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By Brad Brooks and Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - Organizers of some LGBT Pride events in Florida are limiting access by minors and increasing security in the face of a slate of new state laws they say unfairly target their community.
But the organizers say the laws are rekindling a defiant energy they hope will help push back against Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency on Wednesday, and other conservative leaders.
"The most important message of this year's Pride is that we all show unity and family and togetherness," said Jeff Sterling, organizer of Stonewall Pride in Wilton Manors, which is asking performers and parade goers to avoid nudity or risqué behavior.
Florida is at the center of an American war of words and legislation over values and beliefs. DeSantis this month signed a package of bills he says is aimed at protecting children. They include laws banning gender-changing surgeries for minors, imposing fines on businesses that allow children into "explicit" drag shows, and prohibiting the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity through 8th grade.
In response to a request for comment for this article, DeSantis' office emailed that it would not respond to any "baseless accusations" linking laws to hostility and violence toward the LGBT community. It added that the governor "will continue to do what is right and protect the innocence of children."
Critics say the law on drag shows was unneeded, arguing that the state already had laws against exposing children to lewd entertainment. They argue that it was specifically built to target Pride, by banning local governments from issuing permits to any event that might expose children to a lewd "adult live performance."
"We are telling people not to run, not to hide. That's what the bigots want," said Carlos Guillermo Smith, with the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida and a former Democratic state representative who is running for state senate.
Kristina Bozanich said she was forced to cancel a small Pride event she was organizing just outside of Orlando after drag show performers meant to headline her festival backed out, citing fears over the new state laws.
She also did not have the funds to pay for the increased security she felt was necessary.
But Tiffany Freisberg, head of the St. Pete Pride board that organizes Florida's biggest Pride parade and other events all through June in St. Petersburg, said canceling was never considered. No event or performance either this year or in the past, she argued, would violate any lewdness laws.
"The new laws have a very real ripple effect of fear on our communities," she said. "But that's why events like ours are more important than ever."
Joseph Clark, CEO of Gay Days in Orlando, which leads participants through Disney World tours and hosts drag performances, pool parties and other events, said his plans were unchanged and he hoped LGBT people from outside Florida would make a special point to attend Pride events in the state this year.
"When people come to Pride events, that unity and coming together creates a layer of security for our community and it shows that we're here and we're not going anywhere," Clark said.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; Editing by Donna Bryson and Mark Porter)