ST. PETERSBURG — The man with the Jesus fish on his cap sat on a cooler behind a barricade at Central and 27th and barked into a bullhorn. "Every one of you is stupid," he said, as hundreds of gays and lesbians walked past. "I'm stupid, too. But I'm smart enough to find Jesus Christ and turn my life around."
Two shirtless men made sure to get right in front of Shane Brown to offer a passionate rebuttal.
The crowd whooped.
The scene on Saturday at St. Petersburg's annual gay pride festival may be evidence of a changing tide. Organizers estimated turnout at 80,000, the same as last year. Meanwhile, there were five or six protesters, down from about 40 in 2008.
The city basically shrugged. And critics found themselves on a shrinking island in a rainbow sea.
"We're getting closer and closer" to full acceptance, said St. Petersburg resident Jamie Tague, 47, standing in a jam-packed VFW Post 39 with a woman she called her lover.
Such a massive celebration would have been unimaginable in many American cities even a decade ago. Now in St. Petersburg, it's barely a controversy.
Mayor Bill Foster, a conservative Christian, won't sign a proclamation supporting it, just like his predecessor, Rick Baker. But last week, he attended a party that parade organizers held to thank sponsors. And organizers said he briefly attended the festival early Saturday, before the parade got cranked up.
"It's an economic generator," said Robert Telford, 44, who drove from Palm Beach County to attend the parade with his partner of 15 years. "They're realizing that gay and lesbian people spend money, even in these times."
Local merchants lined Central with their booths, while Walgreens, Macy's and Best Buy were among the big companies with banner-waving parade contingents.
The VFW post, the oldest in the South, opened its tradition-steeped doors to support the gay community and gay members of the military, its commander said. Outside, paradegoers lined up in front of walls covered with images of helicopters and tanks.
Inside, two women danced cheek-to-cheek.
"I have a 15-year-old daughter, and she's fine with it," Tague yelled above the blaring music. "All her friends think it's so cool" that her mother is openly gay. "They don't care."
There were plenty of kids at the parade, too, even if some revelers' attire would make some parents cringe.
On one float, a dozen men gyrated, some wearing only beads and thongs. Another man strutted down Central with fuzzy white chaps on the front of his legs, a matching piece to cover his crotch, a hat with goat horns on his head and … not much else.
Lawanda Bennett, 42, didn't seem to mind. The St. Petersburg resident brought her daughters and 2-year-old granddaughter, who had a blast scarfing up beads.
"I don't think it's a big deal," Bennett said of the parade. "With how bad the world is, this is the least thing to be fighting over."