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Whole lotta St. Pete Pride

The gay pride festival attracts tens of thousands, making it the city's largest one-day event.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published June 27, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - Somewhere between those rainbow flags waving proudly down Central Avenue, the sequined-clad men strutting on parade floats, and the evangelical protestor preaching about the fiery pits of hell, the St. Pete Pride celebration has become the city's biggest party.

Organizers are expecting up to 70, 000 people this year, including visitors from around Florida and the country. Nearly 300 vendors have signed on to participate in Saturday's St. Pete Pride festival and corporate sponsors have shown their support by signing over checks for thousands of dollars.

"This is the largest one-day event we have, " Thomas Jackson, city recreation director, said of the St. Pete Pride Promenade and street festival. Opening day at Tropicana Field and the Martin Luther King Jr. parade both draw fewer people, the city says.

"Some events grow faster than others and this one event has really grown tremendously, " Jackson said.

Pride celebrations have been under way all month, leading up to the main event on Saturday, a parade and street festival featuring live music, floats, and parade Grand Marshal Susan Stanton, formerly Largo City Manager Steve Stanton.

Event organizers attribute St. Pete Pride's growing popularity to the celebration's family friendly environment and focus on gay empowerment, as opposed to more raucous behavior that has tainted some pride celebrations nationwide.

"It really is a public display of diversity and tolerance, " said Brian Longstreth, one of the event's co-founders. "It's just a nice street festival that avoids controversy for the most part."

This year also marks the first time the city will financially support the celebration. City Council members awarded $1, 500 to St. Pete Pride, a nonprofit organization, Jackson said.

The city has co-sponsored St. Pete Pride, a formality that allows event organizers to use the city's name, since its sophomore year, but opted against allocating any money toward the festivity, Jackson said.

St. Pete Pride was founded in 2003 by local gay activists, after the Tampa-based PrideFest disbanded because of financial woes. The first festival drew an estimated 10, 000 attendants and 120 vendors.

Corporate interests have caught on to the event's growing prominence. Among this year's sponsors are Washington Mutual, Bank of America and Esurance.

Several sponsors said supporting gay events is not considered controversial in the business world.

"It just simply makes sense as a national company to demonstrate our brand and demonstrate our support of the community, " said Nova Barnett, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based lender Washington Mutual, which gave $10, 000 to St. Pete Pride this year.

Despite St. Pete Pride's corporate links and blossoming popularity, it is unclear if the event's success has translated into good news for local businesses.

Area hotel managers said they have not noticed an increase in visitors.

"There could be people calling and booking individually, but we haven't seen any groups coming here specifically to attend the event, " said Keith Overton, general manager of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, an event sponsor.

But Longstreth, also a former president of the Grand Central District Association, said businesses near the parade route have benefited from exposure to new customers.

St. Pete Pride has not been without controversy. Support from the city has been mixed, and Mayor Rick Baker has said he personally does not support the "general agenda" of the event.

Some opponents even suggested that St. Pete Pride is inflating the estimated turnout to promote the event.

"I think it is just wishful thinking, " said street preacher Larry Keffer of the Biblical Research Center in Tampa, a frequent protestor at the parade. "When you are walking around, it is not that crowded. No way 50, 000 were people there last year."

Stanton, who will be attending the event for the first time and will be St. Pete Pride's first transgender Grand Marshal, admitted to making derogatory statements about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community when she was a man and urged antigay advocates to be more open minded.

"I suffered from the same biases of the many people who still do not want to participate in these events, " she said. "When you find out the basic assumptions you make about a class of people turn out to be wrong, it can be very humbling. That is what these type of events are all about."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

If you go

It isn't all about drag queens on floats and women waving rainbow flags. There are a number of events leading up to Saturday's St. Pete Pride Promenade event.

Tonight is Pride Night at Tropicana Field, where a portion of sales will go to Metropolitan Charities, a St. Petersburg-based HIV and AIDS resource organization.

On Thursday, St. Pete Pride will host A Taste of Pride at The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast from 6 to 9 p.m. Later that evening, there will be a drag and fashion show at Fresco's Waterfront Bistro.

Friday's activities include the Laughter in Paradise Comedy Festival, featuring Last Comic Standing finalist Michele Balan, at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Student Activities Center at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday's lineup starts with the Pride Promenade at 31st Street and Third Avenue N at 10 a.m., followed by a street festival featuring live music, speeches and vendors. The event will wind down at 4 p.m., but die-hards can continue the fun at the official after-party at Grand Central Station bar at 8 p.m.

For information visit www.stpetepride.com.

 

[Last modified June 27, 2007, 00:24:24]


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