TAMPA — Diana S. Ransome dabbed her hairline to keep the sweat that was accumulating under her long black wig from dripping down and ruining her foundation. It’s a trick she’s picked up in the past year, after walking in her first Pride parade in 2022.
She’s learned a lot since then: about makeup and dresses, about loving herself both in costume and out, and about a political climate that is increasingly hostile to drag performers like her.
“It’s gut-wrenching seeing (anti-drag laws) pass in Tennessee. … It makes me feel like I don’t have a future,” she said. “But it also makes me want to be here 1,000% more to show people in Tennessee and Florida that it’s possible to express yourself and be loved.”
Joyous defiance was the unofficial theme of Saturday’s Tampa Pride Festival. T-shirts and signs reading “It’s Okay to Say Gay” and “Trans Rights are Human Rights” were ubiquitous among the thousands of Floridians who showed up in the blazing 90-degree heat to celebrate.
Genderqueer teens in fishnets and sparkles mingled with “rainbow goths” in black leather and multicolored boas. Gray-bearded bears in “You Gay Bro?” tank tops stood side by side with families there to show their support for Tampa Bay’s LGBTQ+ community.
“There are probably more straight people out here wearing rainbows than gay people,” laughed Sister Nora Torious of the Tampa Bay Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a nonprofit organization that raises money for LGBTQ+ causes.
Torious — the name she uses in drag — wore the Sisters’ uniform of a nun’s habit, white face paint and combat boots. The rainbow flames painted above her eyes were her own signature touch.
“It’s nice to see, honestly,” she said. “It shows how far we’ve come. It wasn’t that long ago that people showed up to Pride parades with masks on or a bag over their head, and now everyone wants to be here.”
It was heartwarming to see the community celebrating together, said Peter Horstman, a 70-year-old Florida native, but he worries that young people don’t realize the struggle they have in front of them.
“They don’t remember the Ronda Storm era,” he said, referring to the Hillsborough County commissioner who in 2005 outlawed county support for gay pride events of any kind. The rule wouldn’t be overturned until 2012.
Horstman came out in high school, right as the Stonewall uprising in New York City was bringing national attention to the gay rights movement.
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“(This generation) can’t imagine how hard this fight is going to be now that the wheels are in motion,” he said. “I feel for them so much.”
In the past year, a deluge of legislation from Tallahassee has put a target on the LGBTQ+ community — a reality that nagged at every attendee the Tampa Bay Times approached.
Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, known as the Don’t Say Gay bill by opponents, prohibiting lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation for grades K-3 “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Next month, Florida education officials will vote on a proposed rule, backed by the DeSantis administration, extending those restrictions to grades 4-12.
Another law passed last year, which requires schools to remove classroom and library materials deemed inappropriate, has led some Florida districts to remove books with LGBTQ+ themes. Books pulled include “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “And Tango Makes Three” — a picture book about two male penguins raising a chick.
Earlier this month, Florida health officials banned doctors from providing gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Republican legislators have filed bills that would ensure the decision becomes state law.
Callen Jones, a Tampa real estate agent who specializes in serving LGBTQ+ clients, said Saturday offered a welcome break from the pressure of keeping up with Florida politics. Jones, who is nonbinary, has a 5-year-old daughter who will enter Florida’s public school system next year.
“My daughter calls me ‘baba,’ so what is she supposed to say when someone asks her about her mommy or her daddy? Is she not going to be able to talk about her family when she gets to school?” they said.
Jones didn’t feel comfortable having their two daughters attend Pride this year, but not because of the teens draped in trans pride flags and not because of the band of drag queens sashaying down the street in platform heels. Instead, Jones worried about what they called increasingly inflammatory anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from Tallahassee.
“In this political climate, you never know what someone will decide to do,” they said.
Laura Campbell strolled the festival in a “Free Mom Hugs” tank top. She was representing an organization she joined after her daughter, Quinn, came out as transgender in 2019. Her daughter has since moved out of the state, fearing that Florida Republicans may soon ban gender-affirming care for adults.
“I am so proud of my trans daughter, and I wish I could be walking here with her,” Campbell said. “It breaks my heart that she doesn’t feel safe in this state.”
It’s a concern that Momma Ashley Rose knows all too well. Rose — resplendent in a ruby sequin dress and bottle-blonde beehive wig — marched with CampOut, a summer camp for LGBTQ+ youth that she helps run. The camp keeps its location secret in order to protect the children, she said.
Rose, a drag performer, spoke out against anti-drag legislation in Tallahassee in March. The experience was exhausting, she said. Politicians hadn’t seemed interested in listening, and the ensuing avalanche of hate mail was wearing on her.
“But there is also so much love,” she said. “And you see everyone here and all the love there is, and you just focus on that.”