Indy Pride President Fills Us In: What To Expect At The 2017 Festival

This year’s fest, which kicks off at noon on Saturday, June 10, boasts four headlining acts instead of the usual one, a reversed route for the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade, and a new $5 admission fee (more on that later).

The Circle City IN Pride Festival, Indy’s annual summer extravaganza celebrating the LGBTQ community, breaks in new digs this year with a move from the American Legion Mall to the larger (and shadier!) Military Park. In his second year heading the organization, Indy Pride, Inc., president Jason H. Nolen-Doerr briefed IM on the changes to this year’s fest, his Lady Gaga aspirations for Pride, fishing revelers out of fountains, and how Pride is like The Nightmare Before Christmas (in the best way possible).
IM: What’s new at this year’s event?
Jason Nolen-Doerr: A lot! We’re moving to a new park, and we’re instituting an admission fee. We had a great relationship with the American Legion Mall, but we’ve outgrown that space, which is essentially a long rectangle. That means if I want to visit a food vendor across the Mall, I have to make my way through, potentially, 100,000 people to get there. Military Park is a perfect square, so everything is equidistant. We also gain three acres of usable space, because when you take out the monument, the tomb, and the fountain in the Mall, and then add in the hills, you don’t have as much usable space to work with. So we’ll have more room to spread out this year. Military Park is also all flat, which makes it more accessible for people—the old location had all these hills, and it was very hard to get around. We also gain a lot of trees. Shade is always a hot commodity during our event, because it feels like we’re on the surface of the sun.
The parade is also reversing its route—it’s staying on Mass Ave, but it’s starting where it used to end. And traditionally we’ve only had one headliner at the festival, but we have four featured artists this year. Down the road, when we have more funding, we’d love to be able to get bigger names, and there’s a dream of someday having Lady Gaga perform at our festival. What does it take to get to that point? Well, about $1.5 million. But we have big aspirations.
IM: You’re charging admission for the first time this year—why?
JND: As the organization has grown, and as we’ve gone from being a parade that took up one block with one drag queen on the back of a truck to now potentially 120,000 people in the space, that’s come with an increased cost. It costs us $350,000 to $400,000 to pull off the festival. We come close to breaking even on that through sponsorship, vendor fees, and parade registration fees. But what we aren’t in a position to do afterwards is give a lot back. If you look at the festival as a fundraiser, the organization’s designed to give us money to do work with the community. And the admission fee allows us to do that.
We actually did a survey last fall which showed that an overwhelming majority of people, like 95 percent of respondents, would be willing to pay to get into the festival. And then the next question asked was, “What amount would you be willing to pay?,” and “$10 or more” was the category with the highest score. But we chose to go with $4 or $5. (Tickets are $4 in advance, $5 at the gate.) We’re very intentional on the admission fee—if we’re going to charge $4 or $5 to get in, we need to put that money to a purpose. It’s not just going to sit in an account for Pride.
IM: What will the additional revenue be used for?
JND: The admission fee will be used to increase security at this year’s festival and entertainment at next year’s festival, but, more importantly, it’s going to be used to give back to our community partners. Last year we gave away over $80,000 in funding to scholarships, made a $26,000 donation to Pulse after that tragedy, and made the first installment of our $25,000 donation to Indiana Youth Group. We also gave grants to other organizations in the city, and either sponsored events or paid for individuals to attend conferences.
This year, we’ve made a three-year commitment to Indiana Youth Group for $165,000. The admission fee also means we’ll be able to do more on our scholarships. We’re giving away $10,500 in scholarships on Saturday. We want to be able to double that, and I would love for the organization to be able to someday pay for someone’s entire college experience.
IM: You’re also providing free solidarity tickets this year for people who can’t afford the new admission fee.
JND: I would never want to see Indy Pride create anything people couldn’t experience because of an admission fee. We’ve partnered with community organizations to donate solidarity tickets, and they’ll be available the day of the event without question. We’ll be publishing on Friday via social media how many solidarity tickets we have, so if you need a free ticket, then you can utilize that to access the festival. We’ve had pushback with people saying they can’t afford to be there, and it’s those people I care about the most.
We get lots of feedback via social media, and if I had time I would sit down with every single person and listen, and explain, and show—here are the numbers, and, at the end of the day, here’s what we’re able to do by charging this admission fee. Some people think we instituted the admission fee this year because we’re hiring an executive director, but that was built into the budget before we ever decided to charge an admission fee. As a leader, I’m always looking at what step we think has the most positive impact for people. And the board felt an admission fee was the way to go this year, after lots of conversation and research.
IM: How many people do you anticipate will attend Pride this year?
JND: Our numbers in the past have been based off estimates, and those estimates are based off a really strange algorithm where people who are more intelligent than me look at a picture and say, “Okay, here’s how many people we think were at your event at this point in the day.” That number has historically been recorded at anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000. This year, moving to a new park and instituting an admission fee will impact attendance. Will people be able to find the new park? Will they choose to make the trip over? Will they choose to pay the fee? But one thing the fee will do is, it’ll give us an accurate count, so we’ll have a much better idea of what the true number is. Our budgeting is based on 50,000 attendees, because we don’t know if the 120,000 or whatever is a real number, so if we exceed that number, it’s a win for us.
IM: What aspect of Pride are you most proud of?
JND: It’s amazing to me that fewer than 30 dedicated volunteers are so creative and passionate day in and day out, year-round. We had individuals who stayed until three or four in the morning last year tearing down the venue. This year we’ll finish up on June 12, and by July, we’re already thinking about what the 2018 event will look like. It’s similar to The Nightmare Before Christmas—as soon as Halloween is over, we go right into planning the next Halloween.
IM: Any insider tips for this year’s Pride-goers?
JND: Buy your ticket in advance. Pride can be a bit like Disney World in that you get super excited to ride the Snow White ride, but the line is four hours long. Right now, individuals can go online and buy tickets in advance, and you not only avoid the line, but you actually save a dollar by doing that. Doing as many things as you can in advance to avoid lines will really set you up for success. Oh, and don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
IM: Do you have any favorite Pride stories?
JND: One of the funniest things that used to happen in our old venue is that any time you mix alcohol with a fountain, you naturally create an environment where people want to be in that fountain, right? I mean, it’s 1,000 degrees outside! I wish I had a list of the number of people that we’ve had to remove from the fountain over the years. This year we move to the Canal as our new water source, so people could wind up in the Canal, but we’re hoping that’s not the case.
IM: What do you see as the festival’s biggest challenge going forward?
JND: There’s a growing national mindset that the Pride festival is reserved, from a leadership stance, for cisgender white males. Indy Pride took steps last year to try to start moving away from that to where individuals who identify outside of the cisgender white male classification feel welcome and empowered, because the more diverse perspectives we have, the stronger we are as an organization, and the stronger our events will be. But those changes take time. It’s like rerouting the Titanic versus driving a little speedboat. It’s something we’re actively working toward.
IM: What’s on your wish list for Indy Pride over the next five years?
JND: We’re trying to advance the organization from being just a festival. We’re more than a festival; we’re more than what happens in June. Pride is 365 days a year. And my ultimate wish-list item? I would love to tour our governor around the Pride festival—walk him around, introduce him to people, let him experience what it looks like to be LGBTQ in Indiana, because it’s a very important segment of our community. He needs to see that.
IM: If you could tell people one thing about Pride, what would you want them to know?
JND: Pride is for everyone.
You can buy tickets to this year’s Circle City IN Pride Festival on June 10 for $4 in advance online, or $5 at the gate.