Carrie West, President of Tampa Pride, has been around for a long time, and there are many things he is proud of in his more than 30 years in the Tampa Bay area.
He moved to region in the early 1980s with his partner Mark Bias, who is also the secretary of Tampa Pride, to attend the University of South Florida, and since then they have had their hands in many endeavors. One of which is GaYbor.
“Mark and I came to Ybor City and started GaYbor,” West says sitting at the bar in Hamburger Mary’s. “When we started GaYbor, we were asked, ‘Why does it have to be GaYbor?’ We told them, ‘We have developed this area so you can hold hands and kiss and fell comfortable in a safe zone.’ You knew if you saw the GaYbor sign that you were in a safe area in case you were being hassled. It is very popular for this area. GaYbor revitalized Ybor City and it is now one of the safest places in Tampa for the LGBT community.”
It’s the success of GaYbor that allowed Tampa’s magic couple to get Tampa Pride up and running again last year.
“It was the time; it was just right,” West says. “We knew the right people and we had GaYbor going strong and decided now was the time.”
The timing could not have been better. More than 100 vendors packed the street festival in anticipation of 10,000 attendees, but thanks to strong word of mouth and a nicely placed high school drama convention, the numbers climbed to near 30,000 people.
At the time Tampa Pride board member Tom Barker said, “It has surpassed our expectations. It’s amazing to see all of these people – and we’ve gotten amazing feedback.”
It was also the first time Tampa resident Thomas Pena had ever attended a Pride celebration in his own town.
“It’s emotional,” Pena said. “I loved St. Pete Pride last year – and the year before. But it feels a little different celebrating who I am right here at home.”
With most of last year’s crowd being young students and kids, that feeling of being able to finally celebrate who you are on your own streets was new, but GaYbor’s Tampa Pride was not the first time the city of Tampa came out to show their Pride.
We found Pride in a hopeless place
For the first sparks of Tampa Pride you have to travel back to 1981, when being gay meant constant attack and scrutiny.
“Mark and I were going to USF at the time and back then they were still doing police raids and you would get pulled over immediately after leaving a gay bar,” West says. “You would drive out of the parking lot and get pulled over, and they would ask you ‘Where were you at? What were you doing there? Were you drinking there?’”
Tampa Pride started as a way to gather with other community members and enjoy each other’s company.
“We had the first Tampa Pride on the sand dunes out there at USF,” West says. At the time, USF was out in the middle of nowhere, up a two-lane road.
“For a few years they did it there, and it was so rural that a lot of people came in on horses to Tampa Pride,” West says. “Each of the bars had softball teams and each one had a barbecue set up and it was open to everybody. A couple of times while we were out there, we had folk singers come in and perform; it was mostly just several little events and people in the community coming together and meeting new people.”
For the first two years, Tampa Pride was gathering organized by the local bars to get out and have some fun in the sun.
“These little bars are the ones that made Pride happen,” West says.
In 1983, things started to change.
“In ’83, that’s when The Line was started,” West remembers. “The Line was a welcome center that you would call in to find out what was going on at the Tampa bars, any activities that were going on, and it was also a help line if you were suicidal or needed emotional or physical help.”
The Line began Tampa Pride’s first fundraising efforts, later going on to be renamed the Tampa AIDS Network.
“There was so many people getting sick unexpectedly, and nobody knew why, and then they started dying. These were friends of yours who you had just been talking to, and then they were dead. I mean, nobody knew what was going on, and people were dying left and right and nothing was being done from the government and local officials,” West says.
The AIDS crisis changed the scope and message of Tampa Pride. In 1986, the Tampa AIDS Network started to get funding from the CDC and had the opportunity to expand Tampa Pride from not only a celebration, but to a time and place where they could distribute education and awareness of this disease that was killing thousands.
“We continued to hold it during Stonewall every year, but they had the money to get out and really do it right and make sure we had the awareness of what AIDS was doing to us every year,” West says.
Toward the late 1980s Tampa Pride moved from the last week of June to the July 4th weekend.
“They realized a lot of people left the area during Fourth of July weekend cause nothing was going on so they moved Pride cause there was no competition from anything else going on,” West says.
It was around this time also that a small, grassroots effort started in St. Petersburg to have a Pride of their own.
“In the early 1990s, Tampa Pride would move between Stonewall weekend and the July 4 weekend, and St. Pete Pride would schedule there’s either right before or right after,” West says.
The mid-‘90s brought the two Prides together when it was decided that a regional Pride served the community better rather than separate city Prides. This was also the time the Gay Days began in Orlando.
Tampa Pride flourished after the merger from 1998 to 2001; they saw their largest crowds, with attendance topping over 20,000 people.
“We were filling up every venue we went to,” West says. “We filled the performing arts center, we filled the convention center. The city suggested going into Raymond James Stadium.”
