Local leaders, Lisa Loeb strengthen St Pete Pride

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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“Florida’s largest Pride celebration belongs to everyone in St. Petersburg,” St Pete Pride President Chrys Bundy says ahead of the 17th annual St Pete Pride. It’s the result of year-round dedication from LGBTQ community members, advocates and allies.

That was evident with last year’s successful Sweet 16, which welcomed 250,000 attendees over Pride weekend—around 15,000 shy of St. Petersburg’s entire estimated population. It was a feat that longtime LGBTQ ally and Pride supporter St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman welcomes yet again.

“We are excited to commemorate such a significant year for the LGBTQ community,” he says. “We hope parade attendees will enjoy each of our welcoming downtown districts, as well as that of the Grand Central District on Sunday for the street festival. I am so proud to welcome all to the great city of St. Petersburg, where the sun shines on all who live, work and play.”

A record 750 participants kicked off last year’s parade with the ever-expanding TransPride March, followed by 170 parade entries flanked by 7,500 more participants. Nearly 250 festival vendors closed out the weekend.

St Pete Pride subsequently announced new leadership in November 2018, naming former secretary Bundy as president. Nathan Bruemmer, who founded the TransPride March, became vice president. It was then that Bundy shared two pillars of focus for his Pride presidency: community engagement and enhancements to this year’s entertainment.

“I want St Pete Pride to be just as known for their Community Grants Program as we are for our Parade and Festival. Giving back to the community will be our hallmark,” Bundy said. He added that “it’s time the SP2 Concert is known as THE concert of the summer in downtown St. Petersburg.”

With the support of local leadership and singer-songwriters like Lisa Loeb, that’s why St Pete Pride 2019—which sashays through the Sunshine City June 21-23—promises to be its loudest and proudest yet.

50 YEARS LATER

RAINBOW ROAD: Parade participants share their Pride on Bayshore Dr. during last year’s celebration. PHOTO BY NICK CARDELLO

Since its inaugural celebration, St Pete Pride’s mission has taken shape to promote unity, visibility, self-esteem and a positive image of and among the LGBTQ community in Tampa Bay and throughout Florida. It does so with an array of educational activities and programming.

To flourish in its 17th year and into the future, Executive Director Luke Blankenship says, St Pete Pride must understand the past. “This is a banner year for Pride celebrations across the country, being the 50th anniversary of Stonewall,” he says, pointing to June 28, 1969. That evening, when police raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn, members of the LGBTQ community united in protest and “sparked the modern LGBTQ movement that we see today.”

“It’s been 50 years and while we have seen anincredible progression of Prides with their visibility, growth, development and participation, we can never lose sight of what Pride is,” Blankenship continues. “It has always been a movement for advocacy. This is a celebration of being able to be comfortable in your own skin and being okay with who you are. At its core, that’s what Pride is all about.”

That’s why 2019’s parade—branded the Tech Data St Pete Pride Parade this year (more information to follow)—will shadow the third annual TransPride March. The tradition remains a focal point of Bruemmer’s vice presidency.

“We march to honor how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go,” he says. “The transgender community and the people who love us know our fight for acceptance and equality is far from over. We are reminded every day that living out loud as a trans, enby or non-binary human can put our well-being at risk. This is why we must celebrate the resilience of our transgender community. We will not be erased.”

Participation in the march this year includes a free commemorative T-shirt to the first 1,000 registrants, as it has in years past. Unlike previous outings, however, the artwork featured on the 2019 TransPride March shirt was designed by Elliott Darrow, a 21-year-old transgender artist who grew up St. Petersburg.

The design depicts the word “trans” in the shape of a heart and in the colors of the transgender pride flag: blue, pink and white. “There needs to be more love within our community,” Darrow explains. “I hope the love we show this summer at Pride for trans individuals will continue on through acts of allyship in everyday life.”

“Elliott has marched with us previously and approached us with the design,” Bruemmer recalls. “We loved it. It really captures the focus of the TransPride March. We’re from two different generations but Elliott and I are in the same place: we are exhausted as trans people, from hearing the negativity, the constant barrage of attacks and the constant erasure from this administration telling us that we don’t exist or that they’re taking away our rights.”

