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As St. Pete Pride nears, those involved feel both joy and anxiety

State legislation aimed at the LGBTQ+ community has provoked mixed feelings in those putting together this year’s festivities.
 
Security guard Chris Russ watches the front door of the Wet Spot poolside bar in St. Petersburg in May.
Security guard Chris Russ watches the front door of the Wet Spot poolside bar in St. Petersburg in May. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 13, 2023|Updated June 14, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — At the bar Cocktail on Central Avenue, a fleet of guards is suited up in tactical-looking vests to set a tone, the bar owner says, that this gay bar takes security seriously.

The measures come during a year that, according to St. Pete Pride organizers, has cast a pall over the city’s typical June Pride Month celebrations. State legislation aimed at segments of the LGBTQ+ community has brought a tinge of sadness and sometimes dread to those involved with putting together this year’s festivities.

But there also have been some touching moments of hope and unison.

Security guard Herb Cotto patrols the Wet Spot poolside bar recently in St. Petersburg. The owner of this and the adjacent gay bar Cocktail employs a fleet of security guards suited up in tactical-looking vests to set a tone, the bar owner says, that security is taken seriously.
Security guard Herb Cotto patrols the Wet Spot poolside bar recently in St. Petersburg. The owner of this and the adjacent gay bar Cocktail employs a fleet of security guards suited up in tactical-looking vests to set a tone, the bar owner says, that security is taken seriously. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

A recent state law prohibits a person from knowingly admitting a minor to adult performances such as drag shows, and can cost a business its liquor license.

The new law is why Tiffany Freisberg is in the dog house with her kids. The president of St. Pete Pride got a big win by landing Idina Menzel as the headliner of the June 23 night concert — the eve of the big St. Pete Pride parade. But because of the new law and the liquor license for Jannus Live in jeopardy, they decided to make the concert for ages 18 and older only.

“I have three daughters who cannot believe we are bringing Queen Elsa to town and we can’t go,” Freisberg said. “But that’s a concern that business owners have to have.”

Laura Campbell, center with the rainbow ribbon in her hair, hugs a guest at Tampa Pride in March. The mother of a trans child, she founded the Central Florida chapter of Free Mom Hugs in 2019, offering hugs and support to anyone in the LGBTQ community who wants support.
Laura Campbell, center with the rainbow ribbon in her hair, hugs a guest at Tampa Pride in March. The mother of a trans child, she founded the Central Florida chapter of Free Mom Hugs in 2019, offering hugs and support to anyone in the LGBTQ community who wants support. [ Laura Campbell ]

It’s also why Cocktail owner David Fischer isn’t going to have a drag performer on his bar’s big rainbow rooster parade float during the St. Pete Pride Parade on June 24. Even though the float will be miles away from his business, he doesn’t think he should risk it.

 Idina Menzel poses in the press room at the Oscars in 2015. The president of St. Pete Pride got a big win by landing Menzel as the headliner of the Friday night concert June 23 on the eve of the big St. Pete Pride parade. But because of the new law and the liquor license for Jannus Live in jeopardy, they decided to make the concert ages 18 and older only.
Idina Menzel poses in the press room at the Oscars in 2015. The president of St. Pete Pride got a big win by landing Menzel as the headliner of the Friday night concert June 23 on the eve of the big St. Pete Pride parade. But because of the new law and the liquor license for Jannus Live in jeopardy, they decided to make the concert ages 18 and older only. [ JORDAN STRAUSS | Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP ]

“We are going to play more conservatively,” Fischer said. “It’s alarming more than anything that people are censoring anything nowadays after we had moved so far forward.”

Local artist Chad Mize had similar concerns when he curated his sixth Pride-themed art show, Hot Box, at his new St. Petersburg venue, Space. He didn’t want to censor his artists, he said, so he made it an 18-and-up show that will feature artwork by locals including John Gascot, Lucky Leroy and Finn Schult in the Warehouse Arts District.

Related: Pride month events in Tampa Bay

The city of Gulfport made plans to raise a Pride flag on June 1. The mere existence of drag queens in attendance at the event was an issue that they ran past the city’s lawyers. It was fine in the end, but the fact that they had to consider it was depressing to another lawyer, Edson Abadia Jr., who performs in drag on the weekends.

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“The fact that we have to ask those questions has been chilling,” said Abadia, who goes by the stage name Mr. Gripp, along with his partner Michael Knapp, who goes by Greta Gripp when they perform as Mr. and Mrs. Gripp.

Edson Abadia Jr., who performs in drag as Mr. Gripp with his partner Michael Knapp, right, who goes by Greta Gripp.
Edson Abadia Jr., who performs in drag as Mr. Gripp with his partner Michael Knapp, right, who goes by Greta Gripp. [ Michael Knapp ]

In addition to the fleet of security guards at his bar, Fischer has installed a screening system similar to one used by airports that scans IDs to match a database. Also, patrons are wanded for weapons. He says he finds guns and knives every day.

“It’s Florida, so I’m not that alarmed at all the weapons we find. They just go back and put it in the car,” Fischer said. “But our heightened security makes my staff and my customers feel better, especially since the Pulse shootings.”

Laura Campbell, the mother of a trans child who founded the Central Florida chapter of Free Mom Hugs, says she has seen a big bump in volunteers to offer hugs of support in the LGBT community at events.
Laura Campbell, the mother of a trans child who founded the Central Florida chapter of Free Mom Hugs, says she has seen a big bump in volunteers to offer hugs of support in the LGBT community at events. [ Laura Campbell ]

There are moments of hope amid this year’s anxieties.

One of St. Pete Pride’s annual events, the Trans Pride March, could have an even bigger turnout than it did in 2022: Pre-parade registrations are already numbering more than 100 people to march in the parade that precedes the main parade on June 24. That’s more people than marched in the Trans Pride March last year, Freisberg said.

Laura Campbell, the mother of a transgender child who founded the Central Florida chapter of Free Mom Hugs, started Pride month by attending a meeting in Tampa at the Board of Medicine to discuss helping adults receive gender-affirming care.

Related: A century of drag shows in Tampa, considered mainstream entertainment

Though she is disappointed by the many legal battles she has to fight these days, she says the current political climate has galvanized those who want to help the LGBTQ+ community.

Campbell’s organization, which now has 783 volunteers in the Central Florida chapter, offers hugs to anyone in the community who wants support.

Flags during the St. Pete Pride Parade on June 25, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
Flags during the St. Pete Pride Parade on June 25, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times (2022) ]

She says she has seen a wave of volunteers step up who aren’t parents of trans kids like her — they just want to offer hugs and support and are surprised at how they get embraced at Pride events.

“I’ve had people nearly knock me down trying to get a hug,” Campbell said. “I tell them ‘I will hold you as long as you want, until you are ready to let go. You are worthy, and you are loved.’ ”