When the city of St. Petersburg asked the state to light up the Sunshine Skyway bridge in rainbow colors for LGBTQ Pride month last year, the request was denied. The decision was mildly controversial — Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist wrote a letter to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis about it. Crist’s office didn’t get a response. The St. Pete Pride parade was canceled because of the pandemic, Pride month came and went, and other institutions glowed with rainbows. But not the Skyway.
In 2021, the city asked once again to have the Skyway rainbow-ed out. Once again, it was denied.
But this year, that decision was part of a much broader, statewide outrage from the LGBTQ community.
Local branches of the state transportation agency also denied requests to light Sarasota’s John Ringling Causeway Bridge for Pride Month, and ordered the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to remove the rainbow lighting from the Acosta Bridge — then reversed that stance shortly after.
The events reverberated all the way up to the young 2022 race for governor: Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner challenging Crist in the Democratic primary, wrote a letter admonishing DeSantis’ administration for “homophobic, transphobic actions.”
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. However, in a tweet, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said that the governor’s office was not involved in the Jacksonville decision.
Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson Kris Carson, who works in the Tampa Bay office, said the $15.6 million Skyway lighting system is currently unable to display a rainbow. The 1,800 colored LED fixtures can only display three colors at a time, she said. The system was installed in 2019.
An April 28 email Carson wrote to Jim Nixon, the city’s LGBTQ liaison, said the Pride display requested by the city wasn’t one of the department’s eight approved color schemes.
“When the Skyway lighting system finished construction, we did not have a (Florida Department of Transportation) policy set in place at that time,” she said. “Due to overwhelming calls and emails for color changes, a policy was established to help us manage the multiple requests.”
The color schemes crafted by Carson’s district branch of the transportation department: “Elegant, Gateway, Purple Majestic, Patriotic, Sunset, Verdant Green, Waves, and New Years.”
“Thank you for your understanding!” Carson concluded her email.
In email Thursday, Carson noted that other organizations and causes have had their lighting requests denied, including the American Heart Association and Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Last fall, the statewide transportation agency crafted a new policy governing how bridges are lighted, which limits displays to those related to federal or state holidays or celebrations. “Events of broad community interest and significance” are also allowed under the new policy, as long as they are approved by local or county governments.
Not all bridges are subject to state policy. The city of Tampa, for example, controls the lighting on its bridges and lit up the Laurel Street Bridge for Pride earlier this month.
The controversy over Jacksonville’s Acosta bridge boiled down to the community interest clause in the new lighting policy. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority said in a statement to the Florida Times-Union that the transportation department told them the pride color scheme was “out of compliance with our existing permit.” Troy Roberts, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation division that covers Jacksonville, said the schematic to light the bridge for Pride “was not previously submitted/approved.”
Still, after a day of online outrage, the department ultimately allowed Jacksonville’s Pride display to shine: “The department has since authorized its use as it is obviously a matter of broad community interest,” Roberts wrote in an email.
Progressive members of Florida’s LGBTQ community were especially incensed about the bridge back-and-forth this week because of what they say is a pattern of discrimination from the DeSantis administration. Many equal rights advocates decried DeSantis’ decision to sign a bill banning transgender females from women’s and girls’ scholastic sports earlier this month. They also protested the timing: DeSantis signed the bill on the first day of Pride month. DeSantis said there was no message behind the timing of the bill signing.
Advocates were similarly displeased with DeSantis’ decision the next day, on the second day of Pride, to veto a $150,000 budget line item that would have gone to mental health funding for survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting provided by an Orlando LGBTQ center. DeSantis’ office has contended that he has generally expanded mental health funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Turning lights back on a bridge won’t return the critical $150K funding @GovRonDeSantis vetoed for Pulse survivors mental health,” Rep. Carlos Smith, D-Orlando, tweeted Wednesday. “It won’t save trans kids from humiliation/ridicule when they’re pushed off sports teams either.”
Still, the transportation department’s decision to allow the Pride lighting in Jacksonville has reinvigorated the push to light the Skyway. Jim Nixon, the city of St. Petersburg’s LGBTQ liaison, re-applied for rainbow lighting after Jacksonville’s bridge was allowed to use it.
Carson said the agency is working with the city “to accommodate an amenable alternative” and get a local resolution or proclamation to ensure it has “broad community support.”