Brittany’s Pride at Filoli Story
In January of 2019, Kevin Wisney and I, both working in the Visitor Services Department at the time, found ourselves discussing a big “what if” scenario. What if we could host Pride at Filoli? It stemmed from a conversation we were having about being queer-indentified staff at Filoli and how accepting, welcoming, and comfortable Filoli had been and had made us feel since our very first days. We wanted to share that feeling with everyone around us. By the end of the day, we had floated the idea to the CEO of Filoli, Kara Newport, who responded with a big resounding “yes!” Just like that, Kevin and I were hustling to pull off an inclusive, welcoming, and celebratory four-day event appropriately named Filoli Pride.
There were a lot of emotions that surfaced throughout the planning process. For one, Kevin and I were so comfortably “out” at Filoli and we are still happily out now. Our Filoli family unapologetically welcomed us, accepted us, and gave us a seat at the table. As a Florida native, I was usually one of two queer-identifying people in my workplaces, but at Filoli it was different. There were more of us! More importantly, there were more of us but it is not how Filoli defined us. Filoli had quietly created this haven of safety, support, and acceptance but it was time to say it out loud so others could feel it too!
Kevin and I worked hard to make sure that all felt welcome at Filoli Pride. We thought about what families could enjoy, allies could come and support, and those in the queer community could experience and feel what both Kevin and I felt at Filoli – included.
We started with a bang! A Dynasty-themed opening night, where drag performances started off Filoli Pride at the Swimming Pool. We wanted so much to incorporate Filoli’s stories into what Filoli Pride was and Dynasty fit the bill perfectly, as many people associated it’s opening shots of the mansion with Filoli. We knew we also wanted to include things that allowed a more passive Pride experience for those not wanting to watch a show or openly participate. We reached out to the NAMES project, based out of Atlanta, Georgia and requested four large pieces of quilts from their AIDS Memorial Quilt collection. To learn more about the AIDS Memorial Quilt, visit this link. Our Collections team built large PVC frames to house these very large quilt pieces, spanning the height of the Ballroom.
We had queer performers from across the Bay Area perform in our Ballroom all weekend. We hosted Drag Queen story time, queer line dancing, Queer Taiko drumming, Bluegrass Pride in our meadow, and partners like San Mateo Pride Center and the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center came out to show their support.
This year, we had big ideas for how we could keep building off this successful event that not only brought Kevin and I a great sense of pride, but offered a space in our community for those needing to be seen and accepted. We were disappointed that we could not throw Filoli Pride this year due to COVID-19. The disappointment didn’t last long though because Kevin and I are reminded everyday that Pride at Filoli exists in everyone and everything that we do. We are still inclusive and welcoming to all. As a cultural institution in the museum and garden world, we have a platform and a voice, and the voice of Filoli is that you are welcome, you are safe here, and we are proud to share this beauty with everyone.
Kevin’s Pride at Filoli Story
How does one put word to paper and describe “Pride”?
As a 52 year old gay man I have seen the LGBTQIA community through so many manifestations. I have gone from hiding in a closet to being openly married and a father. As a boy growing up in the rural midwest I felt the deep shame that I was “causing” my family. Shame that I wasn’t the boy my father wanted and expected. Shame that I was different from what my classmates expected of me. Shame that the teachers questioned me and my parents about what was “wrong” with me. I knew that I couldn’t say it. I knew I couldn’t name it. “When I grow up I am going to get as far away from here as I can”, I would tell myself. That was my coping mechanism. That was what I said to myself as my brother hit me in the face with a clenched fist chanting “fag, fag, fag”.
I made it out. Out to San Francisco. Where I could be myself. Where I didn’t need to worry that the local men would be waiting outside the one bar in town that allowed people like us. Waiting to jump, kick and taunt. I was free and I was Proud. Then I learned the fear of my own sexuality. I arrived in the Bay Area in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Men dying by the dozens. I watched the hollow empty faces of people who have seen too many of their friends die far too young. I retreated from men for a time. Afraid that I would catch it. Afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do the things I wanted to. Afraid that I would fulfill my mother’s prediction that I would die alone and lonely. Then I met other queers like me. Men, women, trans folks. All colors, shapes and sizes. All furious at a government that had thrown us away like dirty tissues. I knew I belonged. I marched, chanted and fought back. I found myself and I was so Proud.
I survived the plague. I buried way too many. I had boyfriends, lovers, and friends. I found my true self. I worked and I studied. Life became predictable… in the best way. I married and we welcomed our beautiful daughter to our family. I easily referred to my husband as “My Husband”. I stayed home. I taught our daughter. I was a good parent. Most of all I was Proud.
Life changes. I needed to return to work. I was still the full time parent of my daughter so I wanted something flexible and where I could focus my mental energy on my daughter. I stumbled upon an ad for a job at Filoli. I remembered that I had been there many times and loved it. So I gave it a shot. I was called in for an interview. Nervous. I was so very nervous. I interviewed and thought that it went well but that I was a long shot at best. I was asked to accept a position and I jumped at the chance. How was I to know that what was supposed to be just a “job” would change my life so profoundly? I have never experienced a place quite like Filoli. I have been given a tremendous gift. A gift to work with people who firmly and sincerely believe in equality. Not just LGBTQIA Equality but equality for everyone. I have never worked with a group of people that “walk the walk and talk the talk”. It is inspiring and humbling. The core belief of equality runs through the organization from top to bottom. It is exercised in everything the organization does. While working for Filoli I received a great honorific from another organization I belong to. When the CEO caught wind of it she immediately said “We should throw a party to celebrate”. The other organization that I volunteer with is a drag queen organization. I sincerely wondered how it was all going to work out. As planning progressed I met with the CEO to discuss logistics. I assumed that the Queens and audience would enter the ballroom thru a side door. When I presented that she asked “Why?”. “Why would the queens and your guests enter through a side door?” I stumbled searching for an answer. She caught me mid-sentence and said “They will walk through the front door like any other guest. Filoli is open and welcoming to all.” I went outside, walking to my car, sobbing with years of pent up desire to be accepted just as I am. I was accepted and I was Proud.
A few months later in a conversation with Brittany we both lamented the fact that Filoli didn’t formally celebrate Pride. A quick email to the CEO asking why not and would it be possible to do it. Without hesitation the answer came back as “Yes! Lets have a Pride Celebration”. Filoli Pride was born. I was able to work with Brittany and we created something magical. I am so very Proud.
Pride season this year is very different. Pride is now “virtual”. Pride parades on Zoom and Drag shows on social media platforms. After much debate and heartache we knew we had to cancel our Pride Celebration here at Filoli. I was hurt and devastated. Yes, I understood why we had to, but it hurt. After a few weeks Filoli was given the green light to slowly re-open. I volunteered to be a member of front-line staff. It was beautiful to reconnect with my co-workers and work together to re-open the place we all love. Then I saw it. I saw the people who inspired and humbled me. I saw the people who were putting themselves at risk to open the doors so others…. All others could come here and find rest and rejuvenation. This is Pride I thought. This is what Pride is all about. Making the world available to all people.
I feel ok that we had to cancel Pride. I feel ok because I know that the people of Filoli are living Pride every minute of every day that we are open.
I am Proud