Monday, December 18, 2017
Events

Tampa Pride couple have special motivation in their son

TAMPA

John and Nancy Desmond sat in the Hampton Inn lobby smiling kindly and sifting nimbly through a stack of colorful postcards. Both 64, only his white beard and her squint through her glasses betrayed their age.

More than 600 of the cards were mailed to colleges around the U.S., promising sunshine, beaches and enough gay pride fun to make Tampa the ideal inclusive spring break destination.

The Desmonds, community outreach coordinators for Tampa Pride, have no idea how many students will see the post cards and make plans to attend this Saturday's LGBT celebration.

"It's only the second year," said John, a retired federal employee who lives in Plant City. "We don't really have a way to find out if the students come in response to the outreach or if they come for other reasons."

Still, they are committed to growing Tampa Pride, which proudly proclaims itself the country's first Pride celebration of the year.

The Pride movement is a family affair for them. Their son is gay.

And after he came out, they dove head first into the community becoming advocates, sounding boards and even foster parents to young LGBT people in their adopted hometown.

• • •

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equality parades happen in major cities year round across the country. Tampa Pride is busy trying to set itself apart from the many offerings — including St. Petersburg's night parade in June, which draws more than 150,000 attendees.

Tampa Pride returned in 2015, 13 years after the large event collapsed in on itself. Past organizers went big with extra attractions, including a Pat Benatar concert, and drove the group into debt.

New leaders of the parade and street festival vowed to make Tampa Pride family friendly and parade centric. This year, they're focusing on the promenade, which will feature a 100-foot section of the 1.25-mile Sea to Sea Key West Pride rainbow flag.

Organizers decided to host the event in March, making it the first Pride of the year in the U.S. and the unofficial Pride of college spring breakers, said Carrie West, president of Tampa Pride. Neighboring burgs St. Petersburg and Orlando celebrate in the summer and fall, respectively.

In the first year, the city estimated Tampa Pride drew 20,000 people to Ybor City, including a big influx of high school students who were in town for the Florida State Thespian festival the same weekend.

But in order to keep growing, Tampa Pride needs to foster good connections with the community and the nation at large.

Enter the Desmonds, co-founders of PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Tampa.

Sitting with the couple recently after a Tampa Pride meeting in the lobby of Metro Wellness Center, a community clinic in Ybor City, felt like a tour of their influence. People came up and shook their hands, passed on messages and invitations or just greeted them.

"Your face looks familiar," John said to one young man in a dress.

Minutes later, they made the connection.

"I used to come to PFLAG meetings," the young man said. "I need to come back."

When they aren't holding PFLAG meetings or counseling families, the Desmonds are helping other chapters get rolling in cities like Dunedin and maintaining their relationships with the young people who have come to their organization seeking help gaining acceptance from people in their lives.

It's a calling for the couple, one that came late and out of the blue for them. Their adult son, who lives out of state, isn't out in all aspects of his life. But he made the decision to tell his parents. The Desmonds don't share his information with people who don't know him already.

"I always tell people that the best thing that ever happened to me was my son telling me his was gay," Nancy said.

After retirement, the couple moved to Plant City from Virginia to care for ailing relatives. In their free time, they saw the Florida sights and Geocached — a game using GPS coordinates to find hidden items.

"We really didn't do much of anything," John said.

Then, on a visit with their son more than five years ago, he shared his sexuality and took his parents to the United Church of Christ where he was a member.

"It was amazing," Nancy said. "To be a part of a community that inclusive, where everyone is really good to one another, is just great."

Invigorated, the parents sought out a church like their son's and trekked into Tampa. There, they found out that PFLAG's Tampa Chapter was defunct. They restarted the group and have since grown to include a Spanish language affiliate.

Getting out in the streets is big deal to the Desmonds, and they jumped at the chance to be a part of Tampa Pride's volunteer committee.

"St. Pete Pride is great, we've been the grand marshals of that parade, but Tampa is its own thing," John said. "It's got its own flavor and people, and surprisingly, there's not a lot of the overlap."

• • •

Outreach isn't just making cold calls and blindly mailing postcards. Sometimes, all it takes is a button to raise awareness.

On Saturday, the Desmonds will be manning a "Make Your Own Button" booth at the Tampa Pride street festival in support of PFLAG's mission.

"We bought a button maker and we've made tons of them in the past from, 'I'm proud of my gay son,' to 'I'm proud of my gay dog'," Nancy said. "We only ask for a donation and people really like them. This year, we're going to let people tell us what they want their buttons to say on top of the ones we already sell."

In Saturday's parade, they'll be marching in neon yellow and orange T-shirts with PFLAG Tampa and getting the same reception as rock stars.

"People scream and wave when we're walking by because this organization has helped so many people," Nancy said. "People love the flag, but I think we're a close second."

Contact Robbyn Mitchell at (813) 226-3373 or [email protected] Follow @RMitchellTimes.

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