We could go on and on about our gripes with the letter “P” this year, generally circulating around two terms: “Pulse” and “Politics.” So, indeed, that’s what we’ll do. Though we may have seen some wonderful developments in the year that God forgot, for the most part, many of us are grabbing at straws, trying to make sense of how it is that we descended so deeply, that we became the eye of the target of absolute terror.
Some may say that 2016 was the backlash for all of the gifts we were given by 2015, most notably marriage equality in both state and nation. Others might opine that there is something else going on here with the media, with conspiracies, with a new Cold War. We can’t be certain, but we certainly have each other’s backs, as has been proven by the many acts of kindness that rose up to meet the beast of an election year gone awry and a local community cut to its core. We are not a weak people; we have seen trouble before. But this year owns a special place in our hearts, one we hope that heals over without forgetting those who suffered and those who commandeered offenses that none of us could have been prepared for.
Generally, year-in-review pieces carry little weight, sometimes brushing up against negatively directed trends – hate crimes among them; financial woes duly in tow – but 2016 owns its own place on our wall of memory. Here are just some of the unforgettable moments as documented in Watermark and elsewhere that have come to define our year of living frightfully. We’re not trying to bring you down, but only to raise you up. The fight is just beginning, and we are right on the front lines, waving our rainbows ahead of any other unnecessary storms. We will get through. We did, right? Well, some of us.
Don’t take this as a downer, but rather a memorial to a year that might have ended us. It did not. We go strong. We go high.
The sale of Watermark Media from founder Tom Dyer to current owner Rick Claggett takes effect Jan. 1. A new logo and company name, Watermark Publishing Group, are introduced in Watermark’s first 2016 issue.
Star of stage, screen, nightmares and dreams, hero to nearly everyone – black, white, gay, straight, ecstatic, miserable, smart – David Bowie dies on Jan 10, just days after releasing his last album Blackstar. Bowie, whose androgyny and experimental musical and cinematic genius came to define a generation, sets the standard for the horrors that 2016 would come to offer. Blackstar is widely lauded as one of his best albums to date, and the whole macabre affair was completely unexpected by the public. He would have wanted it that way. He never let us down.
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan is sworn in by Rev. Cynthia Alice Anderson of Christ Church Unity at the Oath of Office Ceremony Jan. 11 at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Sheehan will be serving her fifth term as District 4 Commissioner. At the ceremony, in addition to Sheehan, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer is sworn into his fourth full term.
Sarasota magnet school Pine View adopts a trans-inclusive bathroom policy Jan. 14, which begins an eight-month battle with the Sarasota County School Board. After members of the community and the school board go back and forth on developing a trans bathroom policy, the school board ultimately decides to do nothing on the issue, refusing to vote on the issue at all.
We’re number one… oh, wait! At the end of January, the CDC releases a new study that finds Florida leads all states in new HIV infections. Not a ranking we want to be number one in.
The largest LGBT organization in the U.S., the Human Rights Campaign, endorses Hillary Clinton for president of the United States Jan. 19. Watermark will follow suit one month later endorsing Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee to be president of the United States Feb. 25. Clinton will also be Watermark and HRC’s choice in the general election.
Where is the love? Just days before Valentine’s Day, the Palm Bay City Council rejects adding LGBT-protections to the city’s existing Human Rights Ordinance. In a 4-1 vote Feb. 4, the council almost unanimously said, “We want the right to discriminate if we so choose.”
Two Spirits Health Services in downtown Orlando start offering PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) in their clinic Feb. 15. They join UCF and Planned Parenthood as Central Florida organizations offering PrEP to the sexually active to encourage safe and fun sexy time.
Lick it and stick it. The United Nations launches the first ever LGBT-themed stamp series at Sarasota’s National Stamp Exhibition Feb. 5. The series of six stamps are designed by world renowned artist Sergio Baradat and depict the diversity found in the community.
