NEW PORT RICHEY — The second-annual Pasco Pride Festival had all the elements.
Drag shows and drag queen story time. Floating bubbles and rainbow flags. Vendors pitching home improvement and financial services. Free HIV and Hep C testing. Add to that a couple of politicians — one openly gay — speaking to the power of the LGBTQ community.
And while there was an afternoon downpour, neither that nor the usual protesters dampened the mood, said Pasco Pride president Nina Borders.
"I am really happy with how smoothly everything went — from logistics, setting everything up, to the performances,” she said.
The festival, presented by Volkswagon of New Port Richey and other local sponsors, was held Sunday in Sims Park. Prelude events included a showing of the documentary The Lavender Scare at Richey Suncoast Theatre, the Miss and Mister Pasco Pride pageant and a Saturday night block party.
About 3,500 people came out through the day, said Borders, adding that the city, the police department and local businesses helped create a welcome and safe atmosphere.
“People felt safe at the festival, but they also felt safe in the city with all the businesses putting up Pride flags outside their establishments,” Borders said.
Education, fostering tolerance and giving a happy nod to the contributions of the LGBTQ community were a focus for the day-long celebration.
Florida House Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani traveled from Orlando to give speeches touching on pro-LGBTQ legislative efforts, such as the Competitive Workforce Act, and the importance of getting out the vote.
Teenage volunteers with Students Working Against Tobacco handed out literature and set up designated vaping and tobacco areas for festival goers. Teams from the Pasco County Health Department circled the park to offer free HIV and hepatitis testing.
“This is our demographic. We’re trying to get the word out,” said HIV program manager Bobbi Lambert, noting that the New Port Richey clinic offers free testing the first Friday of each month.
The turnout of mainstream businesses at the event was not lost on Chi Chi LaLique. She dressed in formal evening wear to hand out business cards for her boyfriend, Joe Patneaude, who works as a financial adviser for Prudential.
“People need financial advice. People need gutters and all sorts of things for their houses,” said LaLique, 48, a 1989 graduate of Hudson High who claims to be the “oldest drag queen in Pasco County.” "Everybody here is real people. They just want to be treated that way.”
Festival-goers danced — even in the rain — as Mister Pasco Pride Ken Dartanyan and others performed on stage.
Jerri Haines, 50, carried her granddaughter, Amiyah Haines, 4, on her shoulders so she could reach the floating bubbles.
“It’s going a lot smoother than when I was growing up,” Haines said. “I’m glad that times have changed for the younger generation.”
“This kind of event is important because it brings about acceptance and instills pride," said Trish Demasky, a clinical social worker and behavioral therapist for Bay Care who was raising funds for HERO, a support group for LGBTQ teens.
"It’s our space — a place where we can feel safe and not judged,” said Rebecca Moore, 18, who has transitioned to a peer adviser/advocate role with HERO.
A small group of Bible-carrying protesters milled about, trying to hand out rainbow post cards with religious scripture printed on the back. One protester was arrested for disorderly conduct minutes after the festival started for breaking the city ordinance against using amplified sounds in the park.
“We’ve had no problems with anyone who’s attended the event, except for that gentleman,” said New Port Richey police Sargent Erik Jay.
The protesters claimed no affiliation with a specific group.
“We’re independent contractors for Jesus,” said Mark R. McDonald, who came from Seminole to protest.
As Drag Queen Story Time got underway, the protesters circled the gazebo outside the West Pasco Historical Society, an act that made some attendees uneasy. Someone wrote “Repent Sinners” in chalk on the walkway.
“I never realized it would be so difficult to read stories to children and give books away,” said Stephanie Stuart, the 2018 Miss Pasco Pride. She founded Drag Queen Story Hour in 2018 with Joan Hemsworth, owner of the Paperback Book Exchange, and has given away more than 200 books during her reign.
“It’s disturbing that they are yelling at the kids,” said Robyn Luck, 37, who attends local Drag Queen Story Hours with her daughter, Alana, 5. It’s been a wonderful experience for a girl who loves princesses and glitter, she said, despite protests that moved the event to different venues.
Borders and New Port Richey Police Sgt. E. Jay quickly defused the situation, moving the reading event into Peace Hall, a historic church that festival organizers rented as a “green room” for performers and volunteers.
“It’s kind of ironic, don’t you think," said Borders. “That we end up doing this in here."