The St. Pete Pride parade turns 20 this weekend, and the anniversary is a timely moment to reflect on Tampa Bay’s commendable if lurching path toward diversity and acceptance.
The first parade was organized on the fly; volunteers were unsure if the city would give the OK, and the vendors included a VFW booth that sold a hot dog and a beer for a buck. For all the worry, local gay bars and LGBTQ-owned businesses stepped up, showing the depth of community support. And while then-Mayor Rick Baker refused to make any public statements acknowledging the parade, his staff worked quickly to help organize the event, reflecting the dual track that some politicians took at the time to grasp a fast-receding middle ground.
That first-ever parade drew 10,000 people; today’s is expected to top the 260,000 who attended in 2019, the last before COVID-19 put the parade on hiatus, when it already was the 13th largest Pride event in the country.
This astronomical growth didn’t happen overnight, or without resistance. While St. Petersburg provided an early snub, the climate across Tampa Bay was hardly more welcoming. In 2005, Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms led a 5-1 vote that barred county government from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride events. (The lone dissenter, then-Democratic Commissioner Kathy Castor, now represents Tampa in Congress.)
The St. Pete Pride parade that year drew 35,000 people. And as we know, the political climate changed. Looking back, the lens on the first few years of the new millennium seems almost monochrome. Baker attended the St. Pete Pride festival in 2017 during a campaign to take back the mayor’s office (He lost). Hillsborough elected its first openly gay county commissioner in 2008, and commissioners unanimously repealed the gay pride ban in 2013. St. Petersburg elected its first of several openly gay city council members in 2009. In 2019, Jane Castor was elected Tampa’s first openly gay mayor, becoming the first out mayor in Tampa Bay and the first openly gay woman to lead a major city in the Southeast.
The divide between Americans who support gay marriage (71 percent) and those who oppose (28 percent) has only been growing wider since 2012. And as with other hot-button issues, there are times when political leaders lead, and when public sentiment moves the tide. St. Petersburg’s current mayor, Ken Welch, acknowledges his own views have matured since his involvement with a conservative church two decades ago. And despite the progress over two decades, Florida has still seen a backlash erupt in violence and public policy alike.
It’s exciting and a credit to this community that today’s parade may draw 30 times that of the first. Twenty years may seem an eternity, but it’s an instant in the evolution of human thought. The cause of equality is not over. But as St. Pete Pride has proven, the first step is sparking the public’s conscience about the worth of every being.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.