“Today we sent the festival instructions, and that’s the worst part of the year, because everybody comes back with their little tiny requests,” Come Out With Pride executive director and senior executive producer Mikael Frank Audebert says. “They don’t read the instructions, so they come back with questions that are already answered. And every year I struggle: Is there a better way to do this? No.”
If he sounds frustrated, Audebert has every right to be. Over the past nine years, Orlando’s annual gay pride celebration has exploded in size from an inaugural 20,000 attendees in 2005 (not counting the less-organized parades preceding its reorganization; Pride has roots dating back to 1983 in Orlando) to more than 100,000 last year. There are more than 100 organizations in the parade, not to mention the vendors surrounding Lake Eola. It’s a lot to handle, and, as Audebert points out, he’s doing it with half the staff this year than he had last year – and still with the same budget of $100,000.
But size isn’t the only thing that matters at Orlando’s largest annual community celebration of its LGBT population. With the monumental expansion has come a broadening of purpose – a wider net cast to bring a more diverse audience. In a year that has seen huge steps forward in local domestic-partnership registries throughout the state, not to mention historic rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer all but legalizing same-sex marriage, the limelight couldn’t be shining any brighter on the gay community than it is right now. A simple parade in the classic sense will clearly not do.
“We’re trying to basically reinvent – not reinvent, but make it so that it’s not boring every year,” he says. “You look at other pride parades and you think, ‘Why would I go there?’ I mean, I’m thinking the same way about GayDays now. Like, why do I want to go to GayDays when every year is the same thing?”
Audebert is careful not to heavily criticize the annual summertime event, which draws LGBT visitors from all over the world into the family-friendly confines of Walt Disney World, though outward appearances might indicate that Come Out With Pride, which now stretches over six days and features a wide variety of entertainment options, is starting to look a lot like its older summer sister. It could be turning into something that is “in quite the similar model” to GayDays, says Audebert, but with few exceptions, “GayDays does remain a circuit party type of event.”
Come Out With Pride features its share of bacchanalian excess, to be sure, but when it comes down to the Oct. 5 main event at Lake Eola, there’s extra attention paid to both the audience (full of allies, parents and children, along with LGBT revelers) and the event sponsors, which this year include Lockheed Martin, the Central Intelligence Agency, Siemens and New York Life, according to Audebert. A careful balance has to be struck.
“I remember four years ago I got criticized because I was trying to clean it up a little bit,” Audebert says. “You had the guys whipping each other on the floats, with toys basically, and it was very sexual. It’s not what our community is about. You know, someone’s fetish is someone’s private life. Our LGBT community is not about fetishes and it’s not about providing out there for the world to see what your personal sexual life is about. Unfortunately that’s the image that we have been attached to, so now it’s our community’s job to make sure that we straight the record.”
In other words, behave. Audebert is likewise working with the sponsors to gauge their point of interest – exploiting the mighty gay dollar, or supporting the rights of the community – as a means of customizing sponsorship packages. Sponsors like Kennedy Space Center, he says, are coming on board to show their support of the LGBT community, in addition to showing the gathered throng that the hobbled space attraction is only 45 minutes away from Orlando. “There’s a sales element to it,” Audebert says.
“Something I’ve been working on for the past three years is talking about diversity and bringing in former foes, people that may not have had the best view of the LGBT community,” he says, adding that 90 percent of the current sponsors would be unlikely to be supporters as recently as a decade ago.
Perhaps more controversial that the transparency of economic motivations, though, is the broadening of the political tent beneath which the event will happen. In a somewhat surprising move, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs issued a proclamation in support of Come Out With Pride this year, an act typically reserved for the more liberal city of Orlando government.
“This gathering provides a special opportunity for [the] LGBT community to come together to show your unity and support for one another,” Jacobs wrote on county letterhead. “Additionally, Come Out With Pride focuses on the financial and cultural contributions the gay community and visitors make to our great county, as well as placing attention on the strides we have made in ensuring that all citizens, from every walk of life, have the opportunity to enjoy equal rights.”
In her actual proclamation, Jacobs goes even further, saying “we will continue to break down the walls of fear and prejudice and work to build a bridge to understanding and acceptance, until gays and lesbians are afforded the same rights and responsibilities as all Americans.” She also declares Oct. 5 as Come Out With Pride Orlando Day in honor of her former staffer and confidante Chase Smith, who passed away in August.
Jacobs is expected to take the stage at the Oct. 5 event, a prospect that raises important questions about the mayor’s previous positions on LGBT rights. As recently as last year, Jacobs was actively against the countywide domestic partnership registry that she was eventually pressured into supporting. In 2008, Jacobs, a Republican, voted in favor of the state’s constitutional gay marriage ban. She likewise opposed gay adoption.
“Her past is certainly something that we want to continue to look at, but should also embrace the fact that she’s evolved,” Audebert says. “The fact is she’s going to be on stage: That’s cameras and pictures everywhere. You can’t go back after that.”
And perhaps that’s the new purpose of Come Out With Pride anyway. Gone are the antagonistic displays of nudity and harnessed leather daddies; welcome the interstate billboards, radio advertisements and climate of inclusion. This is not your uncle’s Pride parade.
“Let’s face it, our community is so diverse. The job of a Pride celebration is to put a celebration out there that’s for everyone. And last I checked, a lot of the gay community has voted for Republicans,” Audebert says. “There are so many more straight people coming over the past few years. Within the next few years, I think you and I will probably look back and talk about this and say, ‘That’s a non-issue. Nobody cares anymore.’ I think we’re getting there.”