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St. Pete Pride draws big crowd, heat and hope for change: ‘Let’s do this!’

One of the largest Pride parades in the Southeast draws long lines and extra security.
 
Parade participants oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis with their signs during the St. Pete Pride Parade along Bayshore Drive on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg.
Parade participants oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis with their signs during the St. Pete Pride Parade along Bayshore Drive on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published June 24, 2023|Updated June 27, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Pete Pride Parade returned Saturday to sweltering temperatures and a politically charged climate that has made the LGBTQ+ community a target for some.

But that didn’t stop thousands who came Saturday to downtown St. Petersburg to attend LGBTQ+ events, including the parade, which since its debut in 2003 has grown to what’s regarded as one of the biggest Pride celebrations in the Southeast.

Security measures led to long lines of attendees waiting to get into North Straub Park. A line stretched a block long in two directions feeding in from Beach Drive. While lines may have been long, attendees said they were moving swiftly.

A long Pride flag is waved during the St. Pete Pride Parade.
A long Pride flag is waved during the St. Pete Pride Parade. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

This year’s parade arrived amid growing concerns about intolerance. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a number of restrictions aimed at limiting the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community, including the prohibition of knowingly allowing kids to attend drag shows. On Friday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law saying it aimed to limit rights of drag performers.

Law enforcement are seen as pedestrians cross the street prior to the annual St. Pete Pride Parade.
Law enforcement are seen as pedestrians cross the street prior to the annual St. Pete Pride Parade. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

While organizers expected 200,000 to attend, they announced that they were stepping up security as a precaution against emboldened hate groups.

By the start of the parade, it was 89 degrees but, because of the humidity, the heat index made it feel like 100 degrees. The 163-unit St. Pete Pride Parade started at about 6:15 p.m. and was scheduled to end later at the Vinoy.

8 p.m. Community

The two-hour parade has now come to an end.

Music is fading and people are migrating in droves away from the parade route. Confetti and broken beads line the ground, and the street sweeping has commenced. Another St. Pete Pride parade has come and gone.

Eileen Codd and Emmie Herard stood at the beginning of the parade for the entire time — not faltering for a second even as people came and went throughout the event.

The two friends from Bradenton even stuck around the area after the last float to take pictures, soon making friends with a group of young girls who also attended. Community is what it’s all about, Codd said.

She didn’t grow up in an accepting family and now as an adult, she goes to as many Pride events as she can find.

This is why Herard particularly enjoyed the various churches that walked in the parade, because she said it was a step forward for acceptance.

What’s next on their agenda for the evening? A walk around town and seeing where the night takes them.

At about the same time the parade ended, it started to rain.

-- Maddy Franklin

7:45 p.m., ‘This pastor loves you’

For the past half hour, the procession has been a slew of corporate floats, mixed with a few from local organizations and businesses.

Then enters Lutherans for Love. Walking among them are members of the St. Mark Lutheran Church, which is located in Dunedin.

They wave signs saying, “God adores you” and “This pastor loves you.”

Other Christian congregations soon follow with similar messages, including St. Pete’s Allendale United Methodist Church with an inflatable Jesus next to a sign that read “Blessed are the woke.”

7:30 p.m. Hugging it out

A group of church ladies offered some counter programming to the hateful messages that often are on display at St. Pete Pride.

Instead of a microphone shouting condemnation, six women had signs that said “Free Hugs” and “We are here to offer prayer.”

They offered high fives to people walking by on the sidewalk on Beach Drive near the Museum of Fine Arts and every few minutes they had takers on those hugs.

Hugs at Saturday's St. Pete Pride Parade.
Hugs at Saturday's St. Pete Pride Parade. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Janet Suddreth, 53, associate pastor at Suncoast Cathedral in St Petersburg said parishioners had been doing it on their own since the Pulse shooting and the last several years have had anywhere from six to 12 who come out to make a point of love.

”What we believe the word of God says is, ‘They will know we are Christians by our love,’” Suddreth said. ”Love is patient and love is kind. Nowhere does it say love screams, love shouts. And God is a just god and is a god of mercy and we are here to send that message.”

