Sarasota Pride stays the course in the face of tragedy

By : Greg Stemm
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The shock waves that continue to ripple through the LGBTQ community in the aftermath of the tragic shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12 have had a profound effect on Sarasota Pride. In fact, according to Cindy Barnes, who has served as the head of Sarasota Pride for nine years, the event wouldn’t even be happening at all this year if Pulse hadn’t taken place. Sarasota Pride is scheduled from 12 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, October 15 at J.D. Hamel Park.

“The board of directors had already made the decision that Sarasota Pride in its current form would be suspended this year, and we would focus on producing four smaller events throughout the year,” Barnes says. “Actually I was on vacation out of state when I heard what had happened in Orlando. I felt right away that there was no way we could not have a full Pride celebration in light of what had happened. I got on the phone right away with board members and, with a full court push, we were able to obtain vendors and entertainers at the last minute and to move ahead with producing the event. But if Pulse had never happened, things would be a lot different with Sarasota Pride than they are now.”

In fact, Barnes herself had announced her retirement from her leadership role. She had not planned on producing the 2016 edition. But Pulse changed everything for her personally as well, and she felt there was no way she could quit this year. She says that it may be as late as June of next year before she decides her future plans from here. Barnes is hopeful that someone else will step up to take her place.

Clearing the air

One rumor Barnes would like to put to rest is that she and Eddie Sotomayor, a Sarasota resident and prominent employee of gay-owned Al and Chuck’s Travel who was killed at Pulse, had a planned lunch before Pride that might have persuaded her to stay on. Barnes says she was an acquaintance of Sotomayor’s and she had known him as a student at Booker High School. She often used the travel agency and had some regular dealings with him because of that, but although she had a lot of respect for Sotomayor and liked his vivacious personality, Barnes wouldn’t say they were close friends.

Several tributes to the victims of Pulse are planned. Barnes says that the group is trying to obtain the plaques that featured the names of those lost that appeared in the 2016 St. Pete Pride night parade. If they can’t get those, the group is prepared to create similar ones from scratch.

In addition, students from Booker High School, an area theatre and arts magnet school where Sotomayor attended and graduated, will read the names of the victims and the chorus will perform a tribute number. Barnes noted the event plans to have plenty of “We Are Orlando” T-shirts available and even a few top hats, which were a favorite of Sotomayor’s.

Barnes says the Pulse tragedy has drawn a lot of local attention to this year’s Pride Fest. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune doubled their participation and will provide media coverage. So far, Sarasota Pride is completely full with major sponsors and will feature about 40 vendors and live entertainment all day from recognized local bands, many of which she says come from St. Petersburg.

“Of all the years, this is not the year to give this up,” Barnes says. “I did have some people say that maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t need Pride anymore, because we have marriage equality and other LGBT rights. It didn’t take us long to find out we’ve taken a number of steps back. So we have to be vigilant and keep going.”

Justified and ancient

Despite some common misconceptions that it began later in the 1980s, according to Misty Smeltzer, an early organizer, Sarasota Pride actually began in 1983 as a project of the Church of the Trinity MCC Church is Sarasota. Smeltzer believes this makes it the region’s oldest continuously running Pride event. For comparison, St. Pete Pride, now the state’s largest LGBTQ celebration, began in 2003 and will be marking 15 years at the upcoming festival in 2017.

The event has gone through a number of changes over the years, and while there have been enormously successful celebrations, things haven’t always been rosy.

According to Smeltzer, the event grew throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the late 1980s it featured a men’s dance party and a non-alcoholic event.

She notes the event was moved to Robart’s Arena in 2000, where it featured about 15 tables with various organizations and sponsors represented. The event sold hot dogs at an outdoor booth. It was after the 2000 event that the Southwest Business Guild took over production of the celebration. Smeltzer says she came onboard first to sell sponsorships in the late 1990s and then as the first female co-chair in 2001 with the Rev. Jim Merritt, who was originally a Baptist minister and eventually became ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).

By 2004, the celebration had grown to a point that it could eventually hire Smeltzer as a paid executive director. She laughs because she thinks some people think she was paid an exorbitant amount of money for the role, when the reality was that the compensation was a very modest monthly stipend. Smeltzer now serves as the president of the Sarasota Democratic Caucus.

The 2004 celebration is perhaps the high point of the event throughout its long history.

