BY : RYAN WILLIAMS-JENT
JUNE 16, 2022
Pride Month officially began in St. Petersburg June 1 as it has for years, with support from local leadership. LGBTQ advocates and allies from throughout Tampa Bay gathered to honor the region’s commitment to equality by raising the Progressive Pride flag above City Hall.
The ceremony also commemorated two decades of St Pete Pride, the nonprofit that exists to strengthen the city’s legacy of inclusion. “By championing equity and representation, we aim to create an open and compassionate community where people are empowered to thrive,” the organization explains. “No matter who they are.”
Its founders first welcomed an unprecedented 10,000 supporters to the city’s Grand Central District in 2003, launching an almost entirely annual gathering now billed as Florida’s largest LGBTQ Pride celebration. Its last traditional gathering was held in 2019, welcoming more than 265,000 people to St. Petersburg and creating an economic impact of $67.2 million on the city ahead of the pandemic.
Festivities were postponed in 2020 but returned last year for a COVID-conscious celebration. An estimated 22,000 people attended St Pete Pride 2021, which featured four weeks of dramatically scaled-back events in lieu of Pride’s signature parade and festival.
“Our big takeaway was just how well those events were received, especially considering that we were in a COVID year,” St Pete Pride President Tiffany Freisberg told Watermark in March. “Turnout was incredible. The vibe was incredible. So there are things that we’re going to continue to layer in this year.”
This year’s celebration officially began with the flag raising, led for the first time by St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch. The longtime LGBTQ ally reflected on the organization’s citywide impact and more.
“Let’s take a moment to remember how far we’ve come in this city from St Petersburg’s first Pride parade and celebration in 2003,” Welch shared. “In those 20 years St. Petersburg has created and implemented meaningful change and progress for all who identify as LGBTQ+.
“Today we are a city proud of our diversity, focused on inclusivity and intentional in our embrace of equity. This flag represents who we are, all of us,” he continued. “When we say we are St. Pete, it is a confirmation of our core principle of inclusion. We are a city where there’s a place for everyone, where every person is valued and every voice is heard. In St Petersburg, we are committed to equality for all. Full stop.”
St Pete Pride’s founders remember a time when that wasn’t the case, noting that the city was very different when they came together for their first event. As St Pete Pride marks 20 years, we examine the celebration’s origins, its June 2022 outing and the nonprofit’s future.
The founding of St Pete Pride followed the controversial collapse of Tampa Bay PrideFest, the area’s primary LGBTQ celebration at the time. The Tampa-centric gathering was last held in 2002 and included no free festivities.
“The July 4 weekend event was roundly criticized for missing the Pride mark by a country mile,” Watermark reported in 2003. “Everything cost money to get in, there was an unusual dependence on porn actors for entertainment and there was no parade.
“Across the bay, movers and shakers in resurgent St. Petersburg speculated that a modest community-based celebration in the increasingly gay Grand Central District might resonate with area gays and lesbians,” the report continued. “The more they talked, the more people became enthused and began to offer their own ideas.”
That group included Tampa Bay activist and entrepreneur Brian Longstreth, who would become St Pete Pride’s founding co-chair. “Right from the start, everyone seemed to be on the same wavelength,” he told Watermark.
“The circuit parties and porn stars are all well and good, but for most of us that doesn’t represent Pride,” he continued. “We felt that St. Petersburg had taken some big strides in embracing the LGBTQ community and we wanted to showcase our city.”
More than 100 people attended St Pete Pride’s first organizational meeting, held in the Grand Central District in Feb. 2003. Dozens of sponsors donated $25,000 in cash and $50,000 in services, including Watermark, leading to a robust celebration by June. It was held during the last weekend of Pride Month in honor of the Stonewall Riots.
“There was ongoing disappointment in the direction of Tampa Bay PrideFest,” Longstreth recalls. “It was such great timing, I think – so many people felt the same and wanted to do something different. We wanted to go back to the roots of what a Pride celebration meant.”
Longstreth was joined by Ellen Levett as co-chair, who had previously worked with New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee in the early 80s. She moved to St. Petersburg in 1992 and was eager to see the city celebrate its LGBTQ residents.
“My friend Robin Hankins told me they were forming a Pride committee here, so I went to an organizing meeting,” she explains. “I wanted to see a Pride celebration in St. Pete. Initially I was not on the board, but within a few months Robin – who was the co-chair – became ill and unable to continue. I was asked to replace her and I accepted.