Metro Wellness announce that they are in the market to be wealthy landowners and are purchasing the building at their St. Petersburg clinic and community center location Feb. 23. Metro will use the remainder of 2016 to raise funds for the massive renovation they have planned in 2017.
Seriously though, where is the love?!?! Jacksonville City Council member Tommy Hazouri, who proposed an LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance, withdraws his own measure. Within the coming weeks, Jacksonville residents will find anti-LGBT flyers from the KKK in their neighborhoods.
A suburban police chief’s daughter began serving jail time Feb. 8 for a group attack on a gay couple that prompted Philadelphia to add sexual orientation to its hate crime laws. Judge Roxanne Covington questioned how then-hospital worker Kathryn Knott could walk away from the victims as one lay badly injured in the September 2014. She also ordered the 25-year-old brat, whose online posts have insulted gays, non-English speakers, Middle Easterners and hospital patients alike, to attend anger management classes.
Watermark makes a splash with its annual WAVEs (Watermark Awards for Variety and Excellence), having the biggest WAVE parties ever March 10 at Southern Nights Tampa and March 11 at The Abbey in Orlando.
Pride is here to stay! After many incarnations of Tampa Pride over the years, the GaYbor District establishes the annual parade and festival as a spring staple in the Bayside city March 26 as they increase the crowds by nearly 20,000 people. As God is our witness, we’ll never be Prideless again.
The Florida Senate approves the unnecessary Pastor Protection Act on March 3 with a vote of 23-15. The “I’m just a bill, a completely unneeded bill” was sent to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott who, SPOILER ALERT, signs it into law March 10.
A U.S. District judge puts the final nail in the coffin as he rules Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional March 31. The decision is based on 2015’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage the law of the land. In May, Pam Bondi’s office will announce they are paying $213,000 of taxpayer money to the ACLU for legal fees accrued during Bondi’s fight against same-sex marriage.
Pat McCrory starts the beginning of the end for his career as North Carolina’s 74th governor as he signs HB2 into law March 23. HB2 is a controversial bill blocking cities from allowing transgender individuals to use public bathrooms for the gender they identify, as well as restricting cities from passing nondiscrimination laws more broadly. The ripple effects of this law will cause NC to lose hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue as performers, conventions and other state governments start pulling their events from the state. In the fall, the passing of HB2 will be named as one of the top reasons that McCrory became the first NC governor ever not to win a re-election.
Hope & Help makes changes as they introduce a new logo and name change at the AIDS Walk at Lake Eola April 18. The annual event was attended by more than 1,000 walkers, led as always by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The walk raises $92,000 for the HIV/AIDS organization.
A sign of our times, Prince is the next pop icon to fall into that strange heaven of genius over-realized on April 21. Reports from all around the world declared that Prince died of a drug overdose, or at least painkiller abuse, but his legend lives on without a diamond or pearl missing from his pantsuit. Party over, it’s out of time.
The Marion County School Board votes 4-1 to pass an anti-transgender bathroom policy April 26. The school board meeting was so heavily attended they had to provide an overflow room where people could watch via TV.
After years of yelling that gay men just wanted to molest your children, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert is sentenced to 15 months in prison for child molestation. Hastert, who was wheeled into the courthouse in a wheelchair, was called a “serial child molester” saying “Nothing is more disturbing than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘Speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.” Once released, Hastert will have to register as a sex offender.
The world continues to become a more disturbingly scary place as unidentified assailants fatally stabbed two men in Bangladesh’s capital: Xulhaz Mannan, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and his friend Tanay Majumderan, editor of Bangladesh’s first gay rights magazine, Roopbaan.
Silver Belles! Orlando Fringe leaves the fringe to take center stage as they kick off their 25th season May 18. It turns out to be one of the craziest, and best, seasons yet as shows range from retired theme park animatronics living together under one roof to a Hamilton-style parody of the Simpleton that is Trump. There were also five lesbians eating quiche in there, too.
