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St. Pete Pride participants celebrate, look to future

BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT
Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: June 29, 2013 at 06:06 PM

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ST. PETERSBURG - As rain poured down, a procession of people marched beneath a rainbow flag that appeared to stretch for more than a block at the end of Saturday's St. Pete Pride parade.

Some braved the soggy morning just to enjoy the colorful show of bright gowns and costumes, dancing and drag that characterize Florida's largest gay pride event each year.

For many of the revelers, though, this year was different.

Volunteers were stationed on every street corner along a stretch of Central Avenue, signing up people to lobby for domestic partner benefits in Hillsborough County and for legalizing same-sex marriage throughout Florida.

A stream of elected officials and political candidates led by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn marched in the parade, tossing multicolored beads to spectators in a show of solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened a door this week for same-sex marriage, now legal in 13 states, and many at Saturday's parade already had their sights on making sure those same rights are extended to Florida and throughout the nation.

"My feeling is that this is just as important as when the slaves were freed, women got to vote, the first man walked on the moon and the first black president ever was elected to this country. This is historic. This is incredible," said Brian Ford, who has lived in St. Petersburg with his partner for 16 years.

"It needs to happen everywhere."

Ford and others at Saturday's festival in St. Petersburg's Grand Central District were conscious of how much their community and country has changed in the 11 years since St. Pete Pride began.

The military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy has been repealed.

Pinellas County, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Gulfport have adopted domestic partner registries affording benefits to same-sex couples.

Openly gay city council members have been elected on both sides of Tampa Bay, and Hillsborough County recently overturned an eight-year-old ban on sponsoring gay pride events.

This was the first year the St. Petersburg mayor and entire city council signed a proclamation recognizing St. Pete Pride.

While St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster didn't participate, Tampa's mayor received loud applause and cheers as he walked along the parade route Saturday morning followed by a dozen other local and state political figures.

Attendance at the parade itself is a testament to the rising profile of the LGBT community here, growing from some 25,000 in its first year to the 125,000 expected Saturday.

On the other hand, more than 60 percent of Florida residents voted in 2008 to ban gay marriage by referendum, Hillsborough County voted against a domestic partner registry and the Supreme Court's decisions this week, though symbolically powerful, have limited practical effect on gay couples in Florida.

The court ruled Wednesday that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to deny recognition to same-sex couples, but most states still don't legally recognize these relationships.

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Ford says he and his partner own a home and have children, "yet we're not recognized as anything but him and me; we're roommates."

Susan McGrath, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County, says there is evidence the tide is turning in Florida in favor of gay marriage.

As the grand marshal of the parade, she said Saturday was a day for celebration. But her eyes are on the next political challenge.

"Oftentimes it seems like we just finished celebrating one victory and we have another one to look forward to," McGrath said.

McGrath's group works to elect officials to local and state office who support LGBT rights, like Pinellas County Commissioners Ken Welch, Janet Long and Charlie Justice.

Some who weren't initially supportive, like State Rep. Darryl Rouson, have come around, she said. Rouson, a Democrat whose district encompasses several Tampa Bay area counties, rode in the parade.

National advocates for same-sex marriage such as the Human Rights Campaign have vowed to launch a series of ballot campaigns in individual states with a goal of getting all 50 to recognize gay marriage in the next five years.

Equality Florida last week launched a campaign to raise money and support to overturn Florida's Amendment 2, which bans gay marriage.

"Everybody is feeling great about these decisions. We can feel it in the air, for sure," said Jessica Osborn, outreach coordinator for Equality Florida.

"We're definitely taking advantage of everyone's excitement."

A popular political strategy is getting same-sex marriage legalized in a critical mass of states and then using that groundswell of public support as the basis for bringing another case before the Supreme Court.

Gay marriage opponents like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio argue the definition of marriage should be left up to individual states to decide rather than the courts.

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Few opponents appeared at St. Pete Pride Saturday, despite last week's court rulings, save for a handful of Christian evangelists.

Tampa evangelist Shane Brown said as the definition of marriage begins to change legally, it becomes harder to convince people to believe in traditional ideas of marriage on a personal level.

"It makes it hard for a believer because the laws are shifting in America where we were founded on Judeo-Christian principles, the man and the woman," said Brown, of the group Evangelism 101.

Other religious groups including Catholics, Lutherans, Unitarian Universalists and Buddhists came out in support of the pride event.

Some pride attendees seemed to come just for the festive atmosphere: drag queens waving from vintage cars, scantily clad men and women dancing on street corners and rooftops, and parties in nearly every bar and restaurant in the Grand Central District from 20th Street to 31st Street.

Jennifer Jones came up to volunteer at this year's pride from Wilton Manors on Florida's East Coast. She was unaware of the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions this week on same-sex marriage.

"I don't follow the news, to be honest with you," Jones said.

She was just happy to be out enjoying the state's biggest gay pride festival.

"People are still sticking out with the weather to celebrate pride," she said. "It's a great thing."

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

727-215-1277

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