St. Pete Pride drew 220,000 people to St. Petersburg for its weekend-long celebration last year, around 40,000 short of the Sunshine City’s entire population.

As any event of its size would, particularly one so intrinsically tied to the community it serves, the organization’s 15th year faced its fair share of cheers and jeers. For the first time in its history, the St. Pete Pride parade was held in downtown St. Petersburg rather than in the city’s Grand Central District.

But love or loathe the move, the weekend further and fabulously cemented the celebration as Florida’s largest LGBTQ Pride—paving the way for this year’s Sweet 16.

From its infancy in the early 2000s, where it began with a crowd of 10,000, transformation was inevitable as St. Pete Pride grew. Like any teenager would, the organization had gone through several changes in recent years, even ahead of the parade move: updating its logo, moving its street festival to Sundays and escaping some of the heat with a nighttime parade.

In May of this year, St. Pete Pride, Inc. also announced it had found its new executive director in Luke Blankenship, who’d served as interim executive director since Aug. 2017. With this year’s St. Pete Pride set for June 22-24, the celebration’s sweet 16th, Blankenship acknowledges St. Pete Pride’s evolution and looks to guide it forward.

“The organization respects everyone’s opinions on what we do with our events,” Blankenship says. “Every year, we’ve had critics on our moves, but we’ve never been in a better position to impact the LGBTQ+ community. It’s always been about being able to impact as many people within our community as possible, not just a specific segment… we are providing a world-class event.”

“Blankenship brings a youthful voice and perspective to St. Pete Pride,” St. Pete Pride, Inc. said in its press release announcing the 24 year old’s new role. “He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication from the University of South Florida. During his undergraduate work he was President of the USF PRIDE Alliance, the third largest student led organization.”

Ahead of that, however, Blankenship was a 15-year-old volunteer at St. Pete Pride. “I was assigned crowd control, so basically I would keep parade-goers from walking into the street during the parade,” he recalls. “I did not do a good job and was screamed at a couple times by the parade director to keep the crowds back from the floats.”

It was his passion for LGBTQ advocacy that led him to seek the role of executive director. In the interim position, he increased corporate sponsorship of the event by 57 percent, something he says is essential with a Pride event as large as St. Pete’s.

“It allows us to keep our registration rates for non-profits and small businesses low,” Blankenship says, noting that some in the LGBTQ community aren’t fans of corporate sponsorship due to histories of discrimination. “These companies and the people who run them, change. To have some of the largest companies in the world accepting in the LGBTQ+ community is incredibly important for the progression of acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community, and like I said before enhances small business and non-profit participation.”

Blankenship also sought to strengthen St. Pete Pride’s relationships with community leaders and members. “I do my best to cater to the entire LGBTQ+ community and provide an impact to as many people as possible,” he says. “Our organization will never be able to please everyone and every business that would like a piece of the economic impact our events provide, but I’ve made it a priority to work with every person that would like to put on an event during Pride Weekend.”

He adds that he feels most community members have come away with a positive outlook on St. Pete Pride, as it’s been his priority to share “kindness, respect and empathy” with everyone he encounters. Blankenship also stresses the importance of those relationships for volunteer work.

“There’s no one more important for our organization,” he says of St. Pete Pride’s volunteers. “The event can go on without me or the board of directors, but it can’t without the amazing people who put on the event.”

St. Pete Pride Board President Scion Crowder echoes their importance, citing city and community involvement as a driving factor in allowing St. Pete Pride to reach its 16th year. “Without these key players, the ability for the event to occur would not be possible,” she says. “Each stakeholder plays a vital role in ensuring there is a need, a want and a way to produce our events.”

Crowder’s first St. Pete Pride was in 2011, prior to her role on the board. She still recalls an overall feeling of love, which she credits for her desire to work behind the scenes. “As an ally, I wanted to become more involved with the community and found that through advocacy efforts, I could use my strengths to tie the two sides of the community together.”

She notes this year’s Sweet 16 is a big year for her personally as well. “This will be my last year serving as board president after four years,” Crowder says. “My husband and I are expecting our first child and are looking forward to raising our child in an environment where he will be loved regardless and have the opportunity to be his true authentic self.”

That’s also possible, in part, because of the city’s inclusive nature. St. Pete Pride enters its 16th year under the latest term of Mayor Rick Kriseman, a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ community and of the event.