In a trend we hoped would not continue in 2016, transgender performer Mercedes Successful’s body is found May 15 in a parking lot in Haines City. She has been murdered, the 12th known trans murder of 2016 at the time. Presently, that number is up to 24.
After 20 years working for AIDS Service Association of Pinellas, executive director William Harper retires May 19. This is a part of a huge year for ASAP, one that sees the opening of Home 3050 two months earlier and the merging of ASAP with Francis House later in the year to form the new organization EPIC.
Florida’s first ever transgender delegate, Monica DePaul, is elected in Jacksonville May 7. This is all the more impressive as Jacksonville is known as one of the most conservative large cities in Florida. DePaul was one of 30 state delegates to come from the LGBTQ community.
President Obama tells schools across the nation May 13 to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. 11 states will announce May 26 that they are suing the federal government because of this mandate.
Alabama politics hit a low point, even for Alabama standards, as Chief Justice Roy Moore is suspended May 6 for refusing to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling. It’s familiar territory for the Republican Moore, a Christian conservative who was previously removed from the same position in 2003 over a Ten Commandments monument and easily won re-election later. Moore is completely removed from the bench in September.
Gay Days is a huge success as thousands head to Orlando to celebrate throughout the theme parks and resorts, including watching a happy gay couple get engaged on stage with Kesha at One Magical Weekend’s Hollywood Studios bash June 4. The weekend is declared “bigger than ever” by GayDays.com saying “The host hotel, the DoubleTree by Hilton at Sea World, sold out earlier than ever before.
Bob Poe sits down with Watermark founder Tom Dyer June 9 to announce that he is HIV-positive, and, if elected, would be the first openly HIV-positive person in the U.S. Congress. Poe will go on to lose his bid for Congress to Val Demings in the primaries Aug. 31.
The evening of June 11 was supposed to be yet another conflagration of fantasy and heavy beats, an arms-in-the-air Latin Night at popular downtown nightclub Pulse. But just as the club was closing around 2 a.m., everything went south. A lone gunman opened fire indiscriminately at everyone in the club, starting at the front door and working his way back through the bathrooms. The killer, who we choose not to name, was eventually killed by police, but not before taking the lives of 49 unsuspecting revelers and ruining the lives of the 53 injured. Orlando stepped into action immediately upon hearing the news on Sunday morning, communicating through social media and the national media the breadth of despair that the incident carried into our collective being. Vigils were held, a makeshift memorial was a mourning ground for a community in shock, Orlando changed forever. Communities around the world joined Orlando as it tried to pick up the pieces of a hate crime that came out of nowhere. Orlando is a different city now, one that has been broken, but one that refuses to back down. Several funds have been set up to help those in need, and, for the most part, Orlando shone its brightest possible rainbow against the darkest moment this city has ever faced.
GLBT Center executive director Terry DeCarlo announces in early June that he will be stepping down as of June 24. After the Pulse shooting, DeCarlo states that he will stay on until the end of the month which is later revised to him saying indefinitely.
With the images of Pulse still fresh on our minds, St. Pete Pride carries on with one of the most sobering and uplifting Pride events the city has seen, June 24-26. The parade was filled with mourners carrying the faces of those who were lost. It also gave the community a chance to clear its heads and celebrate Pride. St. Pete Pride will also go on in 2016 to put a bid in for World Pride 2022, marking what will be the 20th anniversary of St. Pete Pride.
Scott Schweickert is sentenced to life in prison June 8 for the murders of Jason Galehouse and Michael Wachholtz, both of whom disappeared from a Tampa gay nightclub in 2003. Schweickert avoided the death penalty as part of a plea deal to provide information to convict his partner in the crime Steven Lorenzo. The sentencing reached a fever pitch when Galehouse’s mother yelled at Schweickert, finishing her time to speak with, “I hope you rot in hell.”