“It was amazing to watch it all come together,” Levett continues. “Brian had brought together a diverse group who each had a pertinent talent to contribute.”
Pride’s founding board of directors was rounded out by Rod Houston, who served as secretary and Gerry Broughman, who served as treasurer. Additional board members and committee chairs included Paul Anater, Ed Cassidy, Claudia Cole, Robert Danielson, Robin Hankins, Carl Kuttler, Chris Lovett, George Shaunessy, Greg Stemm and Robert Victor.
While Cole, Hankins, Kuttler and Shaunessy have passed away, their legacy lives on through St Pete Pride. Stemm, who was recruited as the celebration’s first parade chair because he had experience producing parades, credits the founders’ dedication to the community they sought to serve.
“I guess you could say all of us were idealists who recognized we had a great responsibility to get it right from the start,” he explains. “We were very aware and cautious because we knew everything we did would set precedent.
“We grew to be very close as well,” Stemm adds. “I believe it was the very first time anyone referred to any of us as ‘gay activists!’”
Just four months after their initial meeting, Parasols on Parade – which would eventually evolve into its full-scale parade – began at 11 a.m. There were no floats, but nearly 1,000 marchers representing more than 60 bars, businesses and organizations made their way through the city’s Historic Kenwood neighborhood into the Grand Central District.
Up to 800 marchers also carried a massive Pride flag across two blocks, cheered and joined by onlookers. More than 100 vendors participated in the subsequent street festival. Organizers were in awe.
“Carl Kuttler, the first street festival chair and I were literally picking each other up and twirling each other around in the middle of Central Avenue with the unbelievable 10,000 people around us,” Stemm recalls. “Just picture two, 250-pound queens twirling around in tears with a helicopter taking pictures of all of us. I just remember us both shouting, ‘I can’t believe we did this!’”
Broughman says that while he didn’t have many day-of responsibilities as St Pete Pride’s treasurer, he still felt the crowd’s impact.
“I was so amazed at all of the news trucks,” he remembers. “It felt like there were people on every corner, interviewing what I would call us ‘normal people’ who were just there for Pride. I remember thinking, ‘This is why I love St. Pete. You don’t have to hide or be ashamed and this is a great way for the straight world to meet us.’”
Broughman says mainstream news coverage that evening primarily painted a different picture, however, focusing in large part on a single protestor and reinforcing stereotypes.
“This was [former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick] Baker’s era,” he notes. “There was a conservative side of things.”
Baker barely acknowledged St Pete Pride, disparaging it when he did. Instead, then-Councilmember Rick Kriseman – the longtime LGBTQ ally who would serve two terms as St. Petersburg mayor beginning in 2014 – recognized and celebrated the inaugural event alongside the community.
“There will always be a place for him in my heart for that,” Levett says.
The city’s proclamation is one of the things Houston remembers most fondly. Pride’s former secretary says that “having the city council declare June as LGBT Month despite the mayor’s objections was a big win for us. I felt very proud.”
Other moments from the first celebration stick out to Longstreth, like the young family who brought their children to the processional to teach them about diversity. Two coming out stories also resonate.
“There was an 80-year-old widower, who said he finally felt comfortable coming out after his wife had passed,” Longstreth says, “and a teenager who said he came out to work by asking or an extra day off for Pride. I felt proud about what we accomplished and the diversity of who we reached.”
While the organization has undergone significant changes in the last two decades, from its leadership to the location of its parade, St Pete Pride’s mission to reach the community it serves is stronger than ever. Longstreth says he’s thankful the organization has reached 20 years.
“It’s been great to see it grow so fast, even with some of the usual growing pains and struggles,” he says. “I’m humbled and glad to have played a part and pleased to see many in new leadership positions and the diversity of the board this year.”
To prepare for St Pete Pride’s 20th year – and to position the organization for its next 20 – the nonprofit welcomed almost entirely new leadership in 2022. Serving not only as president but as acting executive director, Freisberg led the search for a full-time executive director and current board as her tenure began.
St Pete Pride’s last executive director vacated the position in late 2019. The position’s updated description noted they were seeking “a passionate, strategic and collaborative executive director to help steward the organization through its 20th year and beyond.”
“As St Pete Pride sets its sights on leading the transformation of St. Petersburg into one of the nation’s premiere LGBTQ+ destinations, the ED will be responsible for implementing organizational structure and maintaining the financial and operational well-being of the organization,” it also read.
The executive director oversees St Pete Pride’s operations, fundraising, marketing, communications, community partnerships and event strategies are being effectively implemented. Applicants were required to have extensive experience in progressive leadership and for-profit budget management, as well as an “authentic passion for celebrating diversity, equity and inclusion.”
