Come Out With Pride rises to the challenge of healing a community still in a haze of grief

By : Billy Manes
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“In the beginning, everybody was kind of in shock,” Come Out With Pride board secretary and auction chair Deb Ofsowitz says. “It was hard to even talk about it.”

Osfowitz, of course, is referring to the June 12 Pulse massacre that resonated throughout the world; those few minutes of artillery fire that led to the deaths of 49 people and the injuries of 53 more at Pulse Orlando after a Saturday night, before the dawn of Sunday. The board convened immediately, she says, everybody soon after scattering into various public relations poses as public people often do in the face of tragedy.

While tragedies are not relatable or even comparable to each other, the mass shooting at Pulse is widely reported to be the worst single gun massacre and hate crime in American history. Emotionally, the outpouring of global condolences in rainbow colors magnified the purpose of Come Out With Pride.

“When we came together for our first meeting afterwards, we immediately started talking about how this was going to affect the celebration for October,” Ofsowitz says. “We weren’t sure how we were going to have a celebration. Because I didn’t lose anybody, I got up and I gathered my strength. We marched in the St. Pete Pride Parade. I really kind of sucked it up and did my job.”

And then it was a scramble, which in some ways it still is. The whole narrative of Come Out With Pride had to be shifted, and shifted quickly. Just one year ago, people were dancing in the streets at the news of marriage equality for the nation. Questions lingered in the air about where the LGBTQ+ movement would move next with its political and activism priorities.

There were also cocked brows about the Come Out With Pride organization fueling the gossip mill. In 2014, Mikael Audebert walked away from leading the board in a cloud of controversy. Finances were sifted through with fine-toothed combs; late nights of Robert’s Rules of Order at board meetings endured; fences that were slanted needed to be mended.

On Oct. 8, Come Out With Pride will return, bigger and better than ever. The parade route now consumes all of downtown. With the national spotlight on Orlando and the massacre, the business world is watching.

“We have a lot of national corporations that are participating in the parade in ways that they haven’t done before,” Ofsowitz says. Volunteers, LGBTQ+ allies and members of the community have followed suit.

Come Out With Pride is not going to be overtly political or somber – a subject which has drawn some arched brows in the community – but is going to attempt the almost impossible task of healing a community; one that, when faced with the horror of what happened just one day before, turned out by the thousands for a vigil at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando on June 13.

“We do not want the parade to be a two-mile memorial,” Ofsowitz says. It is, instead, going to be a celebration of the community that came together under the worst possible circumstances.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

So, how does a volunteer board even approach the task of being tasteful in the face of grief and a fairly impossible timeline buried beneath a pile of corporate contracts?

“That was an early discussion we were having,” says Come Out With Pride director of marketing and communications Jeff Prystajko. “We looked at last year, when we were celebrating marriage equality. We went into this year imagining it was going to be a continuation of that. And then we went through June 12, and everything was thrown out the window.”

The board banded together to make the event come together as a means of congratulating Orlando on its resilience. Its message, healing; its task, enormous. But, as in recent years, corporate forces were also there to help carry the message.

“Almost immediately after the Pulse tragedy my inbox was flooded with different corporations and organizations wanting to help in any way they could,” Come Out With Pride sponsorship director Matt Riha says in an email. “Many were pleased to learn that Come Out With Pride gives back to the community through our Pride Gives Back grant and scholarship program. Many of our first time sponsors have showed interest in continued support for the coming years.”

Last year’s pride event gifted $1000 scholarships to three students, including former Watermark intern Adam Manno.

But Come Out With Pride remains an expensive event to pull off while remaining in the black, especially when the route and concourses are expanded. The numbers grow, as do the bits and pieces that nobody realizes make up an event.

“There is always an increase in costs as the event has continued to grow year after year,” board president Brian Riha says. “We quickly realized this year’s event would be very different and require us to incur additional expenses to accommodate the anticipated increase in attendance.”

