Are we the new San Francisco?

By : Greg Stemm
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GregStemmHeadshotThe first time I ever heard St. Petersburg described as the “San Francisco of the East” was on an episode of Queer As Folk a few years ago.

One character considered a vacation to Florida and another one asked him where he was going. When he responded “St. Petersburg.” the other character said something like “You should have fun, I’ve heard that city is so gay it’s becoming the San Francisco of the East.”

I admit I did a double take when I heard that. At the time it seemed to me that was a bit of a stretch, but recently I wonder if it wasn’t accurate after all.

When I moved to the Tampa Bay area from Ohio in the summer of 1983, St. Petersburg was busy living up to its reputation as the “land of the newlywed and nearly dead.” Gay life was, well, there really wasn’t much in the way of gay life at all except for a couple of dingy bars. In fact one, the Engine Room on Fourth Street South, had a dirt floor. If you wanted anything even remotely connected to being gay you pretty much had to make the trek across the old Howard Franklin Bridge to Tampa.

The city Gulfport was a rundown little fishing village that didn’t have much to offer except to the bikers who frequented the rough bars along the dilapidated waterfront.

At that time pretty much everyone thought that the future of the LGBT community would be focused on our bigger compatriot Tampa. After all wasn’t it always the big city that attracted gay people? And a big city would be the one that would put on a regional pride celebration, or lead the way in legislation that would help put an end to discrimination, right?

Since that episode of QAF, things have gotten a whole lot nicer and a whole lot “gayer” in Pinellas County and surprisingly, Hillsborough turned into a huge disappointment.

Several factors have transformed St. Petersburg/Gulfport into a growing gay Mecca: Our political activism, our commitment to restoring and rebuilding neighborhoods or whole communities, our Pride celebration, the gay resorts, international recognition, and a strong commitment from both cities to the arts and education.

To see how far we have come, let’s look at the current race for St. Petersburg city council seats. There are two openly gay candidates in contention, which would have been first page news in 1983. Plus, if both candidates win, they will join Steve Kornell, who is already serving as an openly gay council member. That would make three of the nine seats held by “family” members.

That’s more than San Francisco, where only two of the 11 member Board of Supervisor seats are held by openly gay representatives.

As an additional aside, if Amy Foster is elected, we will have the current co-chair of St. Pete Pride sitting in a position of power in city government. That should be even more interesting if current mayor Bill Foster is re-elected. Will he continue to maintain his ridiculous argument for not participating in Pride with the co-chair sitting right next to him? St. Petersburg’s transformation won’t be complete until we have a mayor who rides in the Promenade.

At this year’s Pride, I met a man from New Orleans. He had come from the Big Easy specifically for our event. I knew we had captured the attention of Floridians, but to attract someone from the home of Southern Decadence is quite a compliment.

He stayed at the Flamingo Resort. That hotel, and earlier the Suncoast Resort, had huge impacts on transforming St. Petersburg into a growing gay destination for visitors. But many don’t know that the city has a history with gay tourism going back 40 years. Way back in the 1970s, the Wedgewood Resort attracted all sorts of visitors and was an architectural treasure with Greco-Roman statues and fountains on its garden grounds.

Since the women of our community discovered it and transformed Gulfport into an artist community, it has taken the lead in passing LGBT-friendly legislation. It was the first to pass a human rights ordinance (still the most comprehensive in the state) and first in the county to pass a domestic partner registry. St. Petersburg followed and the laws went countywide shortly thereafter.

There’s no question San Francisco remains the heart and soul of our community. It is a beautiful city, and while the fog is romantic, it’s a bit chilly and damp for my tropical tastes. Give me our beaches and sunshine any day.

I’m not suggesting it’s a competition, but when you look at how St. Petersburg/Gulfport has changed over the last three decades, it’s easy to see how we could be seen by outsiders as a “San Francisco of the East.”

St. Petersburg’s “nearly dead” days are gone, but if Florida ever gets its act together with marriage equality, the “newlyweds” may be back even stronger in a brand new way!

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