ST. PETERSBURG — Since its debut in 2003, the St. Pete Pride celebration has become one of the city's biggest events, outdrawing opening day at Tropicana Field and the Martin Luther King Jr. parade.
But despite its size and its undisputed knack in attracting dollars and publicity for the city, the gay rights event has yet to be fully embraced by the Mayor's Office.
Until this year, that cold shoulder belonged to Rick Baker, a Republican and a Baptist, who said he personally didn't support the "general agenda" of gay pride events. He refused to attend or sign a proclamation supporting it.
Another Christian conservative, Bill Foster, inhabits the Mayor's Office this year, and he too has refused to sign this year's proclamation. He said he attended the event in 2006 and didn't approve when he saw people expose themselves and vendors hawk "adult-themed items."
"It wasn't family-oriented. It was tailored to a mature audience," Foster said. "It was more of a celebration of sexuality than it was one's sexual orientation."
But gay leaders say Foster is making a significant break from Baker in a number of symbolic ways to acknowledge this weekend's upcoming parade and festival, which organizers call the largest gay pride event in Florida and expect about 80,000 to attend.
Most noteworthy, Foster plans to "mosey on down" Saturday to some of the parade's ancillary events around Grand Central. While he said he's been told by organizers that the event won't offend, he said he wants to see for himself.
"I wanted to judge the event in the present to make sure they have moved away from an adult theme," Foster said.
The parade's grand marshal, City Council member Steve Kornell, said that's progress.
"Everyone has a process they go through," said Kornell, who is gay. "Sometimes it takes time. It's unfair to expect someone to instantly change their position. Just going to the parade and having a dialogue, that's what he should do. I can respect his journey."
Foster's attendance Saturday is hardly the lone sign that he is ushering in a new era of relations between the city's gay population and the Mayor's Office.
Scott Turner, co-chairman of St. Pete Pride, said it was telling that Foster was present on June 10 when Kornell read a proclamation that recognized June as St. Petersburg Pride Month. He even offered his own words of encouragement, wishing the organizers the best.
Foster's overture was a "100 percent improvement over Baker," Turner said. The former mayor hadn't ever been present when the proclamation was read before, he said.
While he didn't sign the proclamation, Foster did write a letter welcoming the event.
"That's definitely a step in the right direction," said Chris Rudisill, executive director for St. Pete Pride.
Another key sign is that Foster will attend an upscale party tonight at the Museum of Fine Arts that parade organizers hold to thank sponsors. Baker, who couldn't be reached, never attended this either, organizers say.
Take all those gestures together, and Foster gets a pass for not signing the proclamation, organizers say.
"The organizers never would have gotten Baker to write a letter," said council member Jeff Danner, who signed the proclamation in lieu of Foster. "But as the city gets younger and younger and more progressive, it's more accepted."
Not everyone welcomes a greater acceptance of gay pride events. Religious leaders like Pastor Timothy Kroll of Northside Baptist Church consider homosexuality a sin. Encouraging pride in being gay, Kroll said, is akin to encouraging pride in any other sin, such as lying.
Still, he doesn't actively oppose a public recognition of the event.
"A proclamation really only means something to the group getting it," Kroll said. "It's like getting a thank you card or a birthday card. It's nice getting. But it won't lead anyone to be gay or not to be gay."
Those who have criticized Foster in the past for being homophobic have given him points for his handling of the event. Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the largest gay rights group in Florida, said Foster is forging a new path from Baker's.
"He's made clear that he isn't going to continue former Mayor Baker's legacy of utterly ignoring that gay people live in St. Petersburg and who are a huge part of making this a wonderful place," Smith said. "I think he's taking his own assessment of where he is and what he thinks he ought to do as mayor."
Still, while encouraging, Smith said she will watch to see if Foster treats all proclamations equally.
"If that's the standard he will apply for events in St. Petersburg, that they have to be family-friendly, then I'll be interested to see which ones he will sign in the future," Smith said. "He'll need to be consistent."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.