ST. PETERSBURG — As a grand marshal of St. Pete Pride, Alex Quinto got to bring one guest.
Someone to ride with him in a rainbow-swathed Jeep, wave to 200,000 people along Bayshore Drive and lead Florida’s largest Pride parade.
Alex, 25, is a counselor at Largo Middle School, trying to help students while navigating Florida’s new laws limiting what he can say.
He had a choice to make. Last year, the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network named him Educator of the Year, and Alex took his mom along. The ceremony was in New York, where actors from ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” gave him the award.
Now his sister begged him, “Please, let me be your plus-one for Pride.”
Instead, Alex asked his mom, “Do you think Dad would do it?”
• • •
Tall and lean, with sculpted cheekbones and a ready smile, Frank “Alex” Quinto talks with his hands, leans in when he listens and stops strangers on the street to tell them they’re beautiful.
His favorite color is glitter. Disney princess, Mulan.
He dominates at World of Warcraft, has a Chinese dragon tattooed on his left bicep to honor his grandfather, can drop into a split in stilettos.
He wanted to be a professional actor. Even in preschool, he said, it was easier to play a part than to be himself and fear being rejected.
His mom, Laura, enrolled him in drama camps.
His dad, Frank, never missed a show. But Frank, a Chinese American man and an aerospace engineer at Raytheon, wanted his namesake, his only son, to have a career in science, technology or math.
And insisted that if Alex was going to pursue theater, he make a backup plan.
At the University of South Florida, during the pandemic, Alex took psychology classes — and felt called to become a middle school counselor, to be the safety net he wished he’d had.
“Middle school was not easy for me,” Alex said.
• • •
He lives with his parents and two rescue dogs in the Treasure Island home where he spent his teenage years. He said he doesn’t have time for a relationship right now.
At Largo Middle School, he worked with 300 eighth graders last year.
Some were skeptical of his age. Others made fun of his voice. He didn’t tell them he was gay. They knew. “I just had to get them past that and get to know Mr. Quinto.”
He filled his office with stress balls and bean bags, rainbow stickers, books about smiling eyes, curly hair, an alien dropping into a skatepark and trying to fit in.
Sometimes teachers sent students to him. Sometimes, parents asked him to see their child. He wanted kids to come to him on their own.
After a couple of months, his sign-up sheet was full.
More than a dozen kids confided that they wanted to kiss someone of their same sex, or present as a different gender. They told him about their crushes. Worried about their parents.
He asked, “Have you tried to talk to them?”
• • •
His schedule leading up to the parade was packed.
Alex had a counseling conference in Tampa. He was a guest on WMNF’s “Big Gay Radio Show.” He attended a Stonewall reception. Competed at Southern Nights in the semifinals of “So You Think You Can Drag.”
He had only discovered his “fierce alter-ego, Alice” over Christmas break, when friends dressed him up. That Wednesday in June, he won dancing to a song from “Heathers: The Musical.”
His drag mom and dad were there, whooping and whistling.
His mom and dad came, too. It was only the second time his dad had seen him in drag.
“The first time, I had to trick him,” Alex said. “I told him I was in a talent show.”
Sitting in the family kitchen recently, Frank seemed surprised about all of the attention and accolades Alex has gotten, unsure what to make of his son’s newfound popularity.
“I’d like to see him get his doctorate, move onto bigger things, work with adults,” Frank said.
Alex nodded. He knew this about his dad.
For Father’s Day, he wrote a note.
He invited his dad to sit beside him in the parade.
He had been elected by St. Petersburg residents as the “community pick” for grand marshal, an honor Alex took seriously.
“Should you choose to accept this request,” he typed, imitating his dad’s formal style, “you will be required to wear the item enclosed within this package.”
Inside, a rainbow shirt said: “Proud Dad.”
• • •
As a kid, Alex loved boating with his dad but never wanted to fish. While boys in his class talked about football, he sang “That’s So Raven” songs with the girls.
When a boy finally invited him over, Alex called his mom to pick him up, appalled. “He wanted to dig a hole!”
Alex’s dad didn’t see the signs. “All the girls loved him,” Frank said.
In third grade, a classmate asked Alex if he was gay. He didn’t know what that was. “So I googled it.” Now he realized he wasn’t the only one.
But he still felt he had to hide it. “Which was impossible,” he said.