“For our executive director who’s steering the ship, it was really essential that we find someone who was polished but approachable and who was a member of the queer community or had a personal experience that related to the queer community, so it would be more than just a job,” Freisberg explains.
They found that in openly LGBTQ activist Nicole Berman. She relocated from Washington in January, having most recently served as the executive director for a domestic violence and sexual assault services agency.
“Tiffany shared that St Pete Pride wanted to be intentionally more inclusive and accessible and to invest in the St. Pete community year around,” Berman told Watermark afterwards. “So it wasn’t just about those 300,000 people you’re working to bring in, but really what we do for the core community throughout the year.
“I love the party, but the idea of being a cultural institution that benefits the community year-round really spoke to me,” she continued. “St Pete Pride isn’t about the board or executive director. It’s not their Pride or my Pride. It’s St. Pete’s Pride.”
That’s something every St Pete Pride volunteer agrees with. The organization’s executive committee also includes Treasurer Stanley Solomons, who has served in various capacities since 2008 and Secretary Molly Robison, who officially joined in 2020.
Fernando Chonqui, Carey Mears, Gabe Alves-Tomko, Clifford Hobbs, Darius Lightsey, Stephanie Morge and Byron Green round out the board. They each joined this or last year, eager to guide the organization through its landmark celebration.
“This is the most enthusiastic group of people on the board that I’ve seen in quite a while,” Solomons says as the board’s longest-serving member. “None of us are doing this for a party, although we do enjoy a party. The only thing you should get out of Pride for yourself is the joy of seeing it happen, and we’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Miss St Pete Pride 2022 officially kicked off Pride’s 20th season May 22. Ten contestants sought the title, a tradition that first began in 2009, but Tampa Bay entertainer Delores T. Van-Cartier took the crown.
“It was a stunning evening and the perfect start to our 20th anniversary Pride season,” St Pete Pride shared afterwards. “We are deeply grateful to all the contestants, judges and volunteers for helping create such a special evening.”
Van-Cartier subsequently performed in her official capacity June 1 during this year’s Kick-Off-Party. Supporters gathered at the start of Pride Month following the flag raising, an annual tradition.
She says she’s excited to represent St Pete Pride through its 20th year because “the alliance is second to none. I’m so happy to be a part of that and see the history behind it. There’s so much love.”
The entertainer, who has performed for 27 years and currently calls Hamburger Mary’s Clearwater her home base, sees drag as a healing outlet. “There are so many bad things going on in the world and it’s nice sometimes to just break away from it all,” Van-Cartier says. “Let’s all have fun and be safe this year, remembering what Pride is really all about.”
St Pete Pride’s 20-year celebration continues throughout June, with an expected 300,000 attendees. Organizers have worked diligently to introduce new events as well as usher in the return of old favorites.
“Last year we were in the midst of COVID but this year is different,” Freisberg says. “We can make it the best and biggest celebration possible for our 20th anniversary and we’re in a unique position to do so.”
Like last year, St Pete Pride will entertain the masses with events each weekend through the end of June. Celebrity guests Carson Kressley and Sandra Bernhard will respectively host new musical and comedic events June 11-12 while the Stonewall Reception and a family-focused event will return June 17 and 18.
“There’s an appetite for these types of events,” Freisberg explains. “Family Day was very popular last year, so we wanted to make sure it returned, especially given that Florida has become the national epicenter for LGBTQ backlash at the moment.”
On July 1, the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” law will go into effect, widely known as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill. Backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the measure has drawn international disdain and will limit classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
New events intentionally centering BIPOC members of the community will also be held June 17-19. The first will be held in partnership with the Tampa Bay Black Lesbians Group and the second will welcome celebrity guest TS Madison in celebration of Juneteenth, planned by board members Darius Lightsey and Clifford Hobbs. Read our interview with the hostess on p. 39.
The celebration “honors the emancipation of enslaved African Americans and is a day of celebration and reflection,” Lightsey explains. “Like Pride, Juneteenth honors freedom and love of persons.”
Madison and other performers will “embody all of those qualities,” he adds. “It will be a wonderful community event that will bring us all together in a time where we need more love and understanding than ever before.”
St Pete Pride’s signature events last held in 2019 – their Friday night concert, Saturday parade and Sunday street festival in the celebration’s birthplace – will return June 24-26.
