It was about 6 a.m., and the group of four people stood in a circle in the parking lot at Spring Hill United Church of Christ.
The sun had not come up yet, but organizer Karen Schrader, 51, was getting nervous. Her partner of 32 years, Linda Schrader, 51, reassured her that everything would be fine.
"We'll wait till 6:30, but then we have to go," Karen said.
The group had an hour-and-a-half drive to St. Petersburg ahead of them, and they were missing some individuals. After a few phone calls to coordinate with the missing members, the group split up and left for St. Pete.
Their destination: the St. Pete Pride festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary June 30.
For this small group from Hernando County Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, however, it was the first time they would be participating in Florida's largest pride parade.
"We're ready to put Hernando County on the map," Karen said.
Support and social opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in Hernando County are limited. That changed about 18 months ago, with the formation of PFLAG Hernando.
The group is small, but organizers have had some success, and continue their efforts to gain visibility and acceptance.
Participation in St. Pete Pride was a big step toward their goal.
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In early 2011, Hernando PFLAG was founded by members at Spring Hill United Church of Christ. A previous chapter in Hernando had disbanded in the late 1990s.
The push to form a new chapter, supported by the church, came after reports about bullying in Hernando County schools and a string of suicides by youth that gained national attention. As a branch of the national PFLAG organization, which has more than 200,000 members, the local group does not promote any particular religious or political institution.
Once a month, members convene over popcorn to discuss educating the public about the LGBTQ community, but more importantly to support one another.
"We have parents of and we have the LGBT community. It gives people a place to go where they know people will not condemn them or give them any issue," Karen Schrader said. "They feel safe here."
About seven PFLAG members attend meetings consistently. Linda said others come for one meeting and do not return. For the group, that's enough, as long as they find the information or support they need.
A fluctuation in membership has not been PFLAG Hernando's only struggle. Last January, the group started with five executive board members. Today, it has only three. Karen organizes the meetings and events, while Linda acts as the secretary, taking notes every meeting. A treasurer was just voted in recently.
A dilemma also arose around the holidays, when meetings were scheduled the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"My philosophy is that this is a support group, and even more so around the holidays. People need to know there is family, even if it's a chosen family, to meet with," Linda said. "So we met, not expecting anybody the day after Christmas. We had a new woman come."
In fact, about 10 people attended, which proved the need, Linda said.
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At the pride parade in St. Pete, 37-year-old Dean Whitcomb stood in jeans and a tucked-in yellow- and blue-striped shirt among a crowd of more than 50 PFLAG members from around Central Florida. He wrapped his hands around the pole of the group's rainbow flag.
Whitcomb, who identifies as a transgender man, has attended lots of pride celebrations in the Northeast, including NYC Pride in New York, one of the largest in the world.
But this one, he said, was special.
Walking ahead of Whitcomb was his mom, Barbara Sinclair, 62. Whitcomb said it was a cool experience for him to march in the parade with her.
"I've never seen her so happy," he said.
Holding up one end of PFLAG Hernando's purple felt banner, Sinclair waved and high-fived parade spectators. As she marched down Central Avenue, Sinclair never stopped smiling.
After being torn away from her high school girlfriend by her family and two unhappy heterosexual marriages, Sinclair said she had never felt more comfortable than she did during the parade.
"I feel good! All of these people are so nice and care for anyone regardless of who they are," she said. "I haven't slept so well since I came out."
Sinclair joined PFLAG Hernando two months ago. She just came out weeks ago.
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St. Pete Pride has not been PFLAG Hernando's only public outreach event. Every Saturday, volunteers can be found under an umbrella at the Hernando County Farmers Market in Spring Hill with brochures about coming out and seeking support.
"We're looking for a way to reach out to families," said PFLAG member Maureen Price, 60. "How else are they going to know that we're there?"
Those who stop by the table to ask questions or pick up literature range from middle school-age students to senior citizens, Price said. She said she hopes the information is reaching a diverse group of people.
Karen Schrader, who said she did not realize there was a large Spanish-speaking community in Spring Hill, remembered two young Spanish-speaking men who approached the table one Saturday. One of them acted as a translator; both left with brochures. "If you're in the community and need help, we're here to do so," Schrader said. "It's good to find not just English-speaking people. Even in the Hispanic community, people are coming forward and asking for help."
In fact, once the need became evident, Schrader ordered PFLAG brochures in Spanish.
For Price, her involvement in PFLAG centers around helping the younger generation.
Price, who lived in New York until 15 years ago, when she moved to Spring Hill with her partner, 60-year-old Cheryl White, recalls the advice older lesbians gave her when she first came out. They told her how to evacuate clubs during police raids and to leave clubs in large groups to avoid being attacked on the way home. "I think it's important that the younger folk have role models and see you can be anything you want to be and that you can have a good life," she said. "But they also need to know that they need to be careful."
Price and White did not attend the parade in St. Petersburg, but Price said she hopes people took note of PFLAG Hernando's attendance. "It's gaining recognition, and it lets the community know that they're there," she said. "Hopefully, anyone from Hernando County or Pasco who was at the parade will at least know there is a PFLAG."
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As the core group of six walked along the parade route, they blended in with the other regional PFLAG groups, but certainly were noticed carrying their banner.
Karen and Linda Schrader said they kept hearing people call out "Go Hernando!" and "Hey, Brooksville!"
For the PFLAG organizers, they had achieved their goal. Since the pride parade, they say, PFLAG Hernando has received calls from several local residents looking for more information.
"I really liked that people recognize that even though we're so far way from St. Pete, we're still part of that," Linda said. "We as a group felt validated."
Because of the moral boost the group received in St. Pete, the chapter is considering marching in October's "Come Out with Pride" celebration in Orlando.
"It confirmed for us that we're a part of the bigger picture" Karen said.
As the group continues to reach out and grow, she said, the message will remain the same. "We're people. We're your mothers, your brothers, your sisters, your neighbors. We shop in the same stores you do. We're no different then you are," she said. "We're human beings who want to live our lives and make a success out of it, just like everybody else."
Laura Herrera can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.