“Unless you’ve been a part of a planning team for a large-scale event like ours, you really cannot grasp the expenses to produce this annually, such as Lake Eola Park rental, road closures, barricades, safety and logistical execution, to name a few,” he adds. “Being that we are an all-volunteer board and production team, we’ve found it challenging to juggle full-time jobs while fully executing a festival of this caliber. However, we are all incredibly passionate individuals who are dedicated to our mission, our LGBTQ+ community and the city of Orlando.”

Estimates of last year’s attendance reached up to nearly 150,000. This year, after Pulse, the numbers are expected to jump above 200,000. In order to accommodate the mass of people descending upon downtown, the route was expanded, something Brian Riha says is an exciting addition to the festivities.

“Our parade has been growing in both contingent participation and spectators for several years now. I remember last year when our board and production team float finished the parade route, there were still parade floats lined up to start their parade experience,” Brian Riha says. “So if we kept the same route this year, we would be catching our tails twice over. The expanded route this year provides larger spectator viewing opportunities, specifically along Robinson, where we used to stage the floats.”

“This main viewing area will have Grand Stands for viewing along with many other prime locations to view the most colorful parade,” he adds. “We are very excited about this new route.

Grand Stand seating is available as part of a VIP experience package costing just above $100 per person. A group of celebrity chefs will also be on hand to serve up tasty morsels and parade-friendly bits for the inaugural Taste of Pride event ($150 per person). All proceeds are to benefit the Pride Gives Back grant and scholarship programs.

As it stands, a number of celebrities have reached out to attend. Michelle Clunie (Queer as Folk, Teen Wolf, The Usual Suspects), Peter Paige (Queer as Folk, creator: The Fosters), Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris (Fun Home, The Good Wife, Fringe), Matteo Lane (Nightly Show, Late Night with Seth Meyers), Sabrina Jalees (writer: NBC’s Crowded; Transparent, After Ellen; Tedx), Eli Lieb (singer/songwriter) & Brandon Skeie (singer/songwriter), RJ Aguiar& Will Shepherd (YouTube celebrity vloggers “Shep689”), have all confirmed, according the press release. More are expected.

“Come Out With Pride has approached and been approached by a multitude of celebrities, and their representatives,” board member and director of entertainment J.D. Casto says. “We think that this year’s Pride will be the best event Orlando has seen, and because of the overwhelming influx of celebrity interest and involvement, we are already setting the stage for even more celebrity involvement in future Prides.”

The evening will end with a tribute to the 102 victims of the Pulse tragedy – 49 dead, 53 wounded – and their families. The names will be spoken, a moment of silence will be taken and numerous Broadway stars will reprise their rendition of “What the World Needs Now.” Love. Sweet love.

And then there will be fireworks.

MOVING ON

With “healing” running as a central theme to this year’s Come Out With Pride, questions still remain. The board is making an attempt at tamping down controversy, clearly asking vendors in an email to not be too political.

“We basically have said, ‘We can’t stop you from doing a tribute,’” Ofsowitz says. “There already is going to be a parade of solemnity. We also need to honor the fact that this is a community that is healing and, together, needs to move forward.”

Some aren’t as secure as others on the moving forward process, however. This writer received a message asking if she, her wife and her child would be safe at the event. Were there any assurances?

“We know the community is concerned about security,” Orlando Police Department spokeswoman Sargeant Wanda Miglio says in an email.

“The Orlando Police Department wants to ensure all of our residents and visitors that their safety is our number one priority and we have taken steps to ensure that safety with increased presence throughout the city and at special events.

“It’s important to note that our security measures are both visible and not visible. So aside from squad cars or officers in uniform or on bicycles or horses, there will be other resources out there that are less identifiable.”

“And most importantly, we would ask people to remember, ‘If you see something, say something, and we will do something,’” Miglio adds. “Call 911 to report any suspicious activity.”

Likely, there won’t be. Ofsowitz points out that there was no copycat killings on the back of the Boston Marathon massacre. Generally speaking, lightning doesn’t strike twice. But for the board, with all hands on board, no less, this is going to be a daunting process regardless.

“It’s one of those things,” Ofsowitz says. “Like when somebody dies and they want a party, not a funeral. It’s tough.”

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