The Chance of a Lifetime
PJ Sedillo and Tony Ross put everything on the line for Albuquerque Pride
For two decades, PJ Sedillo and Tony Ross have been the Silly Putty. They're the ones who've kept rolling along with Albuquerque Pride, molding to changing circumstances and holding it all together—Sedillo as president of Albuquerque Pride, Ross as PrideFest director.
"I've got to accept people as they are and not the way I want them to be. And that’s why I do gay pride."
Tony Ross, former Albuquerque PrideFest director
They've been leading the charge for so long, they've finally done everything they set out to accomplish. So Sedillo and Ross, partners in business and in life for 17 years, are retiring from Albuquerque Pride. But they haven't forgotten why they started.
For Sedillo, 43, it began in 1988. He was back in Albuquerque after graduating from New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, and about to begin his career as an APS educator. A tangle of gay marchers had made it to Yale Park, where the UNM Bookstore is today. There was a news camera crew there. At 21, Sedillo wasn't openly gay. Yet.
"I was hiding behind a building because I wasn’t out," he says. By the next day, he felt crushed by the experience. "It really bothered me. I had seen all these people enjoying who they were; they didn’t care. And so I said, You know? I want to be like them."
So Sedillo began volunteering for the parade through Common Bond, Albuquerque’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) resource center. He met community organizer Neil Isbin, "the guy who knew everything," says Sedillo. "He was the guy you went to; he had the answers." A year after joining Common Bond, Sedillo became the group's president. Albuquerque Pride was Sedillo's responsibility, just as it was his mentor's before him. Only Sedillo ended up sticking with it for 21 years.
Ross, now 49, remembers his first foray into public gay life. There was a drag review at the KiMo Theatre, and Sedillo was doing a performance of “Mr. Telephone Man” from a Broadway show. "Of course we had dinner and I knew he was doing drag, but I didn’t know what that really meant as far as someone I knew.” Out came Sedillo in a floor-length, sequined dress, swinging a princess telephone by the cord. “Before that we had only been together a short time; but here we are 17 years later, and we’re going strong." The two married in Canada in 2003.
In its infancy, Albuquerque's gay pride event was something that just sort of happened. The first gathering was in 1976, one year after the gay-welcoming Metropolitan Community Church of Albuquerque (MCCA) opened its doors. Marchers met where Foxes Booze ’n’ Cruise used to be on East Central, says Sedillo, "and they didn’t know where to go." So the small group walked until it ended up at Morningside Park. (Last week, a plaque honoring Albuquerque's LGBT community was placed in that spot. Sedillo says it’s the second memorial of its kind in the United States. The other one is in New York City.)
Various groups put on the march to Morningside Park in the ensuing years, including UNM's gay student group Juniper, until Common Bond took the pride walk under its wing.
Sedillo eventually realized that for the event to grow, it needed to become its own nonprofit entity. And so in 1996, Sedillo and Ross registered Albuquerque Pride as a 501(c)3 corporation. Out on their own, Sedillo put the entire cost of organizing that pride weekend—$1,500—on his credit card. With the greatly expanded parade and PrideFest events, this year's attendance is expected to reach 50,000 people and cost $180,000.
The scale may have swelled, but Pride has stayed an all-volunteer organization. (Well, almost—Albuquerque Pride was able to hire its first and only paid employee last year.) Sedillo works full-time as a resource teacher for APS, training new educators in the elementary school gifted program. Early mornings, lunch breaks and evenings have been devoted to his non-paying job, organizing the biggest LGBT community event in the state. That’s time, Sedillo points out, that he should be working on his thesis for a Ph.D. in special education. Ross owns a case management firm for people with developmental disabilities, and he leases part of his small office complex to Albuquerque Pride headquarters—for half of what you could get on the open market, says Ross. They may be stepping down from Pride, but with the two business offices so cozily enmeshed, they won't be stepping away.
So why take on the trouble of organizing Pride all these years?
