Edward Sotomayor made history by organizing the first U.S. gay cruise to Cuba in January, but skeptics feared he would be putting LGBT passengers in danger.
"People thought they would be harmed or imprisoned in Cuba," said Al Ferguson, owner of the Sarasota travel agency where Sotomayor worked. "It turned out to be the opposite."
From one port to another, people gay and straight welcomed the travelers warmly. Sotomayor bonded with an arts community in Cienfuegos and one of its members, Santiago Hermes.
Now, Hermes will pay his respects to his new friend by representing his community at a celebration of Sotomayor's life today in St. Petersburg. Sotomayor, a 34-year-old University of South Florida graduate, was among the 49 people slain in the June 12 mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse night club.
Hermes hit a snag in his plans to visit: He had a ticket to fly from Havana to Tampa on Friday but getting a visa so quickly proved a challenge at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It took intervention from the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat, to make it happen Thursday.
"That he wanted to come honor Eddie says it all," Ferguson said.
The celebration is scheduled at 5 p.m. today at King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church, 3150 Fifth Ave. N in St. Petersburg.
Hermes is scheduled to speak and will participate afterward in a candlelight walk honoring Sotomayor during the St. Pete Pride parade, which begins at 5 p.m. and ends in a block party that runs until 11 p.m.
To Ferguson, the visit shows the value of the Cuba cruises Sotomayor championed and validates his friend's outlook on life.
"He knew that when you get out in the world to meet people, preconceived notions we have can be proven wrong. Cuba was said to be a place that wouldn't accept us. Hermes is married with children and bonded with Eddie in an amazing way."
Cuba used to imprison gays and lesbians. But homosexuality was decriminalized in 1979, gay bars are now found throughout major cities, and the national health care system provides free gender-reassignment surgeries.
Still, with the Communist government's history of persecution, Sotomayor and his cruise initiative were rebuffed at first by Ferguson's ALandCHUCK.travel, where Sotomayor worked as brand manager.
He suggested launching the first gay cruise to Cuba as a mix of educational tours and interaction with the island's LGBT community.
"He convinced us to do it," Ferguson said. "His commitment to bring the gay community to Cuba turned out to be the right thing. It was a great experience."
An eight-day, seven-night cruise once a month in January, February and April departed from Montego Bay, Jamaica, and sailed around Cuba, stopping at ports in Havana, Santiago, Maria la Gorda and Cienfuegos.
Havana's Pride organization hosted a celebration for each cruise, Ferguson said, with dinner, drinks and a drag show at a downtown gay bar.
But Ferguson considers the highlight of the three cruises to be the meeting in April between Sotomayor and Hermes, whose talents include painting, etching and performance art.
Hermes runs a cultural community in Cienfeugos that hosts art events of all kinds, including gallery shows and live performances. It was part of the cruise's people-to-people tour meant to teach Americans about Cuban culture.
When the tour moved to the next stop, Sotomayor — affectionately known as "Top Hat Eddie" because of his penchant for the headwear — stayed behind. He bonded quickly with Hermes and the other artists.
"He was there all day," Ferguson said. "Hermes and Eddie probably talked 30 times on Facebook since April. People from two different worlds met and there was an instant spark."
That ability to connect to individuals of all backgrounds is what made Sotomayor special, friend Manny Alvarez of Tampa said.
"He was charismatic and dynamic. He was a bridge builder. That's why Al brought him into the travel company and what he did in Cuba proves that. He was the perfect person to lead that."
The success of the cruises inspired Sotomayor to plan another series, on a grander scale.
In December 2017, the cruise will sail again from Montego Bay to Havana, where stars of the popular reality TV show RuPaul's Drag Race will hold a free performance.
Sotomayor planned to announce the cruise on Monday, June 13, the day after a gunman opened fire at the gay nightclub in the worst mass shooting in modern history.
The cruise will still sail, Ferguson said.
"No matter our differences, we can all be friends. That was the purpose of the cruise and the lesson Eddie always proved."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.