‘We say gay’: Florida’s largest Pride parade draws hundreds of thousands

It was St. Petersburg’s first LGBTQ Pride march since the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it comes just three months after Florida’s governor signed what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Photography by Melody Timothee
By Nicole Slaughter Graham and Zachary Schermele
June 27, 2022

Florida’s largest annual Pride march returned to St. Petersburg this past weekend for the first time since 2019. This year, however, the celebratory event took on a more activist tone as revelers contended with the lingering coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and a new state law limiting LGBTQ classroom instruction.

St. Pete’s Pride Parade drew an estimated 300,000 people to the downtown waterfront parks Saturday for the event’s 20th anniversary, according to organizers. Along with rainbow hats, eye makeup, clothing and flags, there were protest signs in the sea of Pride revelers, including those that said “We say gay” and "Bans off our bodies.”

Saturday’s march came just one day after the Supreme Court reversed the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision and three months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education law. The measure, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in Florida classrooms for students “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” It goes into effect Friday.

“He’s trying to erase our identity,” Patrick McKeon II of Tampa said, referring to DeSantis.

After the bill was signed in late March, McKeon recalled, he wanted to fight back, so he chose to write a children’s book about a young boy discovering how much diversity there is in the world.

“The kids are most affected by this,” he said, noting that he felt intense fear and the inability to be his authentic self as a child. He came out in his early 20s. 
Patrick McKeon II

McKeon hosted a booth where he sold water bottles, T-shirts and stickers with “Just Say Gay” emblazoned across the front of each item. 

The law — and the national controversy it sparked — prompted a wave of similar bills in 19 other states also aimed at curbing or prohibiting LGBTQ education in classrooms with younger students. In early June, DeSantis also indicated a willingness to order the state’s child protective services to investigate parents for taking their kids to drag shows. 

The controversy brewing in Florida over LGBTQ rights is part of a national trend, one that the Sunshine State has arguably played a notable role in driving. So far this year, more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills — many of which specifically target transgender people — have been introduced in state legislatures across the United States, according to Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. The record number prompted President Joe Biden to sign an executive order last week expanding access to gender-affirming care and promoting LGBTQ education in schools. 

The presidential action came during a particularly distinct Pride month that, after years of pandemic-related complications, has met a new set of complications. In their attempts to celebrate a long-standing cultural tradition, LGBTQ people nationwide have, in recent weeks, been marred by fears of violence, the potential rollback of queer rights and yet another virus.

Florida has long served as somewhat of a ground zero for the fight for LGBTQ rights, dating all the way back to the 1950s. In the week until the “Don’t Say Gay” law takes effect — and in a moment in time that for many queer people has brought a sense of unease about their future — the ever-familiar “pride as protest” refrain colored how many celebrated the largest event of its kind in Florida, a state that has propelled itself to the center of the latest culture war.

For many, the politically charged climate surrounding LGBTQ rights made St. Pete’s Pride Parade an even more important event to attend this year. 

“I’m going to continue to show up as a trans man, whether (DeSantis) likes it or not,” Samuel Mattheus, who was visiting from Gainesville, said at Saturday’s march. He and a few friends drank cold beverages to stave off the Florida heat and danced to music playing from a DJ booth. 

To commemorate the 20th anniversary, organizers brought on 20 grand marshals, one of whom was Carla Bristol, a community activist and manager of the local St. Pete Youth Farm.

“As a straight woman, it was important for me to come out and support the community,” she said. “Who we elect has consequences and right now, we’re seeing that in major ways.”

Now more than ever, Bristol said, she hopes those who are angry with the direction the state and the country are moving will take action with their vote. 

St. Petersburg resident Victoria Suarez said that despite the laws coming down from the state government, she doesn’t feel restricted in her life. She attended the day’s festivities with her sister and her girlfriend. 

“If you’re going to be gay anywhere in Florida, St. Petersburg is the best place, because the support is unmatched,” she said. 

Despite the 90-degree heat and humidity that continued into the early evening hours and a smattering of anti-gay protesters holding signs that said “Jesus Loves You” and “How Can I Pray for You,” patrons stayed for hours after the parade, visiting vendors and local businesses, and dancing in North Straub Park. 

Jade Goodwin, who made the 30-minute drive to St. Petersburg from Tampa, said that neither the protesters nor the “Don’t Say Gay” law could deter her. She and her friend Thaly Prada, also of Tampa, said they just wanted to live their lives without having to worry about whether or not their rights would be taken away. 

“We’re going to be free regardless,” Goodwin said, Prada nodding in agreement. 

“Love overpowers laws,” Prada said.

Photo editor:
Marc J. Franklin

Photo Director:
Zara Katz

Art Director:
Chelsea Stahl