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

7 p.m., Tasting the rainbow

It’s raining Skittles.

And soap bubbles.

And friendship bracelets and beads.

Lots of beads are being thrown from the floats and marching units in the Pride Parade.

Meredith McClughen, 47, has a cloth bag that’s already near to the brim with swag just 20 minutes into the parade passing by her at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. Her friend Kim Vurro of Estero, 57, was perched next to her right in front where they became swag magnets.

A parade participant blows bubbles into the crowd.
A parade participant blows bubbles into the crowd. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

They jumped to catch rainbow colored bouncy balls and being in front got them a perfect spot for primo handouts like a Pride T-shirt from the Rowdies float.

”We scored,” Vurro squealed.

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

6:40 p.m., Free state?

Parade participants display their sign during the St. Pete Pride Parade.
Parade participants display their sign during the St. Pete Pride Parade. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

After the parade began amid the normal pomp of bubbles and beads, chants from participants began to reflect the politics of the day.

Those walking with Equality Florida, the state’s leading LGBTQ+ group, cycle through chants including “Free state. Where’s our freedom?” and “We say gay.”

People hold signs showing discontent with DeSantis. They declare that they won’t be erased by him. So far, it’s the first to have any messaging about the governor.

-- Maddy Franklin

6:30 p.m., ‘I’m all here for it’

In one of the more elaborate floats, Metro Community Health’s featured a large rainbow chicken with someone standing atop it dancing, and behind it: “Say Gay.”

The sounds of artists like Lil Nas X to Whitney Houston get people grooving. Everyone seems to be in good spirits down at the beginning of the route.

Kelvin Hunter who travelled from Tampa said he’s having fun, as evidenced by the beads around his neck.

Kelvin Hunter and his friend Earl at Saturday's St. Pete Pride Parade.
Kelvin Hunter and his friend Earl at Saturday's St. Pete Pride Parade. [ MADDY FRANKLIN | Times ]

”I’m so glad that I get to be a part of something like this, simply because … we’ve been silenced, we’ve been ostracized, we’ve been made to be other. And to know that there are so many people — Black, white, gay, straight, everything in between — [and] they like to come out and they want to show their support — they want to catch a bead to the face — I’m all here for it,” he said.

-- Maddy Franklin

6:05 p.m. Long line, short wait

Even though the line to get in North Straub Park stretched for a block along Beach Drive, Marc Siler, 22, of Sarasota clocked it at only a 13-minute-wait to reach the front of the line.

“It moved really quickly in the beginning. We had a bit of a hold up in the middle but it’s moving again,” he said.

People cheer and watch the St. Pete Pride Trans March along Bayshore Drive on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg.
People cheer and watch the St. Pete Pride Trans March along Bayshore Drive on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

It’s his first time at St Pete Pride and he was happy to see security.

“I hope it keeps my friends safe.”

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

5:30 p.m., ‘Let’s do this!’

Marchers participate in the TransMarch just prior to the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade.
Marchers participate in the TransMarch just prior to the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

The Trans Pride March starts in Vinoy Park with a shout of “Let’s do this!”

A crowd a block-long headed down Bayshore Drive leaving a trail of soap bubbles and unified shouts of “trans rights are human rights!”

It’s a bigger crowd than Nikki Thach, 23, saw when he attended in 2018. And, he adds, it’s “a lot louder.”

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

5:15 p.m., Disco ball

Craig Keith was attracting attention left and right as he walked down toward the beginning of the St. Pete Pride parade route.

It was his “walking disco ball” outfit that got people shouting and doing double takes.

Craig Keith, 52, at the 2023 St. Pete Pride festivities.
Craig Keith, 52, at the 2023 St. Pete Pride festivities. [ MADDY FRANKLIN | Times ]

“You look fabulous,” someone stopped to say. He thought of the outfit the night before, and the inspiration behind it? Partying and having fun, said Keith, who lives in Lakeland.

He said for his first Pride event in the St. Pete, he was pleased with the experience so far.

