Few annual fundraisers make it past the 20-year mark, and even fewer can claim the same co-hosts every year. But San Francisco’s Pride Brunch, a celebration that has kicked off the June Pride weekend since 1999, continues to thrive thanks to the commitment and chemistry of its co-founders, co-hosts and co-emcees, Gary Virginia and Donna Sachet. For these longtime friends, the passion for raising funds for PRC (formerly called Positive Resource Center) is as strong today as when they first brainstormed the benefit brunch over drinks at a Castro bar more than two decades ago.
The Gazette recently caught up with the duo for a look back at the early days of the event — and a glimpse of what to expect at this year’s virtual celebration on June 26.
Virginia and Sachet are nostalgic as they recount a fateful evening at the Edge bar, where they huddled to come up with a “signature” fundraising event on Pride weekend. Both were already popular figures in the LGBTQ community — Virginia had been crowned Mr. San Francisco Leather, and Sachet the 30th Absolute Empress of San Francisco — and had made it their mission to buoy PRC, a provider of free advocacy and legal services to individuals with HIV and AIDS.
With Pride weekend jampacked, their only option was early Saturday. As they pondered a cocktail brunch, a friend who worked as a chef at the hot Civic Center restaurant Stars piped up and offered to ask celebrity chef-owner Jeremiah Tower to help. With a swanky venue and some donated food, an event was born. Looking back, Sachet says, “The leather community, the drag community, and that restaurant that was so primary in the social scene — that combination was just magical. It gave us a great liftoff.” Virginia notes that the first brunch raised about $1,100. “But we knew it had a future,” says Sachet.
The following year, they invited the SF Pride Parade grand marshals to join the brunch and give short speeches, a tradition that provides the event’s most powerful moments. Often unexpected — from Sir Ian McKellen capping a serious speech by peeling off his shirt to show his tattoos to the doctrine of Elliott Blackstone, the straight Tenderloin police officer who became a liaison to the LGBTQ community in the 1960s and fought to humanize the City’s transgender population — these audience interactions are heartfelt, humorous and known to have made men in leather cry. “People become so vulnerable at this event,” acknowledges Virginia.
PRC’s CEO, Brett Andrews, adds, “I can’t underscore the beauty of hearing the rich stories of the community and celebrity grand marshals who really have stories to tell that are incredibly profound, life changing and life defining.”
Both Virginia and Sachet, past Pride parade grand marshals themselves, have imparted their own stories. For Virginia, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995 and at the time too sick to work, an earlier incarnation of PRC called AIDS Benefits Counselors provided stepby- step guidance to help him plot his then-uncertain future. Sachet arrived here in 1990 and discovered a place where she could truly be herself for the first time. “This City, and especially the LGBTQ+ community, welcomed my idiosyncrasies with open arms and as the character of Donna Sachet developed, I found acceptance and celebration,” she says.
“A Taste of San Francisco Pride” is this year’s theme, and though there’s no parade, there will still be a spotlight on the grand marshals. Featuring live and prefilmed segments, festivities also include an offbeat tour of the City with sidekicks Virginia and Sachet, highlighting Harvey Milk Plaza, the Eagle Plaza and the Transgender District.
Andrews anticipates intimate viewing parties hosted in homes — or in one of the 10 VIP suites at the Palace Hotel (a $1,250 sponsorship package includes a night’s stay and Champagne brunch). For him, the event is not just a fundraiser for his nonprofit, but also “a beautiful mosaic of what the LGBTQ and ally community represent here in San Francisco.”
Over the years, nearly $800,000 has been raised for PRC, which continues to support people living with HIV and AIDS as well as others in need, including individuals struggling with mental health issues, addiction, homelessness and unemployment.