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Gay celebration feels at home

Organizers say they received a warm welcome last year, and expect this year's event to draw as many as 20,000 people.

TOM ZUCCO
Published June 24, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Lou Bader remembers when gay activists tried to organize Pride festivals at Coquina Key Park in the early 1990s. "Maybe 10 or 15 people would show up," said Bader, a retired St. Petersburg jeweler.

The location has changed since then.

And so have the attendance figures.

An estimated 10,000 people took part in last year's first St. Pete Pride parade and festival along Central Avenue, and organizers say they expect nearly twice as many when the event returns Saturday.

And that, say members of the gay community and some local officials, is the sign of a city coming of age.

The festival celebrates the many thousands of gay men and women who live in the Tampa Bay area and also commemorates the Stonewall incident of June 27, 1969, when a large group of patrons resisted arrest at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. Until then, raids on nightclubs catering to homosexuals were common in cities throughout the country.

"What we're seeing is a mirror of what's happening across the rest of the country," said Greg Stemm, who is is president of Marketing and Communications Systems, executive director of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce and a member of St. Pete Pride's board of directors. "We're seeing more and more acceptance from mainstream America.

"In 35 years we've gone from being diagnosed as mentally ill to being on the cusp of being able to get married. That's remarkable progress in three decades."

Tampa had been the center of Pride events for nearly 20 years. But the festival encountered financial difficulties and ended in 2002. "That left St. Petersburg open to continue what Tampa had started," Stemm said. "The city has always had at least a foundation for open-mindedness and tolerance."

There were times, however, when that foundation was difficult to find.

"When I came here, it was strictly entertaining at home if you were gay," said Bader, who moved to St. Petersburg from Denver in 1975. "We didn't dare go out and show our face.

"There used to be a bar on Beach Drive called the Sherwood. People went in through the back door because these were lawyers, doctors, all sorts of professional people.

"You just wouldn't disclose you were gay. Only in the past eight or 10 years have things really started to change. We started to get into the Old Southeast and buying old homes and turning them into masterpiece homes. And into Kenwood, Rosier Park, the Old Northeast.

"And we have gay churches, gay men's and women's choruses, so many organizations.

"You may even find openly gay people running for City Council some day."

Bader said south Pinellas County's reputation as a gay-friendly community is not going unnoticed.

"People were getting fed up with Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which are still gay meccas, and brought a migration to the west coast," he said.

Another factor that made St. Petersburg attractive to gays and lesbians was the city's stance on discrimination.

By a 6-2 vote, the St. Petersburg City Council in 2002 added sexual orientation to the city's Human Rights Ordinance. The measure protects gays, lesbians and bisexuals from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. Mayor Rick Baker opposed the addition, but did not veto the change.

Baker said Wednesday he does not plan to attend Saturday's parade, and that there are many residents who oppose the festival.

"Personally, I don't support the general agenda of the Pride event," Baker said. "This is a Pride event, not a city event.

"And there are mixed feelings in the community. I've gotten petitions signed by hundreds of people who oppose the festival. But they (Pride organizers) have a legal right to stage it."

City Council member Richard Kriseman has also heard from members of the community who don't approve of the festival. But he and his wife attended several Pride events earlier in the week, and he will set up a booth for his law practice along the parade route.

"It's a matter of being exposed to something you haven't been exposed to before," Kriseman said. "Many times, an initial response is based on things you've heard and are not accurate.

"I get that being the only Jewish member of council. I have received letters, some of them threatening.

"You don't have to agree with someone. But you can be accepting. That's all most people want. That's all the gay community is looking for."

That's all Carol Sciannameo was looking for in 1997.

Manhattan was melting that last Saturday in June. The 90-degree heat was bouncing off Fifth Avenue in waves as New York's annual Gay Pride parade got under way.

Sciannameo, a lieutenant with the New York City Police Department, was wearing her full dress uniform. Wool blazer and pants, long-sleeve shirt, white gloves and patent leather shoes.

Gay and lesbian NYPD members had been allowed to march in the parade in previous years, but never in uniform. But by 1997, the city had passed a human rights ordinance, paving the way for Sciannameo and other gay members of the police force to remove all doubt about what they did for a living.

"It was so hot the bottom of my feet got burned," Sciannameo said. "But it was worth it because we were allowed to wear our uniforms. It was a huge honor."

It also meant the NYPD marching band, which regularly performed at other police functions, could accompany the marchers.

"The most poignant moment was when the band turned to us and played We Are Family," Sciannameo said. "I cried the whole way because gay officers were spit upon and had obscenities shouted at them by other officers when they first started marching in the early 1980s. And now we were being received by our fellow officers.

"It still brings tears to my eyes."

Sciannameo retired from the force in 2000 and moved to Gulfport, where she runs a private investigation firm. She's also an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College and a member of the Gay Officers Action League.

And along Central Avenue on Saturday, she'll be working as St. Pete Pride's safety coordinator.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Second annual St. Pete Pride festival. The event includes a parade, booths, exhibits, food vendors and music on two stages. Admission is free.

WHERE: Grand Central Business District, St. Petersburg, along Central Avenue, between 24th Street and 27th Street.

WHEN: The street festival is 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. The parade begins at 10:30 a.m. at Third Avenue N and 31st Street and ends at Central Avenue and 27th Street.

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