In an unsolicited move, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton writes an op-ed for Watermark in our June 30 issue declaring her support for the LGBTQ community. “Yes, this is a time for reflection,” she writes. “But more importantly, this is a time for action. We need real plans to prevent future attacks and ensure the safety of the LGBT community and all Americans.”
Blindsided, many of Orlando’s pivotal LGBTQ and governmental leaders take to the global networks to explain the pain that this community has felt. Immediate attempts to define the Pulse attack as something antiseptic, something trailing from the vines of terrorism, are quickly pushed aside. This was a hate crime against our community. If you need any more evidence, you can count the victims by toe tags. This was the worst day in Orlando history, indeed the worst massacre on the American mainland by firearms ever. The weight of this will stay with us for years, perhaps forever.
On July 28, Orange County Republicans and those among representative Republican delegations will pledge to support LGBT equality via a strong move by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, formerly an enemy to the LGBT Community. Later in the year, she will tell us that the calls to her peers weren’t as difficult as they might seem. “These are what I like to think are the new generation of Republicans,” said Jacobs.
Assassinated LGBT hero Harvey Milk gets a military Ship, the USNS Harvey Milk, named after him nearly four decades after his death. He wanted to recruit you. But he wanted to recruit you to peaceful means of being. His murder, coupled with that of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in the offices of City Hall remains a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history. And following the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the military support sent a message that this country was not in support of hatred or embarrassment any longer.
In an unexpected announcement, Tampa Bay trans-hero Ashley Brundage announces that she will step down from leadership of the Tampa Bay Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, while the board simultaneously announces its rebranding: The Tampa Bay Diversity of Chamber of Commerce will be led by former vice president of the group Eric Mathis, who will take over the leadership role in 2017 as Brundage intends to complete the year with the group. “We felt that a really long transition time – I know a little bit about that – would be great,” Brundage joked to Watermark. “I see Eric as a really phenomenal speaker, very professional, but he also understands the community, all members of the community, including allies.”
Because it only takes a seed to start a fetid sprout, this year saw the bizarre behavioral anomaly of states suing the federal government over public schools allowing trans people into bathrooms that relate to their sexual identity. Naturally, it all started with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory – the sad toad who ended up having to concede after the November election threw him overboard on this very issue – but, disturbingly, more than a dozen states filed similar injunctions against President Barack Obama’s civil rights ruling on the action, ten more in July. Related: There are doors on stalls. Pick your battles wisely.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter cleanly ripped the rug out from beneath the bigots still hanging on to notions that transgender people serving in the military are not worthy of equal treatment. The new policy came late in June – June 30, actually – and effectively negated all previously stated complaints about gender playing a roll in service.
Governmental dreamboat and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the first prime minister to march in a Pride parade, stating publicly, post-Pulse, “We have to speak up anytime there is intolerance or discrimination.” He then added, “It shouldn’t be a big thing that a prime minister’s walking a Pride parade, and from now on it won’t.”
Following the horrors of the Pulse incident, GLBT Center leader Terry DeCarlo, who had announced his professional dismount in May, changes his mind and decides to stay on board through the obvious labor and transitions that the relief effort would require indefinitely. “I am elated to be staying with The Center,” DeCarlo said. “No one could have predicted the tragedy that happened in Orlando on June 12, and it was incredible to see The Center and other organizations come together as one to work towards a common goal, helping the victims and families of this senseless tragedy.”
On July 11, numerous supporters of the LGBT community crowded the foyer of the offices of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to let him know that they would not go quietly, not in the name of 49 lost. The “Sit in for the 49” resulted in 10 arrests – trespassing, effectively – but also turned the corner on the methods of protest being utilized to nationally continue the drumbeat against intolerance in the wake of a massacre. “Senator Rubio respects the views of others on these difficult issues, and he welcomes the continued input he is receiving from people across the political spectrum,’’ his office said in a statement.