Darrow feels lucky to live in a community that’s becoming more accepting of all identities. “Pride started as marches,” the artist says. “The trans march is so incredibly empowering. Having thousands of people scream that they love you just for being you is an experience that sticks with you even through the toughest of times.”

Bruemmer says that the fight for equality saves lives, especially those in the transgender community, noting that the work to end hatred, bigotry and discrimination can be ugly. “What a breath of fresh air it is to see a clear message from the next generation to ground us all in more love.

“Visibility is so important,” Bruemmer continues. “Pride began as a protest; we started Pride and marched for equality to let people know that we’re here and we exist. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we’re going to go out and celebrate who we are.”

THE NAME GAME

ST. PETE PROUD: (L-R) St Pete Pride Executive Director Luke Blankenship, Vice President Nathan Bruemmer, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, St Pete Pride President Chrys Bundy and St. Petersburg LGBTQ Liaison Jim Nixon pass out rainbow and trans pride flags to business owners in downtown St. Petersburg May 29. PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF ST. PETERSBURG

With preparations well underway to celebrate Stonewall’s 50-year mark, St Pete Pride announced in April that the organization had entered a title partnership with the Clearwater-based technology company Tech Data.

The partnership followed the release of the Human Rights Campaign’s 2019 Corporate Equality Index in March, the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBTQ employees. Tech Data received a perfect 100% for its 14th year.

“We are strategically promoting one of the sterling examples of inclusivity in a company of their size,” Blankenship shared at the time. “For years, Tech Data has been a pioneer in LGBTQ+ rights in the workplace.”

“Last year, Tech Data had the biggest showing of employees walking with our float in the St Pete Pride parade,” Tech Data Executive Vice President and CIO John Tonnison added. “Inclusion is one of our five corporate shared values and is foundational to our culture. We are proud to take this even further this year by connecting the Tech Data name as the title sponsor for this, Florida’s biggest Pride event. In doing so, we honor our LGBTQ+ colleagues and families and clearly signal our support to the wider LGBTQ+ community.”

Bundy, who aside from serving as Pride’s president is a Tech Data employee, also celebrated the news. “Ask anyone in the Tampa Bay region where the best place to work for LGBTQ equality, and Tech Data will certainly come to mind,” he shared. “St Pete Pride has partnered with Tech Data for several years and we are beyond excited to join together with Tech Data as the title sponsor of the 2019 St Pete Pride Parade.”

The two organizations subsequently revealed this year’s parade would officially be known as the Tech Data St Pete Pride Parade. The branding drew criticism from some locals, who questioned the placement of Tech Data’s name in the title and addressed the matter with the St Pete Pride board during their public meeting in May.

“The concerns of the community were heard,” Bundy says. “We were able to have a very frank discussion on what it means to have the name of an event changed and we very much appreciated them taking the time.” He notes that their concerns will be taken into consideration in the future.

Tech Data’s commitment to the LGBTQ community was carefully reviewed ahead of entering the partnership, Blankenship adds. “Partnering with businesses like Tech Data keep our registration rates for small businesses and nonprofits one of the lowest in the country for a Pride our size,”he says. “We take decisions like this very seriouslyand the perception of what a title sponsorship means is incredibly important to us.

“Tech Data wants to build a long term partnership with us to make sure that that we can continue to grow and we can help each other achieve the goals that we want to,” he continues. “We are excited for new opportunities this partnership presents to our organization as we can continue to build on an already worldclass event.”

LEGACY OF LOVE

10 YEARS STRONG: Miss St Pete Pride 2009 Star Montrese Love (L) and Miss St Pete Pride 2019 Kenya M. Black represent a decade of the drag pageant’s excellence. PHOTO BY DYLAN TODD

Strengthening Pride and the community it serves is also a cornerstone of the organization’s Miss St Pete Pride pageant, which in May celebrated a decade of drag. Nine contestants went heel-to-heel in the five-category competition, vying for the coveted crown, cash prize and title of Miss St Pete Pride 2019.

“I love it,” Blankenship says of the pageant. “I love people who want to represent our organization professionally, especially in such an important fashion like drag culture does. It’s one of my favorite events that we hold in conjunction with Kori Stevens and has really been the start of Pride season every year.”

