In its first foray into politics, St. Pete Pride is using its annual parade as a platform to challenge an upcoming state constitutional amendment to limit marriage to straight couples.
The parade's grand marshal this year is a woman who was denied access to her dying partner because the couple's relationship was not recognized by Miami hospital officials. Pride officials will also wear T-shirts that read "Say No to Amendment 2."
The festival's opposition to the amendment is significant, albeit not unexpected, not only because it represents the largest statewide protest of Amendment 2 thus far, but because it marks the first time parade organizers will make an overt political statement during an event that celebrates gay pride and unity.
It's a risky move that could further agitate opponents, but organizers of the pride parade Saturday, the city's largest annual event, say the opportunity is too important to pass up.
"It's a natural progression," said David Schauer, co-chairman of St. Pete Pride. "It is time we actually got a little more proactive and reactive."
An estimated 70,000 people attended the parade and street party last year, and an extra 10,000 are expected Saturday.
Amendment 2, the so-called marriage protection amendment, would define marriage in Florida as exclusively between a man and a woman. Florida already has a law against gay marriage, but petition organizers say it should be put into the state Constitution to protect against lawsuits or future whims of the Legislature.
The amendment "is the most important issue we are facing right now," Schauer said. "It basically says that under no circumstances will your relationship be considered equal to that of a hetero couple. It makes us subhuman."
John Stemberger, state chairman of Yes2Marriage, the group that got the measure on the ballot, said the amendment is about protecting children.
"It's not good public policy to intentionally create motherless and fatherless homes," he said. "When you create a same-sex marriage, you are simultaneously creating a same-sex family."
Stephen Gaskill, a spokesman for Florida Red and Blue, an organization created to oppose the proposal, said pride events are a natural forum for political debate.
"We can't take for granted that the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community is aware of Amendment 2 and aware of the consequences of Amendment 2," said Gaskill, who has attended gay pride events across the state in recent weeks to campaign against the measure.
Longtime parade supporters hope the event's newfound political tone will be a good thing.
"It just brings out more of a crowd and reminds people why it is important to have pride celebrations and show people the true diversity of the community," said Brian Longstreth, a St. Pete Pride founder and former organizer.
Janice Langbehn of Lacey, Wash., said she was surprised when pride officials asked her to serve as grand marshal. Langbehn became a gay advocate only after her partner, Lisa Pond, died while the family was vacationing in Miami last year.
Before the trip, Langbehn said she never thought her relationship of 18 years would be challenged.
But at the hospital, Langbehn, 39, and her children were initially told they could not see Pond until they provided evidence that they were family members. By the time they got a chance to say goodbye, Pond had died.
Langbehn thinks the hospital would never have treated a straight couple the same way and is pursuing legal action.
"As soon as medically possible, we should have been allowed to be with her," Langbehn said. "Even if I could have just said 'I love you,' held her hand."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.