One event that occurred with Tampa Pride from 1998 to 2001 was the Pillage and Plunder cruise. It was the highlight of the Tampa Pride celebration, but would also prove to be one of the things that would destroy it in the end.
“It’s been well documented and reported when Tampa Pride shut down, but the Pride board had a big drug problem,” West says. “Also, the money spent on the cruises was out of control.”
Drugs and lavish spending became common place, Tampa Pride had lost focus and became just about the party.
“One year, while still in port, they had to hold up the ship because the ship ran out of vodka before it even left the port, and they had to bring a truckload over and restock the ship with more vodka,” West says. “It was quite the time; I haven’t seen anything like it in my life. That last year they didn’t have enough money to pay the cruise ship, The Regal Empress, and they went bankrupt.”
When 2002 came around, it was going to cost $40,000 just to pay to the city to hold Pride again. With crippling debt and bacchanalian controversy, the members of St. Pete Pride decided that it was better just to move there operations back to the other side of the bay.
“The city wanted $40,000 to hold Pride we said, “Look, we have Georgie’s Alibi and Suncoast Resort in St. Pete now; we should have our own Pride there. That $40,000 would go a long way in St. Pete,” West recalls.
In February 2002, West along with Bias, business owners and community members in St. Petersburg began the efforts to start St. Pete Pride. Tampa Pride was dead.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Pride
In 2006, an event looked likely to become the resurrection of Tampa Pride, but under a different name.
“What we held in Tampa starting in 2003 was a Valentine’s Day-of-action which actually turned into a pride event down the road,” says Zeke Fread.
Fread at the time was the Florida coordinator for the national organization Don’t Amend, an organization fighting then-President George W. Bush from enacting a Constitutional amendment to reflect marriage as between one man and one woman.
“We held the day of action at Lowry Park Zoo, and that first year 150 people showed up,” Fread says. “It was basically a pride event; we had local organizations, churches and speakers, just like a normal pride event. A friend, Brian Feist, said you might as well start back up a Tampa Pride, so that’s what we did.”
In 2006, Fread, Feist and several members of the community launched Winter Pride Tampa Bay.
“We picked winter because the weather is usually better, and we did not want to compete with St. Pete Pride,” Fread says. “So we held our first Winter Pride in 2006 and it was phenomenal. We held it at the Lowry Park bandshell.”
Winter Pride grew out of the space that first year and in 2007 moved in to Al Lopez Park. They held 50/50 raffles to raise money and even paid for parts of it out of their own pockets.
“Everything we could get donated was donated. It blew up from day one. It wasn’t a money making endeavor. It was just to get the community together,” Fread says.
Winter Pride went on through 2008, when it was met with disastrous weather.
“The weather destroyed us,” West remembers attending the affair. “We had water up to our knees, the tents caved in, everything was ruined.”
That was the beginning of the end.
“We got clobbered with a terrible rainstorm,” Fread says. “Which affected our ability to recoup money, and then by 2009, we had to cancel because of lack of funds.”
Pride rises like a phoenix
When Mark & Carrie rebooted Tampa Pride, they didn’t necessarily want to harken back to the Prides of past.
“We want to look forward; we’ve always been the type of guys who keep looking forward,” West says, and they are looking forward to make Tampa Pride 2016 even bigger and better than last year.
“A lot of things have changed [for Tampa Pride] this year,” West says. “The locations have changed from last year, the festival moved from 8th Avenue to Centennial Park to increase the [surface] area, we will be using two city parking lots. We will have a wet-zone area this year with beer tents. It looks like about 130 venders, and we are going to be working together with – and partnering with – Ybor Saturday Market, so they will have around 80 additional venders and tents out there.”
Along with a larger festival, Tampa Pride will also have two entertainment stages: one at Centro Ybor and one in Centennial Park, with performances going on all day long.
They will honor Lorraine Langlois, CEO at Metro Wellness and Community Centers, and Russell Rhodes, FOX NEWS 13 Morning Anchor for Good Day Tampa Bay as the grand marshals, as well as fashion photographer and reality show star Mike Ruiz as the celebrity grand marshal.
“We are also introducing the GLBT Supporters Award,” West says. “The recipients of that award are those who have worked with the GLBT community and support our efforts, as well as help promote the GLBT areas of Tampa.”
Tampa Pride will honor two recipients this year; Tampa business owner Joe Redner and former city mayor Pam Iorio, now the CEO of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, who relocated base operations from Texas to here in Tampa.
With so many Pride celebrations up and down the I-4 corridor, Tampa Pride looks to distinguish itself as the first Pride of the year, as well as to have its own flavor and voice.
“Tampa Pride’s voice is that of relaxed fun with a country attitude,” West says.