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ST. PETE PRIDE FESTIVAL // Pride amid a protest

In the beginning, there were drag queens, lesbian bikers on Harleys and gay men with sparkling butterfly wings.

Disco music blared from parade floats; people sprayed water and tossed beads along the six block festival on Central Avenue downtown.

Then five protesters from the Biblical Research Center in Tampa arrived and yelled through bullhorns: "The homosexual doesn't go to heaven."

And there was fury, from organizers of Saturday's St. Pete Pride festival and the thousands of attendees who yelled back, threw drinks and beads and made out in front of the evangelists.

"I'm really sick and tired of being the underdog every day," said Jackie Smit, 45, of St. Petersburg. "Why couldn't we just have this one day?"

It was the first time in the event's history that religious protesters had marched through the festival. They did so four times - with eight weary police officers in tow - to "spread the Gospel," said Larry Keffer, founder of the group.

Once they walked through the first time, around noon, the remaining four hours of the festival were dominated by clashes.

"You're a sodomite! You're filthy! You need Jesus Christ!" yelled a 23-year-old evangelist who would not give his name or occupation.

He called himself "John the Baptist," and kept preaching even after someone threw a drink on him. Ice cubes sat melting on his shoulders.

"You probably have AIDS. Is that why you're so small?" he yelled at a gay man.

The reply: Countless expletives.

No arrests were made during the festival, police said. But dozens of arguments broke out, with the police stepping in to stop physical confrontations. One woman hit a protester with her sign. Most just shouted.

Festivalgoers and organizers blamed the police for allowing the protesters to march through. "They're creating a hostile environment under the guise of Christianity," said Steve Elliot, an event organizer.

Sgt. Michael Preshur said the protesters had a right to be there.

"This is open to the public and we can't restrict them from going where the public goes," Preshur said.

And so the evangelizing protesters marched.

Meanwhile, children bounced in a blow-up tent, teenagers flirted and adults sipped cups of beer and reunited with friends.

Some stopped to stamp their thumbprint on a photo of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, an outspoken opponent of gay rights, for an interactive art piece.

People bought jewelry, iconic pictures of pinup divas and lots of fried food.

They danced, and listened to a speech by City Council member Richard Kriseman, who in one hour handed out all his 1,000 stickers for his run for state House District 53.

Kriseman had crafted a slogan that played off Mayor Rick Baker's "Today is another great day in St. Petersburg." Kriseman's was: "Today is another gay day in St. Petersburg."

Baker has never attended the pride festival and has said in the past he doesn't support its "general agenda."

Kriseman, who has signed the city proclamation every year in place of Baker, shrugged off his absence.

"If the mayor wanted to make it difficult for this event to exist, he could, but he doesn't," he said. "He has some strong personal convictions that guide him, and I can't criticize him for that."

Not all were so understanding.

"If the city supports it, then he should be here," said Gary Humphrey, 60, who watched the morning's parade pass.

Keffer, who led the protest of the event, said he was pleased the mayor did not endorse it.

"There should be more Christians out here" protesting, he added.

There were Christians, but they had booths. Chris Goldsmith, 44, sat at one, the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa. As a gay youth, he said, religion made him resent who he was, he said.

"Queer, perverted, sissy boy - those are the words I heard growing up, and I didn't want to be all those things," he said.

Goldsmith was brought up Southern Baptist in Lakeland. After testing HIV-positive in 1988, seeing friends die, and turning to crack, he "found a higher power" in recovery.

He cheered as more than 50 lesbian bikers roared past his booth.

One of the bikers, Joan Carpenter, 56, of Tarpon Springs, said much has changed since she was a kid, "but it hasn't gotten to where it's supposed to be." She was talking about rights granted to heterosexual spouses.

"Even when I die, I can't leave anything to her," Carpenter said, pointing to her life partner, Lynn Brown, 47. "It's just not fair."

Evening came, and the protesters made their final trip, carrying signs quoting biblical passages and such slogans as "Father of Sodomites - Homo."

They weren't new to protest, or the fury they had incited with their evangelism. They are seen often on street corners in Ybor City, where, Keffer said, they preach through bullhorns to sinners of all stripes in hopes of saving their souls.

"We're not here because we hate them, we're here because we love them," he said.

Smit, who works as a chef in St. Petersburg, watched the evangelists leave. They made her so angry, she said, that she slammed her bead necklaces around the neck of one.

It was very unlike her, she said.

"I can't believe I did that, but I was so mad," Smit said. "But you know what? They didn't change anything. I'm proud of who I am."