Austin PRIDE wouldn’t exist without the hard work of seven dedicated board members, who—according to Benny VandenAvond, Vice President of AGLPF—do 95 percent of the logistical work to actually pull PRIDE week together.

VandenAvond, left, and his boyfriend, Nathan Garcia. Photo courtesy of Benny VandenAvond

VandenAvond, left, and his boyfriend, Nathan Garcia. Photo courtesy of Benny VandenAvond

VandenAvond and his boyfriend, Nathan Garcia, have been living and breathing Austin Pride for over three years now. After their regular work days, they both go home and work over thirty hours each week on PRIDE-related matters.

“From the moment we get home from work, Nathan and I are both working on PRIDE. When we finish, we go to bed and then do the same thing the next day,” he explained. “While we have co-chairs that assist us with event planning and execution, and on the day of the event, we get 200-plus volunteers to help us, all the planning, marketing, accounting, every meeting with the city, we do it all!”

If you had asked him five years ago if he thought he’d be an integral part of putting on a city-wide PRIDE celebration, he would have responded with a definite “No way!” Yet here he finds himself, a three-year veteran with AGLPF. So what changed?

VandenAvond was raised in a small town in Wisconsin, and didn’t feel comfortable coming out until he had a long-term partner, Mike, in college. The two both came out to their families together and after graduating moved to Austin to pursue the next chapters of their lives. When they broke up after seven years together, it really caused VandenAvond to take a good, hard look at his identity as a gay man.

“I think breaking up (with Mike) helped me to confront the fact that I was always saying ‘I’m gay, but I’m in a long-term relationship,’ and that somehow I thought that made it OK for me to be gay. When I lost that safety net, it really made me examine myself and why I couldn’t just say ‘I’m gay, period,’” he explained.

As a single gay man, VandenAvond got very involved in the Austin LGBTQ community, volunteering his time at OutYouth and working with Habitat for Humanity’s Pride build. He and Garcia met nine months later and hit it off.

Garcia was actually involved in planning Austin’s first Pride celebrations in the early 90’s and had left the event many years ago. Sparked by his new boyfriend’s involvement in the community, Garcia decided to check back in to see what was happening with PRIDE.

The two both joined the organization at one of its darkest periods: the 2010 events of Austin PRIDE had gotten bad press, and there was over $30,000 of debt to pay and only five dollars in the bank account. VandenAvond and Garcia collaborated with the rest of the members on the AGLPF board to pick the organization up by its bootstraps.

“I think we all hoped that we could possibly pay back the debts that weren’t even ours—that was our original goal in 2011—but after that year’s celebration, we were actually able to pay off all the debts and to donate $14,000 to community non-profits, and keep a little bit of money so that we could actually build something bigger for the next year,” VandenAvond explained.

PRIDE always has a theme—last year’s was “YOUnify and Celebrate” and events had a birthday/carnival feel to celebrate Austin PRIDE’s 21st Birthday. This year’s theme is “Love Unites”, in honor of this year’s great strides for equality for LGBTQ Americans. You can expect plenty of love songs from the performers at the festival (which include Andy Bell of Erasure, Crystal Waters, Steve Grand, and more!), plus there will be a symbolic group wedding ceremony performed immediately before the parade by Jane Wiedlin of the Go Go’s in front of the Paramount Theatre. Love Unites, indeed.

VandenAvond’s experience with Austin PRIDE has been absolutely transformative of the event, without a doubt—he has served as one part of a team of catalysts that have effected great change, bringing the AGLPF and the event itself up and into the light, raising money for great organizations and causes around town and giving Austin an event to truly be proud of.

But his involvement with AGLPF has been transformative of himself, too, he says.

“I’ve gone from someone who had absolutely no involvement in the LGBTQ community to someone who is spending 30 hours a week volunteering on this. It has been this amazing journey. I’m really passionate because a PRIDE festival is what actually introduced me to doing all these things (in the community),” he said. “If I can do that to five people—out of the ten thousand people who will be at the festival, the over 100,000 who will be at the parade—if I can make five people get inspired to get involved and do something, I’ve paid it forward.”

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