That’s in large part due to Stevens’ dedication to the pageant she helped shape, even before serving as entertainment director of St Pete Pride. After her own reign as Miss St Pete Pride 2010 ended, the fan favorite performer and pageant’s second ever winner began to oversee it—managing her successors and building upon its legacy with Star Montrese Love, who became the first Miss St Pete Pride in 2009.

“Star is like my right hand,” Stevens says. “I don’t make a decision about the pageant without at least getting her input. When we first started, Miss St Pete Pride really wasn’t much of anything, so now to see all of the girls that come out to compete and to see how much support the community puts behind the pageant itself, it just means the world.”

“St Pete Pride has always been my heart. Whenever Kori or the community needs something, I’m there for it,” says Montrese Love, whose decade of Miss St Pete Pride service was honored at this year’s competition. “I grew up in St. Pete and giving back has always been something that has been really important to me.”

It’s that mentality that sets Miss St Pete Pride apart from some other pageants. “Winners have to show up at certain events and actually give of their time,” Stevens explains. “St Pete Pride is in the business of more than just a party—they’re trying to build a community—and a part of that business is fundraising. Miss St Pete Pride is a vessel for that.”

While winners have required Pride appearances throughout the year, they’re also obligated to create and hold at least three fundraisers throughout their reign. “When you’re representing a community like St. Pete, you’re given a greater purpose than you are with some other pageants,” Montrese Love says. “You’re giving back to the community that needs you. Miss St Pete Pride has to be visible.”

Stevens says that won’t be difficult for Kenya M. Black, the newly-crowned Miss St Pete Pride 2019. “I think she’s going to do an amazing job,” she says. “Kenya is an amazing person and a wonderful performer. She has a heart of gold and is so concerned about the community herself, I think she’s going to shine.”

For Montrese Love, crowning Black—also her best friend—was a personal highlight on her 10-year anniversary. “I assumed she was doing the pageant but I wasn’t sure,” the performer says. “It was everything. This is a community pageant and we found someone who’s going to work really, really hard. That made us feel really good; we’re happy someone won who is going to give back.”

“It was emotional,” Black says of assuming the title. “Who crowns you is more important than just being crowned, because you become their successor. Knowing that I have to live up to Star is really special; she’s passionate about everything she does and I just want to do the best that I can to honor her.”

Black is excited to join the Miss St Pete Pride sisterhood cultivated by Stevens and to honor Love’s legacy as she begins her reign. “I want to expand the Pride brand and open myself up to St. Pete,” she says. “I always want to work harder and be better than the person I was the day before. I’m all about opening myself up and St Pete Pride is a new journey.”

LET THE MUSIC PLAY

STAY (IN ST. PETE): Grammy Award winner Lisa Loeb brings her massive hit “Stay (I Missed You)” and more to St Pete Pride’s 2019 SP2 concert June 21. PHOTO BY THOMAS BLUE.

As Stevens worked to showcase Tampa Bay’s wide array of local entertainment at this year’s celebration, a welcome responsibility that’s yielded impressive results, the St Pete Pride board worked to welcome national headliners. The organization announced in April that entertainers Lisa Loeb and Rita Ora, the latter of whom canceled her appearance June 8, would headline concerts for the 17th annual event.

Loeb, a trailblazing artist who sang her way into superstardom with the platinum-selling hit “Stay (I Missed You)” from the 1994 film “Reality Bites,” became the first pop musician to have a No. 1 single while not signed to a recording contract. The Grammy winner has appeared in a number of television and film projects and has since released an array of music and a number of children’s books and albums.

She’s done so while designing her own eyewear line and launching The Camp Lisa Foundation, which allows children to attend summer camps who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so. She also maintains an open line of communication with fans via weekly Facebook Live sessions.

“After two increasingly successful years of being downtown for the Saturday night parade, the board wanted to really focus on enhancing participant experience and decided the entertainment aspect would deliver the most impact,” St Pete Pride Secretary Richard Brandt, also the entertainment chair, announced in April.

“With the goal of securing a headliner for Friday night’s concert, it was also critical that we continue to showcase the exceptional talent that calls St. Pete and the Tampa Bay area home,” he continued. “In doing so, the largest pride celebration in Florida would be able to maintain the quaint and welcoming feeling that makes St Pete Pride so unique.”

