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In St. Pete Pride firsts, a mayor joins in, a parade lights up

ST. PETERSBURG

It was hard to see, as the sun set, but if you squinted hard and put your hand to your brow, you could tell it was Rick Kriseman, about to jaywalk across 31st Street.

One of the St. Petersburg mayor's feet left the curb before he thought better of it. He turned and walked with his wife, son and chief of staff to Third Avenue N.

Then he crossed the street into the madness: the body paint and glitter and screaming smiles of St. Pete Pride. Kriseman reached behind him for his wife's hand. "Wow," he said as a shirtless man passed on stilts. "That must be hard to walk in."

At sundown, Kriseman would become the first sitting mayor of St. Petersburg to march in the Pride Parade, one of several firsts for a festival entering its 12th year. For instance, this was also the first time the parade was held at night.

But the most significant firsts had more to do with the city itself. Though St. Petersburg has long hosted Tampa Bay's largest Pride festival, its embrace could be best described as a half-hug.

In the past, St. Petersburg police and firefighters were unofficially forbidden from marching in the parade in uniform, Kriseman said. And then-Mayor Bill Foster said he had a previous engagement when the floats rolled down Central Avenue last June.

"For me, it was an easy decision," said Kriseman, pointing to the $10.5 million that St. Pete Pride is expected to rake in for the city's businesses. "This is an event that really represents our community as one, which I believe we are."

As they waited to march, two tents down from a sex toy store's contingent, City Council member Karl Nurse crossed his arms and stuck his hands in his armpits. Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan, wearing a St. Petersburg police polo, said, "I'm going to take some people to the bathroom. Does anyone need to go?" before leading a young girl off by the hand.

Kriseman tapped his toes to the techno beat.

Down on Central, the parade was picking up its usual pulse, young men dancing in tight underwear as a cover band played a guttural rendition of George Michael's Faith. The shift to nighttime had brought a younger, more raucous crowd to a festival that has always been the city's biggest party.

"It's a place where you can be yourself," said Anthony Shamro, a 22-year-old man shirtless but wearing a pair of rainbow suspenders. He had come from Clearwater and was headed to the Queen's Head, where there were lasers and a smoke machine and other young people swaying to the music.

"It's been a busy week, and hopefully it'll be a busy next week," said co-owner Paul Smith, who said the restaurant sees a two-week bump in business from out-of-town visitors making a vacation out of St. Pete Pride.

Eric Skains, executive director of St. Pete Pride, said an economic impact survey showed that as many as 3,500 hotel rooms are booked in St. Petersburg for the festival. He expected 175,000 people to show up for Saturday night's parade and today's street fair, for the first time held on separate days as distinct events, a nod to out-of-town visitors. (Today's festival is from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Central Avenue between 22nd and 27th streets.)

Jeremy Kerns, 18, of Dallas was in town visiting his aunt and regretting the Monster energy drink he had thrown back in the car on the way down.

"I'm so wound up!" he said, grinning.

His aunt, Lisa Trunzo of St. Petersburg, said she did not know that the mayor was about to pass her in the parade. Most of the young revelers didn't. They were about to find out.

And that mattered in ways that went beyond what a cynic might see as a political stunt, said Skains, shaking his head. He said:

"When you live — it's hard to understand for some people, that when you're in a situation when you're uncomfortable, you don't know who you're around, you don't know — do you openly say that you're gay to somebody at work, because you're afraid you're going to get fired? Or if you say it to your family members, are they going to disown you? So when you see it coming from your city, it shows they're supporting you.

"Do you know what that's like? What that means?"

So the sun went down. The city marched. And everyone danced, like they could dance forever, like they meant it.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

Storify: Pride takes over

It's a year of firsts for St. Pete Pride, the annual weekend bash celebrating gay pride with every color of the rainbow. It will span four days this year and iclude a parade, concerts and exhibits scattered throughout the weekend. Here's what people are sharing.

In St. Pete Pride firsts, a mayor joins in, a parade lights up 06/28/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 29, 2014 4:05pm]

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