While some Pride events are canceled after new law, South Florida parades vow to march on

As some gay pride parades are canceled due to a newly enacted state law, one of South Florida’s largest pride celebrations will still carry on next month in Wilton Manors, with a whole list of new rules.

The Wilton Manors Stonewall Parade & Street Festival — one of the region’s largest gay pride events that typically draws a crowd of 30,000 — is too vital to call off: It’s an economic boon to the city, uniting the community and promoting diversity, organizers say. “Protecting this element of the gay community is important,” said Jeffrey Sterling, the CEO of Stonewall Pride Inc.

Scott Newton is the mayor of Wilton Manors, known as the unofficial capital of the LGBT community in South Florida. He vowed the event, set for Saturday, June 17, would continue with little disruption. “It’s not going to affect us at all,” Newton said. “We are going to have our parade, there are going to be drag queens.”

“Stonewall will definitely be going on, and we’ll be proud as ever in Wilton Manors,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 1438, titled “Protection of Children,” into law Wednesday, legislation that prohibits anyone from knowingly admitting a child to an adult live performance. The bills define “adult live performance” as any presentation that is performed in front of a live audience that depicts “nudity,” “sexual conduct,” “sexual excitement,” “specific sexual activities,” “lewd conduct,” or the “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”

Legal experts a showdown in court is inevitable over First Amendment rights. In the meantime, some parade organizers are canceling events, and others are forging ahead with new rules to ensure their events comply with the law. Consider:

  • Tampa Pride this week announced the cancellation of its ‘Pride on the River’ event.

  • Recently in St. Lucie County, the Treasure Coast Pridefest was limited to those ages 21 and older, while its parade was canceled.

  • The organizers of Miami Beach Pride, a multi-day celebration of arts and culture, plan to forge ahead. “Drag is not going away. We will not cower to this. We have to do logistics to figure it out. But we aren’t going to be cowering in the shadow,” said Patrick Gevas, a spokesman for Miami Beach Pride.

  • The five-day Key West Pride event, ending with a parade, will continue as planned in June. Nearly 10,000 people are expected. “We’re going forward as we normally would,” said Kevin Theriault, executive director of the Key West Business Guild, which runs the event. “We will not change anything,” he said, adding that the drag queens are not “risque” and the parade doesn’t need to be altered to comply with new legislation. “We don’t have a worry,” he said.

Whether to allow parades

The new Florida law prohibits a person from knowingly admitting a minor to an adult performance. It also authorizes the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to fine, suspend, or revoke the operating or alcohol licenses of hotels or restaurants if they admit a child into an adult performance such as a drag show.

The first violation carries a $5,000 fine against an establishment, and the fine for a second or subsequent violation is $10,000. A person who knowingly admits a child to an adult live performance faces a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison.

Wilton Manors, mindful of the new law, made adjustments. City commissioners approved an amendment to their event permits that now require parade organizers “to comply with all applicable federal, state, county, and municipal regulations.”

In a city newsletter, Newton said the change “was necessary to protect our businesses, and to minimize the risk of receiving penalties, fines, and legal repercussions.” He added that “the amended special event permit in no way bans or prohibits any member of our community from expressing themselves. It does, however, seek to ensure that adult performances take place where only adults are present.”

Sterling valued that the city allowed the Wilton Manors Stonewall Parade & Street Festival to proceed. “The city has allowed us to make this decision, which is really brave,” Sterling said. “We need to survive. We need to be here.”

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Sending a message about the new rules

The city of Wilton Manors supports the Stonewall Parade & Street Festival, touting it as one of its communitywide events each year.

“The parade, street vendors, and live performances offer something for everyone and the City is proud to host this celebration,” the city’s website says. “The festival is held in honor of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969. Lining the entire length of Wilton Drive will be vendor booths, food trucks, drink stations and non-profit organizations.”

Because of the new law, event organizers said there will be several changes next month. “No one wants to cause a problem for themselves or their neighbors,” Sterling said. “The law is gray on purpose. No matter what we do, they can find wrong. That’s what we fear.”

The major changes will focus on conduct, clothes and language.

Vulgarity is out. “If you wouldn’t say it in front of your 6-year-old niece, you ain’t saying it in public,” he said.

