Pride celebration organizers grapple with new Florida laws on drag, transgender rights

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the small south-central Florida city of Sebring, a “Bearded Lady” contest almost got an upcoming Pride celebration canceled.

“Is that not really another name for a drag queen show?” Sebring City Council Member Terry Mendel asked Highlands County LGBT+ Caucus director Christopher Davies during a May 16 public meeting. Davies was seeking approval for road closures for the fourth-annual Highlands County Pride Fest on June 11.

“It does seem to me that this is going to result in inappropriate displays of sexuality in front of our children, so I’m very concerned about that,” Mendel said.

Davies told city council members the “Bearded Lady” contest is a costume contest and not sexual in nature. He added that the event would be closed off to anyone younger than 21 years of age, in an effort to comply with SB 1438.

The bill, signed into law last week, established penalties against businesses for hosting live performances that display unsuitable, salacious material in front of minors. Critics say it was vaguely written to allow the targeting of drag performers.

“(Mendel) was trying to draw out this false and deeply negative narrative that the gay community is out to groom your children, and that’s simply not the case,” said Jeffrey Schoop, executive consultant for the Highlands County LGBT+ Caucus.

Mendel’s remark, which mirrors anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that often baselessly implies a link between drag and child abuse, is an example of the kind of talking points, partly fueled by the recently enacted Florida policies, that are creating stumbling blocks for Pride event organizers in communities large and small across the state.

Like in Sebring, Central Florida organizations known for throwing Pride events and parades are facing a downpour of politically charged accusations, framing them as amoral for going forward with Pride festivities this year. At the same time, organizers are rushing to understand and adhere to new state laws that critics and several recently issued travel advisories say create a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ communities.

“We don’t agree with the legislation out there, but we’ll navigate it,” Schoop said. “It’s not that we’re about self-censoring, but we’re trying to throw the best event within the confines of how we need to act under the new laws.”

Organizations in Orlando and Lake County are also marching forward with Pride celebrations as a show of solidarity against recent attacks on LGBTQ+ progress in the state, but organizers say they are going over logistics with caution.

Come Out With Pride, the annual pride festival on Oct. 21 at Lake Eola, is still scheduled to take place. But the organization’s executive director, Tatiana Quiroga, said she paused planning efforts until it was clear which laws would pass.

“We wanted to make sure that we were fully aware of the rules of the game,” she said.” In theory, everything that we did last year falls fully within the legislation, but we’re still having to go back and assess what will be safe for our organization, what will be safe for our performers and also for our participants.”

‘If something happens, can we live with it?'

In addition to SB 1438, Gov. DeSantis signed three other bills that impact the lives of LGBTQ+ community members, including by banning gender-affirming care for minors and prohibiting trans people from using public bathrooms that don’t align with their assigned sex at birth.

“I think everyone assumes that the anti-drag bill is the one that directly impacts us, but unfortunately it’s more than that,” Quiroga said. “The bathroom ban was another conversation we had to start exploring to make sure that those in the trans and nonbinary (communities), and even part of the lesbian community, felt safe enough to use the bathrooms and facilities.”

While organizations try to move forward with Pride celebrations, others are choosing to opt out of festivities completely.

Last week, the president of Tampa Pride announced the organization canceled its annual Pride on the River event. The September festival has attracted up to 20,000 visitors in the past. Port St. Lucie Pride event organizers also canceled a Pride parade in April and enacted age restrictions to other Pride festivities, WPTV reported.

More recently, organizers of “PRIDE in St. Cloud” took to social media to announce they have been facing an increased amount of hate speech this year and therefore decided to cancel their upcoming Pride event out of fear for the safety of their patrons.

“After the legislation got signed it felt like people got a little empowered to speak up and have their derogatory comments come through, so that started coming in in increasing volume,” said Jerry Nikolaev, a director with PRIDE in St. Cloud. “We tried to moderate that as much as we could but the closer we got to the event, the more volume of that we saw.”

Nikolaev said the team struggled to determine how much backlash the event would face.

