A smaller, safer Pride returns to St. Petersburg after pandemic pause

·4 min read

ST. PETERSBURG — A DJ blasted classics like the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me.)” in Vinoy Park. Kids played in a field of soap and bubbles as vendors like Macy’s handed out swag and the athletically-inclined wandered by in race gear and rainbow socks, proudly bearing their 5K running bibs.

St. Pete Pride returned to the Sunshine City on Saturday. It was a smaller, safer Pride — known officially as St. Pete PrideFest — but it was Pride nonetheless.

While St. Petersburg usually hosts one of the largest Pride parades in the Southeast, that event has now been canceled for two consecutive years due to coronavirus concerns. The last true Pride event was the parade and celebration that drew more than 265,000 in 2019.

This year, Pride has been split up into four themed weekends through June to allow smaller crowds to safely gather. First up on Saturday was the Pride OUTside festival, which started with the 9 a.m. Pride Run St. Pete 5K.

“It feels phenomenal to be out here amongst our people,” said Evelyn Interiano, 45. The Brandon resident attended Pride with her 4-year-old son, Izaiah Interiano, and her friend, Nicole Hawkins, 53, who she met through an ex-girlfriend more than 20 years ago.

The Pride weekends offer the LGBTQ community and its allies a chance to reconnect after being separated by the pandemic, which enters its 15th month. But that is not all that weighs on the community.

On Tuesday, the first day of Pride month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a transgender sports bill that bars girls and women, who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, from playing girls sports in high school and women’s sports in college. Florida joins 10 states that have passed laws targeting transgender youth, banning them from playing sports and from receiving gender-affirming health care. Similar bills have been introduced in 31 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Then on the second day of Pride, DeSantis cut $900,000 from the state budget that funded programs that serve LGBTQ people in Central Florida. That included $150,000 to provide mental health services to survivors and family members of victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

The governor’s decision was made days before the fifth anniversary of the June 12, 2016 mass shooting, when a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 people, most of them Latino, in an attack on a gay club in Orlando.

Tori Edwards didn’t stop commemorating Pride because of the pandemic last year. The 28-year-old St. Petersburg resident just found a new way to do so, she said, by attending Black Lives Matter protests held in solidarity with Pride across Tampa Bay.

It felt good to celebrate this year, she said, but seeing state legislatures target the LGBTQ community shows her that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

“We can celebrate the progress that’s been made,” she said, “but it’s also hard seeing that there’s so much more to go.”

St. Petersburg’s Romone Bowens, 34, said he’s trying to focus on the positive this year. Sporting a rainbow baseball cap and wristbands, he came to the festival with a coworker, Mikaella Rainwater-Moore, and took part in the morning 5K.

Bowens didn’t begin celebrating Pride until he was in his mid-20s. But he appreciated that it was a space to gather without judgement. This year, he felt like things were returning to normal. Both he and Rainwater-Moore are healthcare workers in physical therapy who received the Moderna vaccine.

“I feel like the energy is amazing because everyone’s just been cooped up and they didn’t get the opportunity to really celebrate,” Bowens said. “We’ve come a long way in a year.”

The festival wasn’t too crowded, and people were able to socially distance. Organizers said they expect at least 2,500 to attend the races and festival. Next weekend will be family week at the St. Pete Pier, North Straub Park and South Straub Park.

That morning, 47-year-old Priyanka Sinha approached the stage to accept their prize: a Trader Joe’s gift card. That was the reward for winning second place in the nonbinary division of the 5K race with a time of 26 minutes, 28 seconds. Sinha started training a few months ago in Miami to get ready for the St. Petersburg race.

Sinha, who is attending Pride with their partner, pondered whether or not to get vaccinated, but ultimately decided to so and received the Moderna vaccine. After a year of isolation and loss experienced by many LGBTQ people because of the pandemic, Sinha felt like they were able to reconnect with their community.

“I feel really emotional about it,” they said. “Covid sort of really separated us in a fundamental way.”

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