BRADENTON, FL — Hundreds of members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies gathered for Manatee Pride, hosted Saturday at Bradenton Riverwalk by ALSO Youth.
The organization, which offers services and support to LGBTQ+ youth in Sarasota and Manatee counties, has hosted the family-friendly event for about a decade, said Mary Tavarozzi, board president.
Saturday’s gathering was the first Manatee Pride since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020. The event was canceled that year and then twice in 2021 as the number of coronavirus cases surged in the region and throughout Florida.
“We’re very excited to be back,” Tavarozzi told Patch.
Manatee Pride has always been geared at children and their families, she added. “We’ve always tried to make this a family event because we’re a youth organization and we’re here to serve the youth. So, we want pride to be for everyone, to include all families and all ages.”
It’s more important than ever than LGBTQ youth in Sarasota and Manatee counties have an event like Manatee Pride to attend.
“I think the reason you see so many young people in particular here is because it’s been a very difficult past couple of months for them,” Tavarozzi said.
For nearly two years, they’ve been socially isolated because of the pandemic, she said. “Now, they’re finally out and open, but then we have the Florida legislature causing them a lot of trauma and anxiety.”
Because of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would limit discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. It also opens the doors for parents to sue Florida schools if these discussions take place, and it requires schools to alert parents if there's any change to a student's mental, emotional or physical health.
The Florida House of Representatives passed the bill on Feb. 24. The state Senate is expected to approve the measure on Monday, according to CBS Miami.
The proposed law has left a lot of LGBTQ youths feeling scared and isolated, Tavarozzi said. “They’re fearful their GSA clubs could be stopped, that books are gonna be banned from libraries, that they can’t talk to their teachers.”
She added, “So being able to go out and celebrate who you are or what you are at an event like Pride, it’s really important that we show them that and it’s really important that we show them adults who made it through high school, those teen years, and are healthy and happy.”
Shannon Fortner, executive director and founder of the Fabulous Arts Foundation, thinks events like Manatee Pride bring much-needed community visibility to LGBTQ+ causes.
“I think events like this are great for the community. It gets folks out. It offers visibility and it reminds us of how much work we need to do with the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and the ‘Stop Woke’ act,” she said. “It gives us more of a reason to come together in a space like this where we can reconnect and catch up after the pandemic, and also catch up with the organizations doing important work in the community.”
Tavarozzi said that some of the young adults who attend ALSO Youth events participated in one-on-one virtual lobbying sessions with state legislators over Zoom in February, speaking out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“They shared their own experiences about why this bill is so potentially harmful to them,” she said. “They came to the center and sat in front of the computer and talked from their heart. I couldn’t have done that at their age.”
They mostly spoke with Democratic legislators, but some local Republicans from Sarasota and Manatee counties sent their staff to meet with the youth.
“Maybe it made a difference. Some local Republicans voted against the bill,” Tavarozzi said. “It’s one thing for us adults to speak about issues, but to have the youth be able to speak up and talk about themselves is really important.”
ALSO Youth continues to have a packed calendar of social and educational events and services for youth ages 10 to 24.
The organization hosts its LGBTQ+-affirming prom March 26 at Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota for those 14 to 20 years old. Its also planning a GSA summit for local middle and high school gay-straight alliances and their advisors in early April. There are also regular support groups, clubs and drop-in hours at the Sarasota and Bradenton centers.
“We want to make sure these young people are getting away from their computers and phones and back to interacting with people,” Tavarozzi said.