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New York's new law gives St. Pete Pride parade an extra buzz

ST. PETERSBURG — Patti Holston woke up Saturday morning and knew this year's Pride festival was going to be different.

That morning, before she and her partner of nine years left their house, they heard the news that New York had legalized same-sex marriage the night before.

"We saw it (in the paper) and were like, yeah, this is going to be a really great Pride," said Holston, 51. "People are pumped."

Indeed, the news out of New York seemed to create an extra buzz in the air along Central Avenue during the ninth annual St. Pete Pride Promenade Parade and Street Festival.

Chatter at the event centered around the news. Many in the crowd called it a historic moment.

A woman held up a sign that read "New York yesterday, Florida tomorrow."

Treasure Island resident Jane Morris, a native New Yorker, said she had to make the sign by hand when she couldn't get her printer to work on Saturday morning.

"I'm thrilled," said Morris, standing in front of the gallery she owns in the 2500 block of Central Avenue. "There was a compromise. I think Florida could learn a lesson."

Morris said she attended one of the Tampa Bay area's first "pride" events several years ago in Ybor City.

As she watched the brightly colored floats go by, she marveled at how large St. Petersburg's celebration has gotten. It's now the biggest in Florida.

Thousands of people cheered on Saturday as everyone from City Council members to drag queens to local church groups marched in the parade.

Men in elaborate headdresses danced to pulsing techno and pop tunes while flinging beads to those screaming along the sidelines.

A male twirling group strutted to Katy Perry's California Gurls, sparking shrieks and laughter.

The St. Pete Pride event has averaged 80,000 in attendance for the past few years. Hundreds of vendors converged on the Grand Central and Historic Kenwood neighborhoods this year, and more than 100 floats inched down Central Avenue.

Officials won't have a final count for a few more days, but organizers suspect this year's crowd was just as big, maybe even bigger.

"For a lot of people, the day of the festival is their one day to be free, to be who they are," said Chris Rudisill, executive director of St. Pete Pride. "It means a lot. It celebrates the diversity here in St. Pete, even larger than the LGBT community."

Not everyone was so jubilant. A handful of protesters did show up, although not as many as in years past.

At Central Avenue and 28th Street, a sign-toting man who called himself an evangelist told people who came up to him that he once was gay.

Beside him, Tampa street minister Evan Johnston used an amplified speaker strapped to his back to broadcast his message about "sexual sin."

"Just open your heart and know God loves you," Johnston shouted, sporting a black T-shirt with the words "Pick Jesus" in the center. "You will be forgiven!"

Some young couples scowled at Johnston. A woman waved a rainbow flag in his face. Others threw beads on his back.

Rick Campbell, 53, approached Johnston with his hand outstretched. Campbell said he was raised Catholic. He said he is proud to be gay, and just wants to live a normal life.

"Do what you need to do," he told the preacher," but I believe we are all God's children."

Holston and her partner will be visiting New York next month, when the new law takes effect. New York is now the largest of six states to legalize same-sex marriage. A senior director for Take Care Health Systems, a subsidiary of Walgreens, Holston said she and her longtime partner just might get hitched.

"We have the commitment," Holston said. "We'd like to have a contract."

Near the beginning of the parade route, Holston and her partner watched as a group of men in hot pink miniskirts swayed and danced to a techno beat.

"That's all people think when they hear 'gay,' " Holston said, "not two middle-aged lesbians who go to work everyday."

St. Petersburg has come a long way, she said, but there's still work to be done.

"We're your mothers, your fathers, your brothers, your sisters," Holston said. "Love us or not, we're here."

Reach Kameel Stanley at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

New York's new law gives St. Pete Pride parade an extra buzz 06/25/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 26, 2011 1:28pm]
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