Though it would seem to be a no-brainer – just as most issues volleyed around municipal daises – attempts to move forward with a plan to declare June as LGBT Pride and History Month (as a means, especially, of honoring the victims of Pulse), fail in Hillsborough County. County Commissioner Kevin Beckner led the fight, but was ultimately shutdown by whatever cynicism there is that seems to plague the Hillsborough area. “We need to continue as a community to work to elect progressive individuals into office locally that can continue to watch the mantel and keep guard so we don’t step backwards,” Beckner said.
Democratic State Rep. David Richardson put on his best gay face to confront Florida Gov. Rick Scott in late July and was met with a surprising bit of comfort, at least according to reports. Naturally, Scott reneged publicly. “Following the tragic terror attack at Pulse Nightclub, we appreciate Rep. Richardson’s involvement with our office and the Orlando community. We are thankful for the countless individuals and organizations who came together to help the Orlando community heal,” Scott said through a spokesperson. “He didn’t say anything about the gay community, the LGBT community,” Richardson said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “I texted her, and I said, ‘Would you tell him that he has to say the word gay?’” Richardson said. “He has to say the word ‘gay’ because the gay community is taking note that he’s not acknowledging the community.” He didn’t.
Citing previous mistakes in mishandling of finances directed at national tragedies, Orlando establishes the OneOrlando Fund as a means of responsibly distributing donations meant to aid those most affected by the June 12 Pulse shooting. The families of the 49 killed in the massacre will receive $350,000 each, officials said in an August news release, while 37 of the survivors who were hospitalized will receive from $65,000 to $300,000 each, depending on the number of nights spent in the hospital. For the 31 people who received outpatient care, they will be paid $35,000 each. The remaining 182 claimants will be paid $25,000 each.
Cindy Barnes, who has headed Sarasota Pride for nine years now, makes the announcement that she’s not going anywhere, despite her attempts to step down from her leadership position and let the festival evolve into something else. The reason? One of those killed at Pulse was Eddie Sotomayor of Sarasota, and she couldn’t see herself walking away in these dark days. “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 told Watermark. “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 early August, Pope Francis, he of the most caring social sense seen by a pope for centuries, made a huge misstep in going after the trans community. “We are living a moment of annihilation of man as image of God,” he said. “Today, in schools they are teaching this to children — to children! — that everyone can choose their gender.” Later, the pope seemingly turned on his feet and offered that trans individuals should “be accompanied as Jesus accompanied them.” Transitions are difficult.
The Orlando Police Department LGBTQ liaison Jim Young outlines the efforts of the community to try to make the department – notoriously assumed to be against minorities – more gay friendly. “We just want the community to know that we are here for them,” Young told Watermark. “As [Mayor Buddy Dyer] said, we aren’t going to let the tragedy define us. We are progressing from that and are coming together as a community.”
After a spate of confusion regarding the operations of Orlando’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, known as the Metropolitan Business Association, the tidying up has begun in full throttle. In September, the MBA was honored in Palm Springs for its efforts with the Referral and Exchange Networking and Development Program (RED). “MBA Orlando has developed an innovative approach to networking and lead generating groups,” National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Sam McClure said in a statement. “They have engaged their community and NGLCC is impressed with their program’s success. We are proud to honor the hard work that went into the RED program.” The group received a $2,500 grant with the award, and MBA board president Lu Mueller-Kaul said at the time. “Getting this award definitely does mean something, and getting the grant, too,” she says. “Especially in the weeks after Pulse, when people stopped working their day jobs. Then we still had to run the chamber. … Wells Fargo doesn’t put its name on anything it hasn’t researched.”
With September creeping past the disasters of the summer, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival upped its ante with 65 films for 2016; the festival has been around for 27 years. “From the beginning [of TIGLFF] on opening night, we’ll start the healing by doing a short film on Pulse and looking back on the year and what the community has been through,” Scott Skyberg, TIGLFF’s executive director, told Watermark. “You’re going to see the struggle with the trans community in some of the films, and the struggles that LGBT youth have in dealing with and coming to terms with gender and sexuality – how they can communicate with others.”
