How would proposed Florida law affect drag shows at St. Pete Pride?

New law would prohibit governments for permitting “lewd” performances. Could that target Pride?
Tina Reneé, 50, of Orlando walks in the Trans Pride Parade in St. Petersburg on Saturday, June, 25, 2022.
Tina Reneé, 50, of Orlando walks in the Trans Pride Parade in St. Petersburg on Saturday, June, 25, 2022. [ LAUREN WITTE ]
Published April 13|Updated April 13

A proposed law that would ban governments from issuing permits for “adult live performances” is leaving some to wonder what that means for St. Pete Pride, Florida’s largest LGBTQ+ celebration.

An amendment filed Tuesday to a Florida House bill titled “Protection of Children” would prohibit any government from issuing a permit or otherwise authorizing a person “to conduct a performance in violation” of a statute created by the bill that targets “exposing children to an adult live performance.”

That provision defines an adult live performance as anything that “depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or specific sexual activities.”

If that exposure or simulation is “patently offensive to prevailing standards” and without literary or artistic value, then it can be defined as a prohibited adult performance where minors aren’t allowed. It’s not clear how that would apply to a public parade.

St. Pete Pride returns in June for its 21st year. According to the application filed to the city for co-sponsorship, last year’s Pride parade and festival brought 200,000 spectators and 5,000 participants, netting a $310,000 income after all expenses. The city supports St. Pete Pride and raises a Pride flag at City Hall every June.

The St. Pete Pride board of directors in a statement Wednesday night said they were “vehemently opposed” to the “homophobic and transphobic” bill, and they stand in solidarity with drag artists “who find themselves the latest targets of far-reaching attacks by a regressive State.”

“When our government’s top priority is manufacturing ways to punish art and artists, we are all worse off; we are less free,” the statement read. “When our political leaders prefer to spend time and tax dollars targeting minority groups and censoring entertainment rather than tackling the real, critical issues that their constituents are facing, we are less safe.”

This year’s application makes no mention of drag performances. St. Petersburg police have not received any permit applications for this year’s event, said spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez. She said the Police Department does not have any guidance, documents or memos referring to how the bill would affect permitting.

“It’s kind of early. We usually wait until something is passed and move from there,” Fernandez said.

City spokesperson Erica Riggins said the mayor’s office and legal department continue to monitor the bill. She touted the city’s ninth year of earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index for supporting LGBTQ+ people.

“We look forward to meeting that standard in the future and hosting the largest, most diverse, and most inclusive Pride Parade in the Southeast this June,” Riggins wrote in a statement.

There is no mention of drag shows or drag performances in the bill itself, but the definition of “adult live performance” includes “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”

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Not all drag performances could be interpreted that way. Critics say that’s the point — intentional vagueness would create a chilling effect and lead to self-policing. They believe it could put the events of St. Pete Pride — and the very essence of Pride — in question.

“I think this bill like so many others is really focused on intimidation,” said state Rep. Lindsay Cross, a Democrat who represents part of St. Petersburg.

“I think this will be a year where we will be watching to see how closely Tallahassee is watching St. Pete and other communities,” she said. “I don’t think that the city or leadership within the Pride organization are going to water this down to supplicate a loud minority.”

David Fischer, owner of COCKtail in St. Petersburg, chose not to have drag entertainment on his Tampa Pride float last month to avoid putting his liquor license, worth $700,000, at risk. He said he’ll likely do the same for St. Pete Pride.

“It gets scary as a business owner that has five businesses that strongly rely on the LGBTQ+ community to exist,” Fischer said.

He noted that Pride’s origins are in the Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York City in the late 1960s when drag performers took the streets and police raided LGBTQ+ friendly establishments.

“People were fed up with discrimination and homophobia,” Fischer said. “But it’s like legislation is pushing us back there again. It’s scary, honestly. Not just for gay and trans and lesbian people, but for African Americans, Hispanic and Jewish people as well.”

Supporters of the bill aren’t sure how Pride celebrations would be affected.

Republican state Sen. Ed Hooper’s district includes north Pinellas and southwest Pasco counties but not St. Petersburg. He said he wasn’t sure how the bill would affect the St. Pete Pride parade, saying the bill is about certain prohibited shows for minors. He said he doesn’t know if those activities take place during Pride parades.

“I know the Pride parade’s a big deal,” Hooper said. “I don’t know what actions happen during that parade route. I could assume there would be definitions that would be close.”

Hooper said if there are unforeseen actions taken because of a bill passed by the Legislature, it is possible for lawmakers to file another bill “to fix what we intended to do in the first place,” he said.

“That may turn out to be the case,” Hooper said.

Angelique Young, 36, is a trans woman and drag performer who has been in the Tampa Bay area for the last nine years. She’s part of a group of performers who recently traveled to Tallahassee to speak on the floor against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

“It’s time to dig our heels in and not compromise,” Young said. “We need to stand our ground and fight harder for our peace of mind. Not for the peace of mind of other people.”

The St. Pete Pride board ended its statement with support for those fighting the legislation.

“We are also energized by this attack on our community.”