There is a dress code. Showing off female breasts and prosthetics are out. “None of that borderline stuff like pasties,” Sterling said.

Sterling will tell performers, “You are entertaining for minors, your audience is a bunch of kindergartners. How would you treat it as if it was your child.”

And there’s conduct. “You can’t touch yourself inappropriately, grabbing genitalia, using your body and thrusting it in a certain way,” Sterling said.

The reason to continue with the event is multifold. The event is an economic boon to tiny Wilton Manors, drawing scores of paradegoers from outside the region. Those people eat, drink and play — and spend money.

And Sterling wants an event to not cause trouble for the elected officials who are permitting the event, and the pocketbooks of the businesses who depend on the parade.

Still, going forward still causes concern.

“There’s no right decision here. It’s a selection of less evil. Deciding to not have it, or restrict people, are both bad decisions.”

And there’s a bigger picture that comes with a sense of community and encouragement for change; the 2024 parade will be months before the presidential primary.

“We need to be there in 2024 to promote change. If the gay community is dismantled, targeted, and people get intimidated, it’s hard to get people to vote,” he said.

The law’s new restrictions

While the new law may have been aimed at regulating drag shows, gay pride parades also will face scrutiny.

When Sen. Clay Yarborough, a Republican from Jacksonville, was asked by a reporter if the intent is to ban gay pride parades, he responded only that “the intent of the bill is to protect children.”

Other legislation signed into law this week prohibits sex reassignment surgeries for children and allows courts “temporary emergency jurisdiction to step in and halt sex reassignment procedures for out-of-state children present in Florida.” Another bill prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through 8th grade.

Bob Jarvis, a professor in NSU’s Shepard Broad College of Law, said if he was an attorney representing a city or county, he would advise his governmental body to sit it out, for now.

“I would say, ‘Don’t do it, let’s wait, let’s see what happens to this law,'” he said. “I think this law is unconstitutional, but I don’t want my city or county to be making a mistake.”

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Still, he said, a lawsuit may be inevitable: “If you issue a permit, the government comes after you. If you don’t issue it, you get sued by the people who don’t get the permits.”

‘Even the KKK gets to march’

Jarvis expects the laws to be challenged, although that will take time.

“I think this law will be struck down on First Amendment grounds,” he said. “The First Amendment allows freedom of speech, includes freedom of expression. When people are parading, they are expressing themselves. … No city or county could issue a permit to an LBGT pride parade because there is a chance there is a child that could be in the street or passing car. … It’s ridiculous: Even the Nazis get to march, even the KKK gets to march.”

The organizers at Miami Beach Pride said they aren’t sure yet how to navigate the new political landscape and acknowledge there will be a “delicate dance we’re all going to be doing.”

“For us it is going to be a question of what does 2024 look like,” Gevas said.

“We refuse to be put back in the closet.”

He said the drag on display is “very much a spectacle of the artistry, elaborate and beautiful outfits,” and performers are lip-syncing to Cher and Madonna.

“For 15 years we have known there are children in the audience, we’ve always taken that very seriously,” Gevas said. “The queens know their audience, they know not do anything suggestive or harmful. Our queens would never put a child in harm’s way.”

He said last month’s parade “was a defiant celebration. We knew this was the last pride as we knew it in Miami Beach.”

Looking ahead

More parades are bound to be canceled statewide, says Brad Sears, the executive director of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that specializes in research on issues affecting lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

The law is written “so broadly and vaguely they don’t know what it means and that has a chilling effect,” he said. “People are worried about running counter to the law, and the terms are so broad and vague it’s hard to know what they mean.”

“It is a very bad development that we are targeting a group of people, and basically trying to erase or cover their existence,” he said. “Equally as bad is passing laws that really undermine one of the primary freedoms we value in this country,” which is freedom of expression.

Robert Kesten, the executive director of the Stonewall National, Museum, Archives, & Library in Fort Lauderdale, said he expects the new legislation to “scare people out of trying to do anything, as we’ve seen with education bills.”

“There will be people who are scared to death to go up against the law,” he said. “It’s going to play out in the next few weeks.”

But he doesn’t predict the end of pride parades. Rather, he foresees even more support than before from “people that previously didn’t think of themselves as this community and the community will expand.”

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash