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  1. St. Petersburg

Tens of thousands celebrate St. Pete Pride with truth, love and freedom

Two members of Skull Dogs kiss during the St. Pete Pride Parade on Saturday in St. Petersburg. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times)
Published Jun. 23

ST. PETERSBURG — Olive McGuire thinks a lot about words. Even when she doesn't want to. Even when she's sitting in a Starbucks off Central Avenue, fighting the urge to use the restroom.

Some words roll off her tongue instinctively, like "Venti Mocha Frappe." But the ones on the bathroom door are more complicated.

"The fact that I can't use a restroom here that matches my gender freaks me out," McGuire said. "I just can't do it, I cannot. I cannot make myself go into the women's restroom."

It took a long time for McGuire, 20, to settle on the right words to describe her person. Her gender identity is more closely aligned to female, but the gender assigned to her at birth was "male." And at 6-foot-4 with a short crop of wavy, brown hair, she hasn't tried to "present" as anything different to the outside world — at least for now.

Live coverage: St. Pete Pride 2019

They founded St. Pete Pride. They never dreamed it would get this big.

On Saturday, as she prepared to lead the small community she found in Pasco Pride through downtown St. Petersburg for St. Pete Pride, she questioned whether the words she uses fit.

"I think that's just inherent to myself that I'll always be questioning if I'm really a trans woman, and that's a struggle for a lot of people," McGuire said. "It's always in the back of your head. Honestly, half of being trans is questioning whether you're trans or not."

Organizers expected more than 200,000 people for this year's parade. Since 2017, St. Pete Pride has featured a TransPride Parade to include the transgender community that McGuire belongs to. Many other pride parades hold transgender events on separate days. Not in St. Petersburg, where Mayor Rick Kriseman led the parade that introduces the main march.

From its meager beginnings in 2003, when many civic leaders refused to acknowledge its existence, St. Pete Pride has grown into Florida's largest LGBTQ celebration. Several businesses and organizations now clamor to play a role, from local flower and book shops offering their wares at the parade site, to major businesses such as Bank of America and Tech Data providing moral and financial support.

The visible presence of corporate sponsors, a first for the event, rubbed some of the participants the wrong way.

"Do people know it's the 50th anniversary of Stonewall? Probably not, but they'll know what Tech Data is," said Richard Lennox of Clearwater, a swimsuit and leather boot-clad Pride regular who attended with similarly dressed friend Leo Blue.

He referred to the June 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay club, that led to nearly a week of protests and riots that became the spark for the national gay rights movement.

To many, though, the sponsorships proved less critical than the fellowship of a community reveling in its growing confidence and unwillingness to be marginalized or cast aside.

Tampa native Nicole Beach, 42, was attending Pride for the first time. Her 15-year-old daughter Rowan recently came out as bisexual.

"I wanted to show my daughter I love her no matter what. And I'm here to give mom hugs to anyone whose family isn't supportive," said Beach, whose T-shirt told people whose parents don't accept their identity, "I'm your mom now."

Beach carried a multi-colored umbrella. Rainbow flags, bags, pins and more were prevalent throughout Straub Park, where festivities kicked off hours before the evening parade.

But messaging came through costumes, T-shirt slogans and other forms of expression, as well.

Rin and Mae Reed of Pasco County, just married this spring, drove down for their first Pride celebration as a married couple. On their shirts: "Chick-for-Gay" in the same lettering style as the logo for the similarly named conservative fast-food restaurant.

They also carried a flag with the words "Born This Way" in rainbow type.

Henari Solomon, 25, toted an asexual pride flag of muted purple, gray and black. She wore an "Ace Cadet" costume she designed to show her independent spirit, as well as a desire to make sure asexuals are more visibly represented in the LGBTQ community.

"I made it myself. I'm my own damn superhero," she said.

Lily Mitchell of Clearwater, sporting rainbow cat ears and rainbow tights, shared that perspective. Pride, she said, is "all about being true to yourself and not caring about social pressures."

A handful of protesters were present near the south end of the parade route holding signs and decrying the event through megaphones.

They didn't draw much of a reaction — a few attendees looked on in amusement, and one counter-protester stood in front of them with a sign that read, "These guys need to stop using the Bible as an excuse to be a--holes."

Progressive organizers were out in force, too. Volunteers lined pathways in the park and asked attendees to register to vote or sign petitions in support of causes including criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.

For Olive McGuire, the event's meaning was more personal than political.

She grew up in Pasco County's Moon Lake neighborhood, where people are poor. Alt-right. Anti-LGBTQ.

"If I started transitioning in Moon Lake, I would literally get shot," she said. She's not being hyperbolic.

In middle school, when she came out as "bisexual," classmates attacked her with gay slurs. When she found Tumblr, she discovered she could be "gender fluid." Now, she likes to identify as an able-bodied, lesbian, trans woman.

She's stepped into other identities as well. She's the volunteer coordinator for Pasco Pride, the volunteer youth coordinator for Pasco's Hangout Haven youth organization, the president of the Democratic Women's Club of Pasco County.

And when she transfers to the University of South Florida's Tampa campus, two semesters from now she hopes, she'll be dual majoring in women and gender studies and organizational leadership.

Her dream would be to run an LGBTQ youth center, where she can offer other kids the resources she never had.

As she neared the parade route Saturday, and saw crowds of young old, black, white people who look like her and people who don't, she said the words she never thought she'd say: "Is it really cool to be gay? Is it cool to be LGBTQ?"

And then she smiled, beaming with the word emblazoned on her shirt: PRIDE.

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