Loeb will headline this year’s SP2 concert, a fundraiser for various Tampa Bay organizations cohosted by Stevens and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Alexis Mateo. Local favorites Jennifer Real and Divine AF will open the gathering. While the concert is free, VIP tickets are available and beverage sales benefit the St Pete Pride Community Grants Program.

An inaugural After Parade concert will follow Saturday evening. Ora, a British pop star known for hits like “Your Song” and “For You” from the film “Fifty Shades Freed,” was scheduled to headline until her unexpected cancellation. St Pete Pride has announced that VASSY will replace her on June 17.

“We wanted to work with someone that stays true to our vision of LGBT advocacy,” St Pete Pride Executive Director Luke Blankenship says, “as well as deliver a world-class experience for our attendees.”

Enhancing that experience is longtime LGBTQ ally Loeb, who from previous visits says she’s a fan of St. Petersburg’s Dali Museum and is thrilled to play St Pete Pride. “I always wanted to be a cool artist who got to be a part of Pride,” she muses. “I’ve heard so much about St. Pete’s and what a big extravaganza it is. I’m really excited to be there and celebrate with everyone.”

Reflecting on 25 years of “Stay,” she says 1994 was an exciting time for her. “I was in my early 20s, a couple of years out of college. One of the best things that came out of being an independent artist with such great success is I really had a great support system that kept me grounded.”

She lived on Christopher Street in New York City at the time, at “the end of the city’s Pride parade and huge Halloween parade.” Loeb says the busiest street in the city’s West Village was a source of strength for her.

“It was fun. It was the perfect time to have a song on the radio, because I would be getting into limousines to go do promotions and have people up all night—really sweet, supportive guys, screaming ‘you go girl’ while dressed to the nines,” she laughs. “I also had a really supportive family and was surrounded by a great music community.”

Having that kind of success within her independence has always been something Loeb has carried with her. “I like to do things creatively my way,” she says, “and making a song that wasn’t necessarily guided by a major label really added to my self-confidence. It was proof that it could be done—you can collaborate with a major label and with the business of music, but you can also do things from your heart.”

It’s Loeb’s genuine nature that’s led her to garner such support from the LGBTQ community, to which she’s always been drawn musically. The singer-songwriter drew early inspiration from artists like Queen, Elton John and David Bowie, citing their visionary catalogs which stemmed from imagination and longing as early favorites.

“Some of that might be attributed to the era, but these artists were people who were writing music who at the time may not have been able to express who they were,” she says. “There might have been a lot of longing that came through their songs. They were able to really communicate a feeling through their music.”

In her own career, Loeb says she stresses that people should be themselves. “It’s important,” she notes. “When I was in college, I wrote a song called ‘Going Somewhere.’ It said, ‘Don’t be afraid to be yourself, you’ll get nowhere being someone else. And if you do, it won’t be you going somewhere.’ You have to be the best you that you are.

“For something like sexual orientation or anything like that to get in anyone’s way is such a horrible thing; it’s just wrong,” she continues. “Anything that any of us can do to make people feel free to be themselves, we should do. That’s the message of my music: have your experiences, be yourself.”

Fans can expect to hear Loeb’s trademark authenticity during the SP2 concert, which will feature storytelling and songs from her entire discography. “I’ll be playing acoustically and pulling songs from all of my albums,” Loeb says, “and I often play requests. If people are there who are really big fans and they have a song they want to throw out to me while I’m on stage, I’ll play that song. I’ll probably even play at least one new song that will be on my upcoming album. I can’t wait.”

“We’ve had criticism in the past about our entertainment not being up to par for the size parade and festival that we are,” Blankenship says. “That’s changing. From Lisa to the local performers from throughout Tampa Bay, people are definitely in for a couple of interesting treats. We have a great mixture of local and national talent this year.”

“We are a shining example of what a community can be with leaders that care, with corporations that care and with small businesses that care,” Bundy adds. “I’m excited that we are able to show the entire city, all of Florida and even the rest of the world what St. Petersburg can accomplish.”

The 17th annual St Pete Pride will be held June 21-23, 2019. For more information about upcoming events, including the inaugural After Parade concert, visit StPetePride.com.

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