When asked about St. Pete Pride’s 16th year, he recalls his “many fond, funny and interesting memories” from years past. “During the 2000s, when I was a council member and when former Mayor Baker refused to recognize Pride Month in St. Pete, I gladly assumed the duty of reading the proclamation from the festival stage,” he says.

“In a playful poke at our then-mayor,” he continues, “I borrowed his catchphrase ‘Today is another great day in St. Petersburg’ and modified it slightly. I announced ‘Today is another gay day in St. Petersburg.’ Everyone seemed to enjoy it. Almost everyone.”

Just ahead of Kriseman’s re-election last year, where with the help of many in the LGBTQ community he defeated Baker, the Human Rights Campaign revealed that the city of St. Petersburg had received its third consecutive perfect score of 100 in the organization’s annual Municipal Equality Index. The score represents how inclusive a city’s laws, policies and services are for the LGBTQ people who live and work there.

It’s that kind of love and acceptance that Jeffrey Rivera, 18, looks forward to from his city and from this year’s event—his first Pride celebration.

Though he’s never been to St. Pete Pride, he sees it as “a union of all types of people from different cultural, ethnic, and gender identities,” one where they can “come together and celebrate and maintain the long withstanding message of taking pride in who you are.”

The recent graduate of Clearwater High School, active in the programming Metro Wellness and Community Centers provides throughout Tampa Bay, says Pride “is an inspirational event in which everyone can participate in and express themselves freely, upholding the democratic and equal ideals that the United States of America was founded on: equality, liberty and justice for all.”

He looks forward to “dressing up flamboyantly, with an array of colors and fashion accessories,” but most of all “being able to bask in the joy of feeling free and unshackled from the clutches of modern day society’s norms of conformity.”

Rivera will have plenty of opportunities, given that a plethora of Pride-related events and activities have already begun throughout Tampa Bay and in St. Petersburg specifically. Pride Weekend alone will see events like the SP2 Concert at North Straub Park hosted by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum and former local Coco Montrese.

“It’s going to showcase a lot of different talent, a lot of St. Pete,” Montrese says of the fundraising event. “That’s what it’s going to be geared towards… making sure that people know that St. Pete has a lot of talent in itself.” The concert will feature local bands and singers including Swipe Right, Rolando and the Spazmatics, with beverage sales benefiting the St. Pete Pride Community Grants program.

“I think that they asked to include me this year because it doesn’t matter if you go away, when you come back home it’s always gonna be an amazing experience,” Montrese says of returning to St. Pete Pride for the milestone year. “It’s always an amazing experience to come back home. They can pick up the phone, call and say we want you to come home and I will come.”

Anjila Cavalier, entertainment director of Tampa’s City Side Lounge and the newly crowned Miss St. Pete Pride 2018, will do the same. Cavalier took the crown May 20 at Quench Lounge, an effort she says was years in the making. “I’ve wanted to enter for the last six years but there’s always been something else that conflicted with the title.”

As a part of her role, Cavalier will be seen throughout and beyond Pride week in various performances, fundraisers and appearances, something she’s looking forward to. She owes much of her career to the city, she says, from the now-defunct Georgie’s Alibi and Broken Tusk to the thriving Flamingo Resort and Quench Lounge.

“I knew getting into the St. Pete family, it’s a working title… and I don’t think a lot of the girls understand that. Everything about St. Petersburg afforded me a lot of opportunities to expand on my brand and put myself out there, so this is my way of giving back,” Cavalier notes. “If you’re going to be the brand and a spokesperson of St. Pete Pride, you can skate through your reign and do what’s asked of you and that’s it, but your reign is your legacy… and what you leave behind is what people are going to remember you by.”

St. Pete Pride understands its own legacy and role in the community, taking special care to honor St. Petersburg’s transgender community with the second annual TransPride March on June 23. “It’s imperative that we decrease discrimination against the transgender community and let them know they are loved,” Blankenship says.

The entire community is invited to celebrate their transgender family at Vinoy Park beginning at 7:00 p.m. Blankenship adds that “our country needs to change, especially on a federal level, toward transgender rights and protections.”

The St. Pete Pride parade’s kick-off will follow at 7:15 p.m. alongside St. Petersburg’s Bayshore Drive “in a dazzling array of sequins, beads, leathers and feathers to celebrate the beauty of diversity,” the organization says. Helping to lead it will be two of its grand marshals, SueZie and Cheryl Hawkes.

The two were married in 2000 as husband and wife, chose to pursue transitioning in 2014 and were selected as grand marshals this year after open nominations and an online community vote.