"Why do we have a Martin Luther King Day? Why do we have Veterans Day?" asks Sedillo. "To honor the people who have come before us and to celebrate who we are now.” He’s honoring the people who first stepped up at New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969, Sedillo says; the first time the gay community stood together against injustice. And he’s thinking of that “scared little boy” hiding in Yale Park. “It’s a reminder for us to say, No more. And," he laughs, "be colorful with a boa, too."
For Sedillo's spouse, it's a question that resonates with faith. "I'm not going to throw Christianity out because they got some misinformation; they didn’t read all the Scripture—‛love thy neighbor as thyself,' ” says Ross, a regular parishioner at the MCCA. "I've got to accept people as they are and not the way I want them to be. And that’s why I do gay pride."
Acting as PrideFest coordinator meant that Ross couldn’t watch the parade on Central. For 17 years, he set up the maze of booths, tents and chairs at Expo N.M.—which prevented him from setting eyes on what was happening just beyond the fairground’s walls. This time, Sedillo and Ross will ride in the parade as Albuquerque Pride Lifetime Achievement Award recipients. Floating up Central Avenue in a bright red Jaguar furnished by the Roadrunner Car Club means, technically, Ross still won't get to see the parade. But it makes no difference to him. Ross and Sedillo will have an excellent view the road ahead of them.
The New Face of Pride
Taking over for PJ Sedillo is 29-year-old Jesse Lopez. You may remember him from his first stint in the public eye, when Lopez was one of the dancing, singing teenage hosts of local TV program “Dance, Dance, Dance, It’s a Teen Thing.” Or maybe you saw him on “Latino Beginnings,” an MTV/Logo documentary special about being a Hispanic and gay–“what it really means to be a minority within a minority,” Lopez says.
While MTV captured his coming out on national television, he was student body president at New Mexico Highlands University—and a cheerleading coach, to boot. “Oh, girl, I did everything,” he laughs. He won the Hispano Music Awards’ Gospel Song of the Year in 1992 and toured the world singing. From there, he acted as youth outreach and prayer minister at The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, followed by a stint representing the state’s 100,000 college students on the Higher Education Department advisory board. He was first runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Mr. Gay Competition. And he’s completed coursework for a master’s degree in governmental and political processes. Lopez’ résumé is impressive and dog-eared for someone of his years.
Like former PrideFest Director Tony Ross, Lopez says his faith keeps him grounded. And like former Albuquerque Pride Director PJ Sedillo, he vividly remembers his first encounter with the Pride Parade.
“I was 11 or 12 years old. We were at a tuxedo rental place on Central because my sister was getting married, and the parade went by,” he says. “I remember that feeling of disgust inside, because that’s how I was raised.” As a Catholic child from the South Valley, gay people weren’t a comfortable concept. “They were this menace to society, people who didn’t belong in my world.”
Contrast that experience to Lopez at 21, when he watched his first parade after coming out.
“I remember that feeling as I was leaving. It was so liberating,” he says. “It was OK to be who you were; there was a community there. You weren’t hiding anything, you weren’t looking over your shoulder.”
He stopped to get gas on his way back from the parade. As he filled up his tank, an unease settled around his shoulders. Away from the cheering crowds and his newfound freedom, he felt a weight returning—the oppression of having to conceal who he was in everyday life—that he never even realized was there. “I remember that distinctly.”
Lopez spent this last year volunteering as the marketing coordinator for Albuquerque Pride. When PJ Sedillo retired in the spring, Lopez jumped on as interim Pride director. Lopez is a natural fit. And by all accounts, it’s been the smoothest transition in any city pride event’s history. Most importantly, Lopez knows firsthand what a massive undertaking Albuquerque Pride is—and its importance.
“PJ and Tony have given over 30 years of their lives together for Pride,” he says. “You can do trophies, you can give them awards, but it’s really all of those people who wake up happier because of this event—that’s their legacy.”
And now it’s his.