Amid worries about LGBTQ rights, many Pride parades will march on in Florida this year

Pride event organizers are forging ahead with this year’s celebrations across Florida. And they’re hoping to draw larger crowds than last year, when some celebrations were canceled due to the state’s political climate.

Among the hurdles that organizers say they’re now facing: It has become more challenging to secure sponsors.

Not all companies want their names connected to Pride events “because of economic concerns but also political concerns,” said Patrick Gevas, spokesman for Miami Beach Pride, which will start its week of events April 5. “Sponsors are worried about spending going into an election.”

The Stonewall Parade & Street Festival, one of South Florida’s largest pride celebrations, will take place on Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors on June 15. Finding sponsors has risen as a primary concern, said Jeffrey Sterling, CEO of Stonewall Pride Inc. “It’s a No. 1 topic,” Sterling said.

He said he hopes to pick up new sponsorships after losing some business support last year. To ensure it succeeds, the city of Wilton Manors also is considering kicking in some financial help.

LGBTQ advocates decried many Florida bills last year as a “slate of hate,” ranging from keeping children out of drag shows, to pronouns in schools, to transgender treatments for minors. And additional initiatives are being advanced this year. One bill would ban teachers and other government employees from displaying a rainbow flag. There’s also the recent state effort to ban gender changes on driver’s licenses.

“Overall with the political climate, the LGBTQ community still feels under attack by the governor,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “The atmosphere has not overall changed, but there is a renewed sense of determination for a lot of people in the LBGBTQ community to show up and support the parade marchers.

“They have to, right? To show they are visible, real people, not a threat and they don’t need all these bills … that curtail their rights.”

Robert Kesten, the executive director of the Stonewall National, Museum, Archives, & Library in Fort Lauderdale, said he expects more participation in 2024 because “people are more comfortable this year than last year.”

“The pushback by the courts on things like drag queens” has made people feel empowered, he said. “So I think people are starting to feel a lot more confident that the government is being put back in its place to serve the people and not run the people.”

“I think people will have the confidence that the community is on the right side of history, and those who were trying to push people back into closets really are getting pushed back from the at-large community.”

Many Pride events are scheduled this year:

Miami Beach Pride will start its week of events April 5, with the festival April 13-14. The drag pageant will remain after-hours, behind closed doors, only open for ages 21 and older. Organizers are “continuing be mindful of the legislative landscape,” Gevas said.
Palm Beach Pride will take place at Bryant Park in Lake Worth Beach on March 23 and 24.
Tampa Pride in 2023 canceled its ‘Pride on the River’ event, but it will be back in March this year.
Key West Pride will go on as scheduled June 9. The event is a family-friendly parade, so there’s no concern about running afoul of any law, said Rob Dougherty, executive director of the Key West Business Guild.

Even though some Pride events were canceled last year, other organizers last year presented their events, but with new rules meant to comply with new legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in May.

A legal battle

The new law, labeled by its sponsors as the “Protection of Children Act,” prohibited any person from knowingly admitting a minor to an adult performance. It also authorized the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to fine, suspend, or revoke the operating or alcohol licenses of hotels or restaurants if they admit a child into an adult performance such as a drag show.

While the law did not specifically mention drag shows, it came as the state cracked down on venues in South Florida and Central Florida where children attended drag shows. The legislation also was passed amid a wave of bills in Florida and other Republican-led states targeting LGBTQ-related issues.

In response to a lawsuit filed by an Orlando restaurant, U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell issued a preliminary injunction against the new law, concluding that it violated First Amendment rights.

The state is currently appealing that decision before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from DeSantis’ administration that would have allowed enforcement of the law during the legal battle.

Making changes

Because of the new law last year, organizers for the Stonewall Parade made several changes toward establishing a family-friendly atmosphere. That included a push for good conduct, a new dress code, and demanding no vulgar language.

There was some hesitation to proceed with the event at the time: As Sterling described it last year, the state law was gray on purpose, so “no matter what we do, they can find wrong. That’s what we fear.”

But the Stonewall Parade & Street Festival has been too vital to consider canceling, he said. For years, it has been a staple for Wilton Manors, known as the unofficial capital of the LGBTQ community in South Florida. The city’s first Stonewall festival was held in 1999 and has run every year, except in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Last year’s event ended up drawing tens of thousands of eventgoers, and was deemed a success.

The crowds showed up even though there was some heavy rain that day. But the weather still presented a setback of the unexpected kind: A large number of eventgoers got past the gates without paying to enter, Sterling said.

“We don’t always catch that,” Sterling said. “We’re not overly effective” stopping the uncaptured door revenue.

Because of the rain, the organizers “didn’t bring in the money they thought they would,” said Wilton Manors Mayor Scott Newton.

It has left some financial hurdles. The festival organizer still owes the Broward Sheriff’s Office an outstanding balance of $33,396, and also another $8,000 to the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department.

The city of Wilton Manors is willing to help. The City Commission is expected to vote in February whether to approve a $50,000 sponsorship to help pay for last year’s overdue security and public safety bills. Any funds that remain from the city’s support will be applied toward the 2024 bills.

The June 15 festival and all-day entertainment starts at 3 p.m. and the parade is at 7 p.m. The event ends at 11 p.m.

Sterling said he hopes the city becomes an official sponsor, with the potential for contributing $50,000 each year. “It’s an opportunity for our inclusive city to make a public statement and lead by example,” he said. “We need a leader to stand up and say this is important.”

Mayor Newton added, “No matter what happens, we’re going to make sure Stonewall is part of the fabric of Wilton Manors. One way or the other, it will continue to go on.”

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on X, formerly Twitter, @LisaHuriash

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