“That year we had about 120 vendors inside at Robart’s, plus a march and an outdoor rally,” Smeltzer says. “We also had a professional show producer who donated his time and helped us put on a circus-themed entertainment production complete with jugglers and aerialists.” It also featured a “Mums and Queens” Mother’s Day brunch and a VIP lounge. Professional entertainer Martha Walsh provided a headliner concert. Smeltzer estimates about 3,000 people attended.

She says she thinks the event was so successful that year because there was a great board of directors made up of both sexes and containing both community and business leaders. She thinks community participation hit a high point then too. “In 2004 we had a fabulous board made up of community leaders of all ages and we had about 20 active committees working with lots of committed volunteers.”

The event was successful financially too and she notes when she stepped down as director in 2005 the organizer had about $26,000 in the bank.

That’s where the event began to have problems. Smeltzer says production of the event fell into the hands of what she characterizes as a “couple of unsavory characters.” She says the two gentlemen who took over squandered the money on lavish suites at Gay Days and travel to the international annual gathering of global pride celebrations at InterPride. By 2006, the money was gone and the reputation of Sarasota Pride became tarnished. Smeltzer says the event had degenerated so much that the 2006 event “had the feel of a male strip club and was not representative of our community. As a result participation and attendance plummeted.”

In fact the crisis became so deep that there was no event at all in 2007. “There was no money, no leadership and no support because of the mismanagement that had occurred,” says Smeltzer. She notes new leadership appeared when Karen Murrey-Parker became involved as the new co-chair for an entirely revamped organization and celebration in 2008. The event stayed at Robart’s Arena until a move to the Van Wetzel in 2009.

Barnes has been involved with Sarasota Pride since 2006, but became the chairman in 2010 and moved the festival to October – and out of an indoor arena into J.D. Hamel Park at a busy intersection that affords a lot of visibility to the event and in her opinion of the local LGBTQ community.

“We took it to the streets of Sarasota and got out of the venue where we were kind of hidden from the general community,” Barnes says.

“Now we have the same park, and we have pretty much the same layout every year so it’s become easier to produce,” Barnes says. “It does continue to get bigger, and at some point in time when we outgrow that park, somebody is going to have to make the decision to take it somewhere else, but you can’t beat the eyes from 220,000 cars driving through that intersection every day, so right now it’s the best visibility in Sarasota.”

There are still some lingering issues facing the organization. Some critics have said that it is dominated by female leadership and that the entire board is made up of mature lesbians with no male representation at all.

“If the guys are upset they aren’t represented, they should step up and volunteer to be part of the organization and the event planning,” Barnes says. “There has been no conscious effort on my part or the board’s part to exclude male participation – in fact we would welcome it – but in the past couple of years it just hasn’t been there.”

Out loud and proud

Irene Plank is a 51-year-old married volunteer with two young children. While she has been a volunteer with Sarasota Pride for nine years, last year’s event was particularly meaningful as she and her new wife had just been married a few days before and celebrated part of their honeymoon checking IDs and selling drink tickets at the 2015 event.

Planks says she began as a volunteer about nine years ago and her first duties were trash pick-up, emptying garbage cans and keeping the event clean. Later she says she was “promoted” to checking IDs and selling drink coupons. She laughs when remembering that she and her wife spent part of their honeymoon last year working together as volunteers at the event, but that the two of them treasure those memories.

Plank says it has been a real pleasure to work together with Cindy Barnes, who she says has “remarkable energy and talent that she puts to great use in producing Pride.” She says her favorite part of volunteering is meeting all the wonderful attendees at Pride.

“Everyone is so nice and it’s fun to see the wide range of people who come out to support the event,” she says.

So what does Plank say to those who think that the days of Pride celebrations are over and there is no need for an event in Sarasota or anywhere now that we have achieve marriage equality and so many other civil rights for which our community has strived for decades?

“One of the main reasons I think it’s important that we have a Pride celebration in Sarasota is because we have such a wonderfully accepting and tolerant community,” Plank says. “We need to have Pride celebrations in places like Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Orlando, so we can show people who live in less gay-friendly locations what it can be like to live in a place where we are so accepted. I think we have a responsibility to lead by example, and perhaps folks who do live in more repressive areas will get ideas on how to transform their own communities.”

For more information on Sarasota Pride visit SarsotaPride.org.

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