Illustration by B T Livermore
BT Livermore

CALL IT A TALE of two Prides.

For queer Latinos ready to pack the Jupiter Hotel this Saturday, it seems like the best of times. For their African American gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender compatriots waiting for a repeat of last year's popular Black Pride block party, it's anything but.

The gulf in terms of buzz between these queer events begs the question: What's going on with Portland Black Pride, and for that matter, Unity Project Oregon, the African American LGBTQ service organization in charge of pulling it off?

It's been a tough year for Unity Project, formerly known as Brother to Brother. Last September, Executive Director Alisa Simmons resigned under a cloud of suspicion, with board members accusing her of improperly using a Unity Project-issued debit card, as well as allegedly forging Board Chair Craig Tyson's signature on a check to her landlord.

Simmons could not be reached for comment on the accusations. The police suspended their investigation and no charges will be filed, according to a spokesman at the Multnomah County district attorney's office.

"Alisa has moved on. We have moved on," Tyson says. "We are working to ensure that we have the proper processes in place so that Unity Project continues on."

Simmons' abrupt exit after only a year on the job, along with the board's failure to find a replacement, raises questions about the viability of an organization devoted to a subset of Oregon's queer community—one already served by mainstream groups like the Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) and the Sexual Minorities Youth Resource Center.

"As a white man, it isn't my place to say what African Americans need," says Michael Kaplan, CAP's executive director. "What I can say is that there is still a place for the outreach Unity provides."

The need for an advocacy group catered specifically to queer African Americans—especially in a state where only two percent of the population is black—is a subject of contentious debate.

"I just don't see the need for a separate group for black people, white people, Latinos," says Eddie Lewis, a gay African American college student, hanging out with a racially mixed group of friends at the Rainbow Room in Old Town. "We're already marginalized enough as gay people, period."

Other African Americans insist groups like Unity Project still serve an essential function in the gay community, especially when it comes to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. Among black males aged 13 to 29, the incidence of HIV infection was 1.6 times higher than that of whites and 2.3 times higher than Latinos, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There are some gays who will only deal with their own race," says Van Johnson, an African American attending Red Cap Garage's Friday night hiphop party last month. "There are black men I know who won't even show their face on [gay social networking website] Adam4Adam, much less walk into a clinic to talk to a white man they don't know."

Tyson seems eager for an opportunity for Unity Project to start fresh among the tents at Tom McCall Waterfront Park at this year's Pride. That's where the group plans to unveil a book club devoted to queer black authors, an Oregon chapter of the national multicultural support group Men of All Colors Together, and a reinvigorated push for healthy living and HIV prevention.

However, with no physical location of its own since vacating office space at Union Station last January, it's unclear where Unity Project plans to hold its new programs. The most logical choice, the Q Center's spacious new digs in North Portland, is apparently off the table for now. "I don't see that happening anytime soon," said Cory Murphy, Unity Project's director of organizational development. Q Center Executive Director Kendall Clawson did not return several requests for comment.

For now, the focus of the group's efforts seems to be on Portland Pride 2009 as a way to reach out and connect.

"If there is even one LGBTQ kid who does not have someone to talk to, to commiserate with about their issues, we have a reason to exist," Murphy says. "We have a purpose and a role to play out there."