“We just didn’t feel like it was the responsible thing to do, to have hundreds of people gather under our event name, knowing that we can’t provide the security to guarantee everyone’s safety,” he said. “It became a question of: ‘If something happens, can we live with it?’”

Deborah Bowie, executive director of the onePULSE Foundation in Orlando said the organization recently discussed whether it may be endangering a facility where the foundation hosted a stage performance of a Pulse survivor that showcased how drag saved her life.

“This was not a conversation we would have had just a few years ago,” Bowie said. “It’s incredibly sad to see where we are in accepting and loving people no matter who they are and how they live.”

The foundation said it has no plans to cancel any of its events in the near future.

“We are hopeful that the Orlando community will stand up strong in the face of all the hatred aimed at the LGBTQIA+ community,” Bowie said.

Quiroga of Come Out With Pride said the Orlando organization has “no intention of canceling, postponing (or) rescheduling” its annual festival, which has been taking place since 2005 and is anticipated to bring more than 200,000 people this year to Lake Eola Park.

“We feel that, if anything, this is the most critical time for us to gather and bring our community together,” she said. “Folks in our community need to see that they are loved and accepted and welcomed, especially in the City Beautiful.”

Lake County Pride has been in the making since 2019, organizer Danielle Olivani said. Initially canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the June 17 celebration at Wooten Park in Tavares will be the first of its kind in the county, but the event has seen some pushback as rhetoric against the LGBTQ community has grown more hostile statewide.

It has also lost thousands of dollars in sponsorships and new laws like the Protection of Children Act forced organizers to rethink its drag performances by tweaking the acts and the outfits to fit within the law, even as drag performances aren’t explicitly banned by state law.

But Olivani, who is nonbinary, doesn’t plan to cancel the event, calling the recent bills and hate against people like them “a scare tactic.”

“It’s a battle,” they said. “I definitely feel the fear, but I’m not going to live in it.”

‘A beacon of hope in this very dark time’

Over the last several weeks, civil rights organizations have been issuing travel advisories that urge travelers to weigh the risks of coming to Florida amid the enactment of laws and policies that jeopardize the well-being of minorities, immigrants and gay travelers.

On Tuesday, the Human Rights Campaign joined Equality Florida and other civil rights organizations in issuing advisories in response to the laws that directly impact LGBTQ communities.

LGBTQ+ tourism expert Rachel Covello said community organizers are strenuously trying to comply with and understand the implications of what she considers to be “vaguely written” laws targeting drag shows and restricting restroom use, as well as limit the use of preferred pronouns in public schools and ban certain gender-affirming care for minors.

Covello, publisher of the LGBTQ+ travel website Out Coast, said travelers seeking LGBTQ+ safe spaces in Orlando should use the advisories to decide what’s the best and safest option for them.

“But I also want to remind folks that the governor doesn’t speak for most destinations,” she said. “Florida still offers many LGBTQ+ welcoming destinations and our tourism partners are working hard to create a network of support to learn how (the LGBTQ+ community) can best move forward together.

During his annual “State of the City” speech on Wednesday, Mayor Buddy Dyer made a point to stress that Orlando is one such place, with an “unwavering” commitment to inclusion he said would be showcased by the Come Out With Pride Festival this fall.

“Right now it’s more important than ever to make it known that Orlando will always be a city that prioritizes compassion and inclusion, a community that encourages everyone to be their authentic selves,” Dyer said.

Covello, who is also organizing the upcoming inaugural Florida Out Coast Convention (FLOCC) in downtown Tampa this August, said the event will include discussions about the new laws.

“We have experts coming to really explain the laws because people are asking: ‘Can I host a drag show?’ ‘Is it OK to have it in a public space or are we getting in trouble?” she said.

As the Highlands County Pride Fest approaches, Schoop said, even with all the concerns posed by the laws, he’s excited to celebrate Pride month in Sebring. “While I do understand concerns, we’re not going to bow down,” he said.

“Someone has to be a beacon of hope in this very dark time and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Staff writer Cristóbal Reyes contributed to this story.