He walked off to grab a good view of the parade.

-- Maddy Franklin

4:15 p.m., Giveaways

One of the tips for visiting the Pride festival should be to bring a tote bag to lug all the free loot being given away from the myriad pop-ups representing businesses and organizations set up in Vinoy Park.

Tampa General Hospital was giving away free fans (a popular item) as well as sunscreen, lip balm and other goodies. Kroger stores is here for the first time even though they are still delivery only in the Tampa Bay area. The chain is giving away grocery sacks with a soda, wet wipes, sunglasses and other treats for a hot day.

Ruby Pierre, 56, of Winter Haven, decorates themself in Pride colors during St. Pete Pride parade and festival at North Straub Park on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg.
Ruby Pierre, 56, of Winter Haven, decorates themself in Pride colors during St. Pete Pride parade and festival at North Straub Park on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Outback is here, as is the new Mint House hotel in St Petersburg. And the BDO accounting firm, one of the largest in the world, had a team from its Tampa office handing out sunscreen and lip balm and hand sanitizer.

Edgar Sandoval, 26, of the Tampa tax team at BDO, said it makes him feel accepted as a gay man that his employer shows up at Pride events across the country.

”Now I’m very comfortable being my full authentic self around my co-workers,” Sandoval said.

The office of Dr. Bob Wallace, who treats HIV, trans patients, hepatitis C and primary care patients, had two full tables of giveaways for his office that officially goes by Love the Golden Rule, Inc. They have been coming to the Pride festival for more than eight years, said Icy Ballentine, a phlebotomist in Wallace’s St. Petersburg office.

”This is a great way to connect with patients and also get across that Hep-C can affect anyone. HIV can affect anyone,” she said. “But most of all the golden rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.”

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

4 p.m., Worth the drive

Iver Torres had only just arrived to the festival.

After skipping breakfast and fielding traffic on his way from Riverview, he took the first free spot he could find to enjoy lunch, which was on a lone bench.

People attend the St. Pete Pride parade and festival at North Straub Park on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg.
People attend the St. Pete Pride parade and festival at North Straub Park on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

He’s an experienced attendee of the St. Pete Pride festival and parade, he said. As a gay man, he loves coming to events throughout June — he said it’s now his favorite month because of it.

And it’s more than worth the drive, he said.

-- Maddy Franklin

3:30 p.m., Covering ears

Shannon and Andrea Cordova-Ogg brought their family over from Tampa to enjoy the festivities at St. Pete Pride, something they do every year.

Their three kids are 2, 5 and 7, and while they’re enjoying themselves, Shannon says this is the first time they were hesitant to bring them along.

On the way to the Pride festival, Shannon said they had the kids cover their ears to block out the words of a few protesters.

Shannon and Andrea Cordova-Ogg pose with their three kids, 2, 5 and 7, at Saturday's St. Pete Pride.
Shannon and Andrea Cordova-Ogg pose with their three kids, 2, 5 and 7, at Saturday's St. Pete Pride. [ MADDY FRANKLIN | Times ]

Shannon is thankful for the increased security measures this year, but she said she’s sad about the need for them at all.

All they want to do is bring their kids up in diversity, she said.

-- Maddy Franklin

3:15 p.m., Check point

People go through a security checkpoint during the St. Pete Pride Parade at Vinoy Park on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg.
People go through a security checkpoint during the St. Pete Pride Parade at Vinoy Park on Saturday, June 24, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

As a line snaked around the sidewalk waiting to get through security at Vinoy Park, security guard Angela Joseph searched purses and asked for IDs for people who had just been wanded for weapons a few steps away.

This is the first time this has been done and Joseph said people have been pleasant and cooperative and no weapons have been found. So far.

”Nothing stupid will happen today,” she said.

As she searched the purse of Ashley Boatwright, Boatwright said, “She doesn’t have an ID. She’s 11. Will mine do?”

It was fine and Boatwright, 31, of Plant City and the family were passed into their very first St Pete Pride.

