ST. PETERSBURG — It was a brisk evening in February 2003, and a group of about 20 people had gathered at Detour Bar on Central Avenue to mull over an ambitious idea: throwing a gay pride parade in St. Petersburg.
They didn't know if it would be financially feasible, if the community would be supportive, or whether city officials would even allow a pride parade.
But the group was energized by the idea of an event staged in broad daylight in the middle of St. Petersburg, where LGBTQ culture had been largely relegated to nightclubs and vacation spots.
"We didn't know how it was going to go, but we said, look, we want to found this event and do it for ourselves," said Carrie West, a 67-year-old Ybor City resident and one of the event's founders.
"I think it worked out pretty well," he added with a laugh.
Today, the St. Pete Pride parade is in its 17th year and boasts that it is the largest Pride celebration in Florida. About 250,000 are expected to attend and it has partnerships with brands like Wells Fargo and Budweiser. This year, it even has a corporate sponsor, which led the main event to be renamed the Tech Data St. Pete Pride Parade.
Back in 2003, this level of corporate and public embrace was almost unimaginable.
"We had the heartbeat of the gay community at the time, and it's humbling to see it grow," said co-founder Brian Longstreth, a real estate broker and owner of Punky's Bar in Historic Kenwood.
Following their initial meeting in 2003, St. Pete Pride organizers rallied community members to help plan the parade in just nine weeks. Using local gay bars and LGBTQ-owned businesses as gathering places, volunteers swung into action.
"It was just magical how everybody stepped up," Longstreth said. "It really was a sense of, yes, this is what the community needs."
Support from city officials was more checkered. Then-Mayor Rick Baker refused to make any public statements acknowledging the first parade. The following year, he told the then-St. Petersburg Times that he would not attend, adding, "Personally, I don't support the general agenda of the Pride event."
When he ran for mayor again in 2017, Baker attended Sunday's Pride festival — but not the Saturday parade.
Of the eight City Council members at the time, only one would sign a proclamation recognizing Pride: Rick Kriseman, St. Petersburg's current mayor.
"Brian (Longstreth) came to me and basically said, 'The mayor has indicated he is unwilling to sign any kind of a proclamation, is this something you'd be willing to do?' And I said of course, absolutely," Kriseman said. "It was the right thing to do."
Despite the reluctance from some elected officials, organizers said Baker's administration put them in contact with city staff, who worked quickly to help plan the parade. West jokes that this disparity between the city's behind-the-scenes work and the mayor's public stance struck him as a sort of "closeted" double life.
After a whirlwind preparation, the first-ever St. Pete Pride parade came together successfully with a turnout of about 10,000. Parade-goers unfurled a rainbow flag several hundred yards long. Local establishments set up shop on Central Avenue, including organizations without LGBTQ affiliations.
"The (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Women's Auxiliary were there selling a hot dog, a free shot and a half a cup of beer for a dollar. I remember thinking, 'Girl, charge more and make some money off this event,'" West said. "They were a little overwhelmed, but they had the best time."
Longstreth recalls being struck by the fact that families embraced the parade that first year.
"There was a straight couple and some young children sitting out and I got the chance to chat with them. And they said they wanted to teach their children about diversity and acceptance and that's why they were there," he said. "That always stuck with me as, we're on the right path here."
The parade has transformed in the years that followed. Attendance has swollen to 25 times its original size, and in 2017, the parade route was moved from the Grand Central District to the downtown waterfront. Many founders viewed that as a natural evolution, but it ruffled some feathers. (Pride weekend still includes a street fair in the Grand Central District.)
"I will not go to the parade anymore. I tried it once, I don't like it," said Judy B. Goode, a cabaret singer who performed at the inaugural parade. "The people on Beach Drive, they don't keep rainbow flags up all year. It's all those rich, fancy stores. They don't really care about the gay community."
West says the present-day St. Pete Pride is run by a new generation of LGBTQ locals — the executive director of this year's Pride, Luke Blankenship, is 25. (Blankenship and other St. Pete Pride leadership did not respond to multiple requests for comment). For one, West doesn't like the fact that "queer" is used as a blanket term by a younger generation, and now appears in the LGBTQ acronym in St. Pete Pride's official programming.
"In the era I grew up, queer was a very, very derogatory term," he said. "I know people who were killed after being called queer. So I can't relate to it and I won't relate to it.
"They can be the new generation. Generation Z can say what they want to, but they didn't live through what we did."
Like the parade, Kriseman said St. Petersburg itself has changed since 2003.
"Who we've become as a city is reflected in Pride," he said. "It's an event that really highlights what I think are some of the best parts of the city: the openness, the inclusiveness of our community. And I don't know that Pride could have grown if the city hadn't changed to get to where it is today."
Longstreth said he was pleased with how mainstream the parade has become. But personally, he looks forward to the street fair in the Grand Central District.
"Part of what created St. Pete Pride was that more local feel and local participation ...," he said. "I kind of want to stick with the small businesses that helped start it.
"In the gay Grand Central District, we have rainbow flags out 365 days a year."
Contact Aaron Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-347-1880. Follow @aaronpholmes.