Celebrity headliners Todrick Hall and Pussy Riot will lead festivities June 24, complemented by local performers. Freisberg says the internationally acclaimed acts will bring a renewed energy and sense of LGBTQ activism to St. Pete.
This year’s parade will once again be led by the TransPride March June 25, designed to elevate transgender members of the community. St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens and LGBTQ Liaison Jim Nixon will participate as Mayor Welch prepares to ride his motorcycle through the route in the parade.
“I am most excited to share this experience with the new administration,” Nixon says. “This year will be the first time the Welch administration will be together for St Pete Pride and I’m looking forward to seeing them experience the joy and love that Pride brings.
“It’s a big event, but participating from the parade route is unlike anything you have experienced before,” he continues. “It fills you with such Pride in who we are and why St. Petersburg is a leader for all cities to model.”
The parade promises to be St Pete Pride’s largest to date, highlighting 20 grand marshals from their past, present and future. Its concurrent festival will begin at 2 p.m. with step-off at 4 p.m. The processional will run from Vinoy Park to Albert Whittard Park along Bayshore Dr. in Downtown. North and South Straub parks will offer entertainment and more through 10 p.m.
In a first in recent years, it will also welcome parade participants who entered at no cost, a scholarship borne from The People’s Council, Pride’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee. The initiative exists to hold the nonprofit accountable to the entire community it was designed to serve and is led by India Torrez and Rocky Butler.
Butler is the CEO of 9 Colors Initiative, Inc., a local organization the focuses on amplifying marginalized voices within the LGBTQ community.
“I was presented the new opportunity to work with St Pete Pride under new leadership in hopes to start working toward righting the wrongs of past leaders and to help rebuild the bridge between the minority communities,” he explains. “Alongside India we began The People’s Council to help form an initiative to make St Pete Pride more inclusive and diverse.
“We felt the Pride parade scholarship was necessary not as a charity to the applicants but to lay the first brick for the bridge we intend to rebuild,” he continues. “To start to gain trust for this community that we felt was not represented in the past in the Pride parade.”
“That was just one of their great suggestions,” Berman adds. This year’s parade will feature more than 50 floats and around 150 groups will participate.
Pride will subsequently return to where it all began on June 26. The Pride in Grand Central Street Carnival will include vendors, food trucks, an open container zone and street performances highlighted by Cocktail’s Main Stage. The LGBTQ hotspot will welcome performers CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Rosé.
“This is the 20th anniversary of St Pete Pride in Grand Central and it will be bigger than ever,” GCD promises. In a first, nine full blocks of Central Ave. will close from 22nd to 31st St. from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
“I believe that GCD needs to promote and sell the whole District as a unique and fun consumer experience destination,” GCD Association Executive Director David Foote says. “Then the businesses as a whole are successful by being a part of District. St Pete Pride plays a big role in helping us make GCD a district-wide experience.
“We don’t have a beach or a pier. So it’s vital to partner with event organizations and neighborhoods to enhance our eclectic, quirky, diverse, inclusive and fun image,” he continues. “Here’s to 20 more.”
“The theme for our 20th anniversary is really honoring and showing gratitude for how we got here,” Berman says. “The Grand Central District can’t be left out of that. We’re really excited to partner with them and have an event back where it all started.”
While the district was also the original site of the St Pete Pride parade, leaders from the organization, GCD and city agree its return would be a logistical impossibility. They cite the growth of the parade and the district itself.
“There has been a lot of contentious debate about St Pete Pride’s parade moving downtown,” LGBTQ Liaison Nixon says. “I have seen renewed collaboration between St Pete Pride and the Grand Central District, and the partnership created for this year’s street carnival is a product of that. This, the 20th anniversary, is a perfect time to put that divided history behind us and celebrate all over the city and all month long.”
St Pete Pride’s 20-year celebration will close with two final events. Transtastic, which celebrates Tampa Bay’s transgender and nonbinary community will return to the Museum of Fine Arts June 28 and a wrap-up party will close out Pride Month June 30, celebrating the organization’s volunteers.
“We’re anticipating our largest event yet with it being our 20th and our first parade since COVID,” Berman says. “We hope it’s going to be fun and entertaining, but we also want to keep the spirit alive as to why Pride was created.
“We belong here. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not going to sit quietly while our rights are being threatened,” she concludes. “We’re going to celebrate and be proud of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.”
As for Longstreth, his message for Pridegoers as St Pete Pride turns 20 is simple.
“Don’t forget the origins,” he says. “This isn’t just a parade and a party. Get involved … you can make a difference.”