St. Pete’s first Pride Festival was a strictly grassroots affair, dreamed up by a group of Grand Central business owners in 2003.
“There had been one in in Tampa in 2002 that kind of imploded,” remembers co-founder Brian Longstreth, a realtor and restauranteur who co-chaired the event for its first five years. “We wanted to make it different from that.
“The idea was to take Pride back to the basics. It was more a march, a little less of a parade, more talking about rights, and being out. And we definitely wanted to make it more accessible. Free to attend, and affordable for vendors.”
This weekend’s 17th annual St. Pete Pride corresponds with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the watershed moment for gay rights in America.
Like the movement – like America itself – growth and change have been constant hallmarks of St. Pete Pride. For one, it’s now the largest LGBTQ Pride celebration in the country south of Atlanta, with approximately 250,000 people expected at one or more of the events over the weekend.
That’s a quarter of a million people; according to a 2016 impact study, half of them are from out of town.
Longstreth says something like 10,000 came to watch and participate in the first parade in 2003.
“One of my favorite memories of that first year was walking through Historic Kenwood, and there’s a straight couple with their two very young children, sitting on the lawn watching the parade,” he says.
“I got the chance to chat with them, and their comment was ‘We’re teaching our children about diversity.’ And I thought, that’s a cool thing. That’s kind of what we were hoping for.”
Until 2017, the parade and market took place in the Grand Central District. The parade – ballooned to 10,000 participants – is now along scenic Bayshore Drive, along the waterfront.
At the front will be the TransPride March, the first of its kind in the country, “to inspire all trans and gender non-conforming people to realize a world where we are safe, loved, and empowered.”
More than 1,400 people have registered to participate in TransMarch. “Transgender pride is usually celebrated on a separate day,” observes Longstreth, “so this inclusive decision was an awesome feat for the community.”
The trans community is “a community that isn’t really spoken about, and is really discriminated against, at a state and a federal level,” says Pride executive director Luke Blankenship, who views the TransPride March as one of the most significant parts of St. Pete Pride. “And we want to provide visibility.”
Visibility, inclusion, humanity, compassion and acceptance have always been the goals of Pride celebrations, along with a particular sense of fun. The big public events – the parade, the festival and concerts in North Straub Park and the Grand Central market – are family-friendly.
That, says Longstreth, was always the goal. To show that we’re all one big community. At the first “town hall” meeting, at the end of 2002, “About 100 people showed up, several wrote checks to get it started and it took off from there,” he recalls. “It really was kind of magical how everybody came together.
“You had some business people that didn’t really get along with other business people. My comment to them was ‘For one day – let’s do this for Pride.’ And everybody did, and I think it helped the community a lot.”
The first market was a block long, he adds, “and we filled it with the Antique Car Club. It had that magical, very down-home feel. Very much in touch with the people.”
It was then-commissioner Rick Kriseman who signed the early proclamations of city support – Mayor Rick Baker declined, and in fact never attended a Pride event during his years in office.
Mayor Kriseman, an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights, will be very visible in Saturday’s parade.
Longstreth, who hasn’t had an active role in Pride planning since 2010, will nevertheless be in attendance. “The thing that I like seeing at St. Pete Pride is the diversity of the crowd,” he says. “There are so many straight allies, families with children … all ages. I always say we’ve got baby carriages to walkers.”
And Blankenship, who began as Interim Director in 2017, is looking forward to doing anything that doesn’t involve a flurry of emails, phone calls and contracts. “My favorite time would be when I can sit and watch the parade with my closest friends and family, and just watch the crowd, and watch the floats go by,” he says. “Watch a year’s work be fulfilled.”
Pride events, he enthuses, “are unique because they draw people from all different walks of life, from all different age groups, nationalities, creeds, religions, everything, in the spirit of diversity and love. And you don’t see that very often.
“And it’s always a very positive attitude, mindset, because you’re there to celebrate being yourself. To love yourself.”
St. Pete Pride 2019 event schedule
June 19 7-10 p.m. Kick-off Party Sierra Resort. Free.
June 20 7-9 p.m. Stonewall St. Pete Pride Reception. The Art of Fashion show, open full bar and light hors d’oeuvres at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts. Tickets range from free to $30.
June 21 2-11 p.m. Saturday Party with live entertainment and more, South and North Straub Park.
June 21 6-10 p.m. SP2 Concert with Lisa Loeb, Devine AF, Jennifer Real at North Straub Park. Free (VIP tickets available). Read the Catalyst interview with Lisa Loeb here.
June 21 TransPride March 6:39-7 p.m. Bayshore Drive
June 21 7:15 p.m. Tech Data St. Pete Pride Parade, Bayshore Drive from 1st Avenue North to North Straub Park.
June 22 11 a.m.-5 p.m. St. Pete Pride Street Festival Grand Central District
For additional details, a citywide events schedule and tickets, click here.