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Record crowd of 80,000 at St. Petersburg's annual Pride parade

ST. PETERSBURG — The necklace of gold beads, slung from the side of a passing Jagermeister float, skipped across the asphalt and stopped at the toe of Art Pass' black diabetic shoe.

Most of the beads tossed at Saturday morning's Pride parade, and there were many, had been snagged well before they made it to Pass. Behind two rows of people standing along Central Avenue, he sat in an orange and white macramé lawn chair he'd built at home.

The 80-year-old saw his chance.

Braced with a wooden cane, he leaned down and pinched the necklace. Pass set his wide-brim straw hat on his knee, then slipped the beads over his head. He smiled.

Pass came out in 1971, the same year he retired from the U.S. Air Force and moved to St. Petersburg. He attended the city's first Pride festival 10 years ago, and he has been to most of them since then.

He has witnessed an evolution.

The attendance has ballooned. About 10,000 people showed up a decade ago. This year, at what has already become Florida's largest gay pride celebration, organizers estimated a record-breaking crowd of well more than 80,000.

The procession, which included 25 floats and 140 different groups, was as diverse as ever: City Council members in convertibles, firefighters atop bright red trucks, feathered drag queens on stilts.

While thongs and chaps and string bikinis appeared on most corners, the crowd generally had a mainstream feel. Parents pushed strollers, teenagers chatted with their friends, and fully clothed couples held hands.

The protesters also have declined over the years. In 2008, about 40 people demonstrated against the festival. This year, across the street from Art Pass, two men stood behind a metal barricade. One of them held up a sign covered in condemnation. The other yelled things through a megaphone that almost no one could hear over the cheering throngs and throbbing pop songs.

This weekend's events have deep meaning to Pass. He comes to see his friends and, he acknowledges, to collect bead necklaces. To him, though, the celebration's swelling support is a clear sign that the gay community has, simply, found acceptance.

"I can remember way back when," he said, "you couldn't be known as gay."

Pass was born to Pennsylvania Quakers. Around age 10, he knew he liked boys more than girls, but he fought the urge. At 18, he joined the Air Force, moved to MacDill and got married.

"I thought getting married would change my life," he said. "Make me straight."

The couple had four kids together, but the marriage didn't last. For their children, Pass and his ex-wife briefly remarried before divorcing again soon after.

For Pass, navigating though a 20-year career in the military was nearly impossible. Twice, other men reported to the Air Force's office of special investigations that he was gay. Pass denied it.

The military classified him around 1966 as a "latent homosexual," but didn't kick him out. Until the day he retired five years later, Pass feared he would lose his career.

Leaving the service changed his life. He moved to St. Petersburg and pursued what he always thought was his calling: directing funerals.

For more than 20 years, he helped people during some of the worst moments of their lives. He liked it. He was good at it.

"I'm the best embalmer in St. Pete," he added.

Here, he also met his long-term partner, Kenneth Hulbert. They were together for 27 years before Hulbert died of prostate cancer in 2001.

Pass talks to his kids every week and still is close friends with their mother. He now has nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Pass has few regrets, especially about his military service. He served in the Vietnam War and earned a Purple Heart. He is proud of that. He considered wearing his uniform to the parade for the first time, but decided the weather was too hot. It's unclear if the uniform would have matched the beads. By the parade's end, he was draped with 13 necklaces.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Record crowd of 80,000 at St. Petersburg's annual Pride parade 06/30/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 10:15pm]
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