He didn’t tell his mom the things classmates said that made him cry. He tried to hide the cuts he inflicted on himself. Finally, he confided in his drama teacher. “Another way that theater saved my life.”
He was in eighth grade when his sister heard the rumor and told her parents: Alex is dating a boy.
“I came home and they’re on the couch, lights off. Then the lights flipped on, all dramatic, and I knew they knew,” he said.
He threw himself onto the kitchen floor, screaming — no words, just sounds.
His mom tried to comfort him.
His dad went silent.
“I thought he’d never talk to me again,” Alex said. “I didn’t understand what changed. What did I do wrong?”
Months passed before he and his dad had a real conversation.
Finally, Frank said he was worried for Alex’s safety — so he enrolled him in martial arts, applauded when he earned his black belt.
His mom feared leaving Alex, even for a grocery run. She kept picturing him harming himself. “Or coming home to find him ...”
Alex told his parents, “I have to get out of here.”
• • •
He graduated from Seminole High School early, in 2015, the year Florida and the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. He started wearing more colorful clothes, embracing who he wanted to be.
After earning a master’s in counseling at USF, just as he started working at Largo Middle School at the end of last year, legislators began limiting what school staff can say.
He had thought the tides were turning, that things would be easier for this generation.
Instead, “these kids are experiencing exactly what I did,” Alex said. “People tell them they’re wrong, they’re going through a phase, they’ll get over it.”
He doesn’t tell students what to think. But when they ask, he answers their questions. Tells them their feelings are valid. He hopes some of them see themselves in him.
“He makes everyone feel safe,” said Adrianna Merrell, 14. He was the first teacher she could talk to, she said, about her anxiety, her sexual orientation.
“What if he can’t anymore?”
Under new state rules forbidding classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation, Alex is unsure what he can say once school starts in the fall. He’s trying to create a blanket permission slip for parents to sign.
He worries that if kids can’t talk about their thoughts, if they feel erased, they will decide they don’t matter. He understands why colleagues are quitting.
But he can’t leave those kids.
• • •
Alex’s mom booked a room at the Hampton Inn for Pride weekend, just a couple of blocks from the parade launch.
On Saturday afternoon, she and Alex’s aunt, sister, brother-in-law and friends sprawled on the beds and floor.
While Alex stood at the sink, applying rainbow eyeshadow, gluing on rhinestones, his dad sat watching “Family Feud.”
Alex couldn’t wait for his parents to see his world, and be part of it for the first time: all the colors, the people, the love. Even the protesters. He wasn’t worried about being attacked. But he hated thinking of his students, enduring people yelling about sinners bound for hell.
“Are you putting those on now?” his dad asked, as Alex pressed on long rainbow nails. “They’re just going to fall off.”
Alex laughed and wagged a finger. “Don’t you doubt my nail tomfoolery!” The TV turned to golf. Alex powdered his forehead.
His dad came out of the bathroom wearing his Father’s Day gift.
Outside, the streets were packed, 20 people deep on both sides. Everyone sweating, sparkling. Alex wound along the curb, a dozen members of his entourage following.
“I love your makeup!” called a woman in a sequined halter top.
“I love you!” Alex said.
At the front of the parade, a man on an electric scooter was parked between four shiny Jeeps, holding a satin sash. “Are you a grand marshal?” he asked Alex.
“Yep,” Alex grinned. “And this is my dad.”
As the disco music started, and a bubble cannon erupted and confetti rained on the road, Alex and his dad climbed atop the backseat. Frank scanned the crowd, drinking in the joy. Alex took a selfie, side-by-side, their heads almost touching.
• • •
The walk back to the hotel took forever.
Every block, someone stopped Alex to thank him, congratulate him, compliment him. Women he’d worked with, waiting tables. Guys he danced with in drag. Friends from bars, college, high school theater, summer camp. And so many strangers.
His student, Adrianna, ran up with her mom and friend, giddy — she’d never seen Mr. Quinto in makeup!
A few minutes later, Alex was posing for a photo with two men near the pier when his dad called to him. The float from Raytheon, where Frank works as an engineer, was at the back of the parade, about to take off.
“Son, son!” Frank called, waving him over. “I want to introduce you to my coworkers.”
Smiling, he said loudly, “This is my son.”