“I’d call it a march, not a parade. Pride started as a protest and a political statement.”

As director of Santa Cruz Pride for 15 years beginning in 1990, Merrie Schaller remembers when the annual Pride Parade was a lot different than it is now. She remembers when a special security detail was required just for the march to make it through downtown. She remembers when religious groups would kneel on the sidewalks as it passed, praying for its members. Although many now use the two terms “march” and “parade,” interchangeably, Schaller said she wasn’t being trite, but trying to make a point: The LGBT community in Santa Cruz, and everywhere else, has fought for and earned the levels of acceptance common today.

To honor contributions community members have made to that struggle, Santa Cruz Pride is now accepting nominations for the two Grand Marshals of the parade and for proclamations, titles and honors given to individuals who have had outstanding involvement in the Santa Cruz LGBT community.

“What you do to become Grand Marshal versus what you do to get a proclamation isn’t really different,” says Crissann McCann, current coordinator of the march. “They’re both members of our community who have done something to really step up and stand out and contribute. They’re both once-in-a-lifetime things.”

Grand Marshals are a relatively recent addition to the Santa Cruz Pride Parade, which started in 1975 and ties with San Diego for as third longest running in California, behind San Francisco and Los Angeles. Schaller remembers how the tradition started.

“There was a UCSC student and community activist named Gary Reynolds, who was very out on campus and eventually very out as a person with AIDS,” Schaller said. “And about the time we were putting on Pride in ‘91, we were kind of saying, ‘You know, Gary doesn’t look very well. I don’t know if he’s going to be well enough to march.’ But the idea of doing Pride without Gary was just ridiculous.”

Someone then proposed Gary ride in a car for the march, to make it less physically demanding.

“We said, ‘Since we’re going to get him a car, well, let’s make him Grand Marshal,’” Schaller said. “And so he was our first Grand Marshal, because he was, frankly, not well enough to be in it otherwise.”

Schaller recalls Reynolds struggled greatly to make it through the march, even with the help of the car, and drifted in and out of consciousness as the day went on. It was only with extreme effort that Reynolds was able to finish up and look back upon a successful march. That effort had taken a toll, however.

“The morning after Pride, he died. And basically, he stayed alive to be Grand Marshal,” Schaller said.

The Grand Marshals have been an integral part of the parade ever since, and Reynolds’ unwavering commitment to the Santa Cruz LGBT community serves as an inspiration for the many others who continue to work towards change. And change has happened.

“It was very normal to have people throw things at us, particularly at the back of the line, and there were people who would step in and hassle people and sometimes throw a punch or two,” Schaller said. “So we had very, very well-trained security people.”

In a separate interview, Laura McCann, Crissann’s wife and director of the TAPS program at UCSC, as well as current coordinator of the march, said, “Every now and then we get one knucklehead, but for the most part, everybody’s very accepting.”

Schaller and the McCanns agree in many cases the advances made by the march and the community that puts it on have been quite astounding.

“Some of the religious organizations and individuals over the years have gone from standing on the sidelines and protesting to actually being in the parade and supporting us,” said Crissann McCann.

For Schaller, seeing that change and honoring the people who’ve made it possible is what the whole parade is about.

“It’s a great place for younger people to look around and say, ‘These are the people who made my community happen,’” Schaller said. “And it’s a great way for older people to look around and say ‘These are the people who are continuing my community.’ We have a lot more to do, but we’ve come an incredibly long way.”

To submit nominees for Santa Cruz Pride 2012 Grand Marshal, visit http://diversitycenter.org/programs/santa-cruz-glbtiq-pride/grand-martials/