The 20th annual Out & Equal Summit convened upon Disney’s Swan and Dolphin hotels on Oct. 4, bringing a fresh breeze of progress to an otherwise dismal year. The goal: workplace equality. The size: nearly 5,000 people. It was a really big deal. “Our vision is one of workplace equality and inclusion for everyone to be their authentic self, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression” Out & Equal’s Sherri Absher says. “Our mission is to educate and empower Greater Orlando area workplaces, employee resource groups and individual employees by providing tools and innovative programming and networking opportunities. I think we are going to increase our efforts tenfold after this election,”
Oh, Florida and its hurricanes. This year, for the second time in its history, the Come Out With Pride parade and celebration would have to sit on its hands for a month for a rescheduled event. The reason? The questionable path of Hurricane Matthew, which, at one point, appeared to be the apex of devastation, though it turned, as most things in Florida do that involve hyperbole, into something a little less than that. Good on the COWP team for recognizing the dangers, though. The parade went on without a hitch, and in a larger form than ever, on Nov. 12. The biggest crunch there was that it pushed away the political weight of the parade that could have shifted the Nov. 8 election turnout. However, the crowds shouted on through a beautiful day in record numbers. Orlando needed it.
In early October, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida announced all-inclusive services for transgender individuals. It was a big step in the intersectionality between LGBTQ and women’s rights, and it was a welcome one at that. “This is a group of people who have been underserved and haven’t had access to this care,” Dr. Robert Slackman of PPSWCF said at the time.
Donning itself in Ruby Red, this year’s theme for its 40th anniversary, the All Hallow’s Ball took over Tampa’s Museum of Science for some over-the-top costume flair. Lady Bunny was there, as were numerous shirtless people who likely left their costumes at the gym, if you catch our drift. There was red, though. Definitely, red was there.
Barring the worst hate crime ever committed with a firearm on American soil – at least as far as anyone knows – the elections on Nov. 8, which, in the presidential field, pitted television star Donald Trump against seasoned politician and relative genius Hillary Clinton against each other in what was certain to be a washout in her favor was the depression headline of the year. Though Clinton won by more than two million popular votes – and, it should be noted, she killed it in Orange County and Hillsborough County (natch) – to the spoiled went the victory. For now, we sit and wait as accusations of interference from Russian leader Vladimir Putin trickle in and talks of recounts and dismay fill the social media spectrum. Meanwhile, some of our biggest supporters – Linda Stewart and Carlos Guillermo Smith – made their respective ways (back) into the mahogany melodrama of state politics.
After eight years of serving the needs of both Hillsborough County and the LGBTQ community in general, County Commissioner Kevin Beckner politely stepped down from his post. “Like so many at the time, I was not satisfied with the direction our government was going, especially our local government,” Beckner told Watermark. “I started thinking of getting in after 2005 when the county commission put a ban on gay pride. That was a tipping point for me. I felt like our local government was not focusing on the issues that were most relevant to the issues of our community.”
In a surprise move, Pulse owner Barbara Poma decided that she wasn’t going to move forward with the city of Orlando’s offer of $2.25 million for the property where so many still go to hold vigil for those killed in the early hours of June 12. “I intend to create a space for everyone, a sanctuary of hope, and a welcoming area to remember all those affected by the tragedy,” she said in a statement on Dec. 5.
Dec. 1 – World AIDS Day, 2016 – marked 35 years of suffering in our community and the world at large. The threat remains real. Moving forward, HIV/AIDS organizations are strategizing methods to reclaim relevancy in a generational theme that seems to have headed into the abyss of hubris. “Last week a group of HIV leaders and agency leaders like myself gathered at our usual bi-yearly meetings and were there to discuss what happens now that we have a very different looking administration. We walked away in unison with uncertainty and with a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” Metro Wellness executive director Lorraine Langlois told Watermark recently. We’ve waited. We’ve seen.