Friday, November 24, 2017
News Roundup

Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights


ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Rockhill didn't know what to expect Saturday, but by noon people were knocking on the door of his bar Right Around the Corner in Grand Central.

"Ok, then," he recalled thinking. "I guess we're open now."

For the last 14 years, St. Pete Pride has taken over the central St. Pete neighborhood that Rockhill's new business calls home. But in its 15th year, Florida's largest Pride took its biggest leap yet: it moved downtown.

The hotly-debated relocation, however, didn't take all of the pre- and post-parade festivities with it. Instead, it spawned two simultaneous Pride hubs in the city, each with its own distinctive flavor.

PHOTOS: St. Pete Pride 2017 weekend

Families and out-of-town visitors came to the downtown location, while thousands of other longtime attendees gravitated — at least early —to the traditional venues. There was a foam party in Grand Central and live music by the water. Food vendors downtown traded beer and hot dogs for tickets while people from Kenwood sold homemade BBQ from street corners.

By 4 p.m. Rockhill said he sold many "road sodas" as people started their Pride day in Grand Central — often called the "Gaybourhood" — and then walked the more than 20 blocks or hopped on the trolly to the new parade route on Bayshore Drive.

Noah Evan-Russo, 18, put on his best pout as he took a group photo with his friends outside of The Queens Head on Central Avenue. This would be his third Pride. His first as a gay teen was life affirming.

"You don't have to be nervous about anything," he said. "You can be yourself, dress however you want to." Ever year, he said, he got more comfortable more willing to "go all out" and have fun.

He hadn't realized the route changed, but shrugged it off as he yelled to a friend: "We're gonna have to call an Uber." He said he'd spend the day walking Grand Central like he had the two years before. Then he'd head to the parade downtown, which he suspected could draw more people in the new location.

"The more the merrier," he said.

RELATED: Former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker cautious on Pride politics

Some people struggled to articulate their problem with moving the route. But it was tied at least partially to a sense of tradition and purpose.

Pride events like this that started as grass-roots protests have grown across the country and create economic boons. Last year, St. Pete Pride hosted 220,000 people over the weekend and had an estimated economic impact of more than $22.3 million, according to Pride officials. Police on Saturday gave early estimates of 30,000 at the parade.

The change also poses a broader a question: have Pride celebrations gotten bigger and drawn in more people at the cost of those who fostered them in the fight for gay rights?

Tanee Walling, the executive director of the Grand Central District Association, and her partner Kelly Wethington sat under a tent selling beers Saturday. They wished the route had stayed put, but Walling said other cities have also had their Prides moved from "gay ghettos" to more aesthetic parts of town.

"It's a community party," Wethington added. "It's like rather than the world inviting us, we were inviting the world."

St. Pete Pride started as a march, grew into a parade and continued to get bigger. But in Grand Central, Walling said, the celebration is organic.

But at the same time, she said, "I don't want it to feel like there are two prides."

She hopes people keep the meaning of the event in mind: that it grew as a protest in the 1970s, prompted by the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York when police raided gay bars. It's not about making money, she said, but connecting with the community.

A dozen or so protesters on Bayshore held signs condemning the LGBT community, but the event was largely peaceful. Police said there were no major incidents as of early Saturday evening.

Along the parade route people adorned in rainbows and glitter danced, hugged and fought for the beads tossed from passing floats. Prior to the parade, organizers held the first-ever TransPride march focused on transgender rights.

Wrapped in rainbow flags, Tampa siblings Maddie, 17, and Rand Robin, 20, looked on, enjoying the breeze off the water that made the heat more bearable than what they remembered last year. Temperatures were still in the high 80s even once the sun went down.

Leslie Howell, 33, who walked in the parade, said her group planned to head to Grand Central District once they finished walking the route. They usually frequent well-known gay bars like the Old Key West, Enigma and Punky's. They couldn't see spending Pride night any other way.

"No offense to any of the businesses downtown, but I would rather give my money back to the businesses who give so much to us," she said.

But regardless of where they spent the night, most attendees agreed the day was about unity and love, not about creating a divide.

Largo resident Doug Gladstone sat in the grass as singers performed before the main parade kicked off.

Pride for him is "a celebration of life." It's proof, Gladstone said, that people can come together and look past their differences.

"We can all be out here, coming from all different walks of life and styles and be free for a day," he said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareev.

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