“Our spare time has been devoted to bringing visibility of love and passion within a transgender relationship,” SueZie says, “aiming to normalize and reduce that old stigma. I guess we were noticed!” She calls being nominated a “wonderful surprise” and an unexpected honor, one that “had never crossed our minds.”

“It’s so humbling,” Cheryl adds. “We are truly excited by the experience and so appreciative of all those who chose to vote for us… we are two people who love one another and look beyond physical appearances to see the beautiful person inside. Life would be so wonderful if everyone could be accepting and allow us all to live life to the fullest.”

St. Pete Pride’s newest board member Richard Brandt joined the organization following the 2016 presidential election to help ensure the community could do just that. “No matter how big the event is, I’m so happy knowing that people across the world have places to go, if even for an afternoon, where they can truly be themselves and feel safe,” he says.

“I realized I could no longer be passive and content with just simply voting and I looked to St. Pete Pride to get more involved,” Brandt continues. “I want to help ensure everyone feels welcome in the city I’m proud to call home… no matter what else is happening around the world.”

June 24 will see that inclusivity move to St. Pete Pride’s traditional home in the Grand Central District for the street festival, after the organization’s board voted in January to keep the annual event in the district rather than also moving it downtown. “Grand Central is where we originated,” Blankenship told Watermark at the time. “We will never forget this part of the community and will continue to foster a relationship along each step of the process.”

The festival, which attracts more than 40,000 people to browse block after block of the area’s best eateries, advocates and entertainment, will begin at 11:00 a.m. “I think it’s more beneficial to Grand Central than a parade at night,” St. Pete Pride’s treasurer Stanley Solomons says. “The stores are all open during the day; people are walking up and down the streets, stopping at restaurants and stopping at the bars.”

While there are still critics of the parade’s move, even on a Sweet 16, St. Pete Pride Secretary Chrys Bundy calls on the community to give downtown a chance. “We learned a lot of lessons our first year in the new location and we’ve worked through the kinks,” he says. “I’m very excited for Pride 2018! It’s going to be amazing.”

As for the board’s president, Crowder adds that “to anyone who still has something to say about the move, attend the event and decide for yourself. If afterwards you don’t see safety has increased, feel how it’s cooler in temperature, notice how much more room patrons have, attend a production board meeting and learn how logistics have become more efficient or review our budget to see how it’s cost efficient.”

She says the move, while still holding the festival in Grand Central, has benefited the organization—allowing it to reach its 16th. “If after all that there is still hesitation,” she notes, “feel free to provide suggestions at our open board meetings.” Meetings are held at the LGBT Welcome Center in St. Petersburg on the third Tuesday of every month at 7:00 p.m.

“St. Pete Pride celebrates all the letters of the LGBT and the rest,” Solomons adds, stressing the importance of doing so in today’s political climate. “I think it’s more important than ever to stand together and support each other. Infighting doesn’t help anybody and it certainly doesn’t help us. I think we have to stand together, show our support for each other and for each member of the community.”

“No one is better or worse than anybody else, we’re all part of the same group of people and we need to celebrate it to keep remembering why we have Pride,” he notes, “or it’s just going to be a big downhill slide. I don’t ever want to see that happen.”

“At St Pete Pride we have the opportunity to celebrate the progress we have made in equality, applauding historical changes that enable everyone to live free,” grand marshal Suzie Hawkes says, “free to live the life they want, and free to love who they choose to love. For some it’s a time for coming out, a time when they gained the courage to be open about the be-YOU-tiful person they are on the inside. A time that, going forward, they are free to live an authentic, fulfilling and productive life.”

“It’s essential to celebrate Pride,” Rivera says ahead of his very first this year, “so that the LGBTQ community has a voice and can be heard, in spite of all the still current hate the LGBTQ community is forced to face.”

For him, the location of the parade isn’t nearly as important as the event’s message. Above all, he says, St. Petersburg’s LGBTQ community must protect that “which Pride has to offer, which is freedom of self-expression and to be your own person, self-lovingly so.”

As one of voices for the event, Coco Montrese aims to make that freedom and love a focal point of St. Pete Pride’s 16th year. “All you have is your voice,” she says. “Our pride is what we carry every day, wherever the location. A Sweet 16 is about evolving, coming into your own and growing. It’s that sweet spot right in the middle where people get a chance to transform.”

“I think St. Pete Pride should take this year and use this time to transform into the next level of where they want to go and what they’re about,” the entertainer adds. “It’s time for the community to wake up, come together and celebrate.”

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