Boatwright says she drove all the way from northeast Hillsborough County “to show support” especially for family members like her trans dad and sister, who’s a lesbian. She brought along her daughter Isabella, 11, and son Kevin, 5.

”I’m glad they have security to make people feel safe but it looks like a great crowd,” Boatwright said.

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

1:45 p.m., What is love?

A man stood on a step stool at Bayshore Drive NE and 2nd Ave NE and begged passerbys to define love.

”Can somebody give me definition of what love is?” said the man who refused to give his name but said he was from Evangelism Outreach Ministries. He had a microphone strapped to his face.

“I find it so interesting that we’re at an event trying to promote love and nobody here can give me definition of love,” he said to passersby. “What’s love ma’am? She doesn’t know what love is.”

At first, festival attendees tried to answer him. But as he rebuked each response, it became evident he was accepting just one answer: The love of God.

A crowd began to gather. Ryan Jones, 17, stepped in front of him and waved a yellow, white, purple and black striped flag promoting nonbinary rights.

Others held signs reading things like “F--k these guys, you are perfect!”

When Roxanne Cann-Dittman, 56, walked past him she yelled that she knew the love of God — and it told her homosexuality is not a sin.

She sported rainbow Pride sunglasses and an ankle tattoo of a cross with the word “Believe.” She said she knows love because she loves her wife and she loves her faith.

”The Christ I believe in loves everybody,” Cann-Dittman said. “That’s not preaching, that’s not going to invite anyone to love. When he keeps asking what is love — this is not love. Telling people they’re going to go to hell, that’s not love.”

-- Emma Uber

1:20 p.m., Reserving a spot

Residents of St. Petersburg’s Crescent Heights neighborhood planted their lawn chairs and folding tables in the grass along Bayshore Drive SE as the sun rose at 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

Seven hours later, the sun beat down on the group of eight neighbors, but they held their ground.

Residents of Crescent Heights stake their positions along the Pride Parade route on Bayshore Drive.
Residents of Crescent Heights stake their positions along the Pride Parade route on Bayshore Drive. [ Emma Uber | Tampa Bay Times ]

They planned to stay there all day and through tonight’s Pride Parade. They expected 40 members of the neighborhood to eat, drink and celebrate along the parade route.

They were taking shifts throughout the day to reserve their parade real estate. Someone would bike over every few hours to relieve their neighbors of the hot sun. Residents Amy Kelso, 62, and Jan Taylor, 68, said the neighborhood association did not officially plan a Pride event but so many neighbors expressed interest in celebrating the LGBTQ+ community they developed a shift system.

”We want to support those we love,” Kelso said. “We want to support diversity in general, especially with the climate in Florida right now not being very friendly, inclusive.”

Kelso, a St. Petersburg native, said she felt heartened by watching the Pride celebrations in St. Petersburg grow over the years. She said she cherishes friendships with LGBTQ+ neighbors like Taylor and wants them to know they are supported in Crescent Heights.

”I just think when you have diversity in your friendships and in your world and in the people you’re with, the world is a richer, more beautiful experience.”

-- Emma Uber

1 p.m., See something, say something

Security is heightened this year for St. Pete Pride and even baseball. The traffic advisory sign for the Rays game near Tropicana Field on Ninth Street near First Avenue North on Saturday flashed “See Something” and “Say Something.”

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Friday night, Idina Menzel set the tone

Pride weekend kicked off with megawatt star power with Tony-winning singer and Disney icon Idina Menzel performing Friday night.

We were there and so were hundreds of “Frozen” fans. Read here what happened last night as news began circulating that a federal judge had temporarily blocked a Florida law aimed at drag performances.

Idina Menzel headlined the St. Pete Pride Concert at Jannus Live on Friday, June 23, 2023 in St. Petersburg.
Idina Menzel headlined the St. Pete Pride Concert at Jannus Live on Friday, June 23, 2023 in St. Petersburg. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

When the doors to Jannus Live opened and the growing crowd was told, they erupted into cheers. And Menzel had more to say about it, with local drag performers putting on a post-concert show.

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