St. Pete Pride draws thousands in first parade after pandemic

After two years of muted celebration, St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront came alive with anticipation.

Thousands crowded along Bayshore Drive and in the North and South Straub parks, sporting rainbow socks, flags and tutus. They danced to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and licked popsicles in the almost 90-degree weather, the heat barely abated by overhead clouds.

It was the 20th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s annual Pride celebration. So much had changed since the first, when the only public acknowledgment of the parade from City Hall came from a single council member.

In 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized both in Florida and in all 50 U.S. states. The city of St. Petersburg now commemorates Pride with a flag-raising at the beginning of June. And this year’s parade attendance was poised to surpass 260,000 people — more than 26 times the crowd at the first St. Pete Pride parade.

Yet, so much of the hard-won progress in the fight for LGBTQ rights remains precarious, many said at the parade Saturday.

“It’s almost like a celebration but it is also almost like a protest,” said 29-year-old John Ramos of Tampa, who came to Pride sporting pink, blue and yellow glitter — the colors of the pansexual pride flag. He sat in the shade of North Straub Park with his best friend, 25-year-old Angela Figueroa.

“We’re here, no matter what you want us to be,” Ramos added. “This is who we are. This is where we’re at.”

Both the state government and the Supreme Court were already chipping away at the rights of gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians, Pride attendees said.

The parade Saturday came on the heels of the historic reversal of Roe v. Wade the day before. In a concurring opinion, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said called on the court to reconsider rulings related to same-sex marriage and contraception.

Florida LGBTQ leaders expressed worries for the future of their community’s rights in a post-Roe world. Last year, they fought unsuccessfully against state measures to prohibit transgender youth participation in sports based on their gender identity. This year, came new rules prohibiting teachers from providing lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation to young students, leading to more uncertainty.

For 51-year-old Fabienne Nadaeu, Florida’s legislation came as a culture shock after she moved here from Vermont about two years ago.

A bisexual woman who came of age during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980′s, she’s no stranger to the fight to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Still, she said, she sees recent events as a sign that there’s still work to do.

“It’s really strange for me to see this because I always thought we’ve progressed so far and we’ve made so many changes,” she reflected, as she sat in the grass near the Museum of Fine Arts with her girlfriend, 47-year-old Denise Shelley. “And it just reminds me that we’re not quite there yet.”

As right-wing pundits and politicians amped up their rhetoric — even calling for executions of LGBTQ people and comparing them to pedophiles — civil rights organizations became concerned that homophobic speech had emboldened extremist groups, who threatened Pride events.

On Saturday morning, St. Pete Pride goers awoke to news of a shooting at a gay bar in Norway that lead Pride organizers in Oslo to cancel their festivities for the day.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway promised an “all hands on deck” approach to security at Pride events. On Thursday, he said law enforcement had not detected any safety threats.

While some people did show up to protest the parade and held signs expressing anti-abortion sentiments, Pride attendees seemed mostly unfazed. Some snapped photos in front of the preachers, including one parade-goer wearing fishnets and a vest that read, “Say Gay.”

Caitlyn Fawley, 18, of New Port Richey held a sign in support of abortion rights near a group of anti-Pride, anti-abortion protesters. “Never again,” read her sign, with a coat hanger drawn on it.

“The queer community — we just want to be able to protect everyone, love everyone and that’s what we’re all here to do,” she said.

In front of the Museum of Fine Arts, 68-year-old John Meros also held a sign.

“Mr. DeSantis: We LGBTQ folks + millions of awesome allies ain’t gonna disappear,” part of the sign’s message said.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Meros came out at 23, in the late 1970s. A retired teacher, he worried what legislation like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill — nicknamed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill — could have on on children who, like him, knew they were part of the LGBTQ community from a young age.

“It’s not the time to be discouraged,” he said “But it’s the time to be courageous.”