However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to put on what will this year be the 96th annual Thanksgiving parade.
While at Macy’s, one of the things that I discovered was that putting on a parade is more than a year-long, herculean effort. Once the parade ends this year, the team goes right back to work and starts to focus on 2023 and then 2024. There are so many moving parts, it really is a wonder that they pull it off spectacularly each year. I always thought that the intense planning would make for a great reality show, and it would have a bright star.
That would be my talented friend Wesley Whatley, who is the creative director of the parade. Whatley has been with Macy’s for 20 years, and he is arguably the most popular person at the retailer. Whatley is also out and proud, and he’s prouder than ever this year, since Macy’s is introducing even more LGBTQ+ cast and performances, including an all-queer band.
First, I wondered how Whatley was holding up with all the sleep deprivation. “Each morning, I go to Starbucks and get the biggest cold brew they can possibly pour for me, and that and a whole lot of joy keeps me moving,” he said.
I asked Whatley to talk about the importance of having the first all-queer marching band, Queer Big Apple Corps Marching Band, in the parade’s long history. “If I can, I’d like to start by explaining how it’s affected me personally. As a kid growing up in south Georgia and being in marching bands, I never imagined that I’d ever see a queer marching band in the parade,” he recalled.
“I’ve been thinking about how much that would have changed the way I felt and saw myself if I had seen a queer marching band when I was young at a big national event like the parade. You just can’t underestimate the power of representation, and that’s what we strive to do, is make sure everyone watching feels included.”
Whatley said the band had to meet all the criteria the Macy’s team establishes for bands that submit themselves for consideration to march in the parade. “It was about seven or eight years ago, I got a call from Marita Begley, the band’s artistic director. She asked me what it would take for them to be a part of the event. I gave her some advice, including building the band’s numbers and playing in tune. It was never about the queerness of the band; it was about their performance level.”
Whatley said that each year, the band made improvements, and this year, it met all the requirements for participation. Previously, the band took part in the 2020 virtual parade during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another queer performer is Betty Who, who I worked with for a National Coming Out Day column last month. “Betty Who is clearly such an icon,” Whatley gushed. “She will be singing her current hit, ‘Blow Out My Candle.’ I’ve listened to that song many times, and it has such a clear and intentional message in it, including ‘You can blow out my candle, but you’ll never put out my fire.’ She’ll be speaking through her song directly to queer kids across the US, who will hear that message of ‘don’t stop’ and feel so proud.”