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  1. St. Petersburg

It's now the Tech Data St. Pete Pride Parade and some people aren't happy

Crowds celebrate during the 2018 St. Pete Pride Parade. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2018)]
Published Jun. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — Some things are ripe for branding.

Take sports: the halftime show, the player of the game, the AT&T call to the bullpen.

After that, it can get more complicated. Should monuments face branding, or memorials?

What about commemorations?

How about Pride?

This year's parade in St. Petersburg — Florida's largest Pride celebration and the second largest in the Southeast behind only Atlanta — carries the name of a corporate sponsor.

June 22's Tech Data St. Pete Pride Parade, which this year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising over police brutality against the LGBTQ community in New York City, will march under a title sponsorship for the first time.

Some see it as antithetical to the meaning of Pride.

"I just learned something I personally find disturbing, and frankly disgusting," wrote Facebook user Jason Mart on a group page for the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps of St. Petersburg, a volunteer organization that performs at Pride. "St Pete pride is now 'Tech Data St Pete Pride Parade!' No joke check the website, this is so offensive it's like saying 'Tech Data Martin Luther King Day!' "

Others see that any company would vie for affiliation with Pride as progress.

"To keep it in perspective, in 1969, there weren't very many corporations that wanted to be involved," said City Council member Steve Kornell, who often speaks from the dais about inclusion. "So the idea that there's a corporation that wants to have its name attached, there's some positive there."

The relationship between St. Pete Pride and the Largo-based corporate giant runs deep. The president of St. Pete Pride's board of directors, Chrys Bundy, is a Tech Data employee. And though this is the first year Tech Data will be the title sponsor, partnership between Pride and the company started about four years ago, said Cal Jackson, Tech Data's director of diversity and inclusion. That's when the business, which sells technology to other companies, launched what it calls a business resource group "dedicated to promoting a safe and welcoming environment, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity," according to the company's diversity and inclusion web page.

"The first thing I said to the group was we have to have a presence" at St. Pete Pride, Jackson said. "We have had a presence at every parade since."

The commitment has not gone unnoticed. Tech Data recently touted its 14th perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's annual corporate equality index. Jackson said Tech Data places such an emphasis on inclusion for two reasons: being seen as a good corporate citizen bolsters the company's image, and it "contributes to the organizational effectiveness" of the company.

The decision to make Tech Data a title sponsor grew from discussions about how the company would partner with the parade this time, said St. Pete Pride executive director Luke Blankenship. Each year, Tech Data's involvement has grown, he said. The company plans to have two floats in this year's parade, with more than 1,000 employees and family members marching — including 37 percent of senior leadership, Jackson said. That accounts for about 10 percent of the record 10,000 expected to march.

Neither side would disclose the value of the sponsorship.

Even with Tech Data's efforts to be considered a corporate ally, the April announcement of the naming deal garnered strong rebukes on social media.

"It's a little known fact, but a trans woman of color named Marsha Tech Data Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall," wrote Facebook user Dylan Kash, invoking the name of a Stonewall leader. "Did you know that Harvey Tech Data Milk was the first openly gay man to run for office? It's also worth mentioning that the rainbow flag was designed by Gilbert Tech Data Baker. Know your LGBTechDataQIA+ History, folks!!!"

Another Facebook user, Jordan Butterworth, posted a statement he said he delivered to St. Pete Pride.

"I appreciate the generosity of Tech Data and their employees, their support of Pride, their work throughout the community, and their commitment to LGBTQ equality," he wrote. "However, placing the name of a corporation BEFORE the title of the parade, no matter what that may be or why, implies a level of ownership that should NOT exist."

Jackson said the company did not expect its name on the parade to be so controversial.

"We did not anticipate that," he said. "We heard this feedback and we did talk to St. Pete Pride, because we don't want to be that."

Blankenship said the frustration over the parade name is reminiscent of 2017, the year the parade moved from Kenwood and the Grand Central area, sometimes referred to as the Gayborhood, to the waterfront. He said sponsorships like Tech Data's — and the Wells Fargo North Straub Stage and the HCA South Straub Stage — help subsidize registration rates to participate in the parade, which Blankenship said are among the lowest for an event of its size.

Imagine, he said, if instead Pride became more expensive. "I think we would be having a very different conversation about people being upset," he said.

Mayor Rick Kriseman's office defended the sponsorship deal. He "loves seeing the corporate community engaged in Pride," texted city spokesman Ben Kirby. "Partnerships are important to help sustain an event like this. The more corporate involvement and support the better."

Kornell, who is gay, said he understands the need for corporate involvement to ensure the viability of endeavors like Pride.

"But we never want to lose sight of taking care of those who are most marginalized," he said, like transgender women of color, who have "an outrageous murder rate."

"When I see Pride kicking off with a transgender Pride parade" — the St. Pete Pride TransPride March is not branded — "that makes me feel like we are keeping that focus."

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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