Back in the blazing hot of October 2005, there was a fleeting vodka flush of doubt that none of this would last. Come Out With Pride – a seemingly more organized iteration of spotty Pride parades of yore that troubled a downtown block or two – had occupied Heritage Square outside of the Orange County Regional History Center, and this writer was tucked away from the masses in an air-conditioned white tent with open bar service. It seemed absurd, maybe a little too big for its britches and even potentially calamitous.
But as Come Out With Pride swells into its 10th year – now occupying a whole week (because Gay Days did the same thing, you’ll recall) – it’s clear that any and all doubts were off base. The event has become a family celebration, a massive gathering of public emotional catharsis, a political touchstone and a marketing tool – not unlike the whole LGBT diaspora these days, really.
Fortunately, we’ve been to every parade over the past decade so our memories remain – at least partially – intact. Take a gaze back with us, won’t you, and indulge in some of what happened each year, along with some personal reflections brought to you from the pages of Orlando Weekly and this author’s former very gay column, Blister.
What you might remember: On Oct. 9, more than 10,000 people converged on Heritage Square for the inaugural event. Early in the afternoon, Mayor Buddy Dyer attended a VIP champagne brunch kicking off the festivities; the parade took to the streets around 3 p.m. Holding grand marshal duties was then-somewhat-popular music sensation Amber; performances were led by American Idol Jennifer Hudson; emceeing the affair were (then) Real Radio 104.1 personality the Sexy Savannah and Orlando Weekly’s Billy Manes.
What we remember: “Thankfully, my backtracked philosophical reverie is interrupted by duty. Savannah and I are introduced as ‘Orlando’s new power couple,’ and we take the stage, deftly (and perhaps deafly) taking turns trying to talk into each of the four microphones that aren’t on. The problem is quickly fixed just in time for us to start screaming ‘Yaaaaaaaaay’ and ‘HEY! GAY PEOPLE!’ at each of the organizations that roll-and-walk by.” – Blister, Oct. 13, 2005
What you might remember: Realizing that it had cornered a market, the parade held its first kickoff party at former Thornton Park venue the Veranda (hosted by Orlando Weekly) on the preceding Thursday night. Come Out With Pride enlisted television’s Jim J. Bullock (Too Close for Comfort, Hollywood Squares) as its grand marshal for the parade on Sunday, Oct. 15. More than 15,000 people were counted among the parade-route population, with the whole thing coalescing into a firmer identity, partially due to the beginnings of a gay history archive. Sadly, the day of the parade also brought the announcement of the death of former Watermark editor Dave Wiethop, which cast a slight pall over the festivities.
What we remember: “Savannah’s bedazzled her ‘Billy Manes Mayor of Orlando’ T-shirt and turned it into a comely dress, and I’m wearing mine too, because I shouldn’t. She’s sporting a tiara to match my ‘Drama Queen’ sash, and we’re just one Hollywood Square away from Wayland Flowers and Madame.” – Blister, Oct. 26, 2006
What you might remember: This was the year that Come Out With Pride officially outgrew its smaller route and was relocated over to Lake Eola Park to accommodate an estimated 30,000 people (walking shoes were likely employed by participants NOT dressed for effect). The beer garden was huge, the Oct. 14 parade was long, the Weekly sexily worked with Fairvilla Megastore on an actual float (a pirate ship). Universal Orlando and Bright House were presenting sponsors, there was an “Obama van” in the parade and the night was closed out with “A Salute to Broadway” featuring Jennifer Holiday.
What we remember: “Over at our float, scissors are clipping butt-pirate T-shirts into the required gay misshapenness, and I’m securing my place on the DiCaprio ‘king of the world’ bough. A soundtrack boomed from my own iPod is making everything gay gayer by means of Bananarama, and I think my empty chalk-mark has returned to its desired state: an amphetamine maze. I am meant to be snorted!” – Blister, Oct. 25, 2007
What you might remember: More or less, the parade began to take its current shape by Oct. 12, winding again around Lake Eola with increased pride in its step. The show numbers were more elaborate – one float’s rendition of “Lady Marmalade” was particularly memorable – but the corporate interest was growing, too. For every shirtless buff guy in hot pants, there was a Best Buy worker in his or her humble uniform. Still, you can’t shake your head at 45,000 in attendance. Oh, and Lisa Lisa performed, so that was awesome.
What we remember: “But Eddie and I – along with my pretty friend Karen, Graham, his gym friends and a couple of friendlies from the office – trudge along our rectangular downtown path with waving arms outstretched and beads to throw, mouths slightly agape in populist surprise. We are proud. The boombox is a crowd-pleaser among girls with choppy hair and cutting histories, and the heat, although treacherous, does not prevent me from galloping through the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ while we’re actually going west! Amazing.” – Blister, Oct. 23, 2008
What you might remember: There was something of a loose “Heroes” theme to the proceedings as the parade swelled to an estimated 60,000 on Oct. 11, 2009. By this point, COWP had established itself as a five-year-old beast to be reckoned with. So was the LGBT population, according to headlining guest and parade grand marshal Stuart Milk, nephew of assassinated gay rights hero Harvey Milk. The gays were here to recruit you. Singer Ari Gold (Not Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in the HBO series Entourage) performed on the main stage.
What we remember: Not too much, oddly. Who is Ari Gold?
What you might remember: By this point, you probably shouldn’t be remembering much: All should be blurring together in a kaleidoscope of high kicks and leather straps and beads tossed in the air. But there were a couple of contentious developments to the Oct. 10 COWP event, most notably that the organization behind the event was granted nonprofit status earlier in the year, allowing COWP to go after bigger donors. There was also some noise about protestors and the Westboro Baptist Church, but nothing really came of it. About 70,000 people showed up.
What we remember: The Olympian theme meant that we were perpetually chasing after grand marshal Greg Louganis, so much so that we had already crept away before Pride headline act, R&B singer Martha Wash (of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” fame), could make it rain men.
What you might remember: Oh dear, this one was a bit of a nightmare. Everything was set for the “Out Is the New In” fashion conundrum that made up the 2011 theme, but by Oct. 8, it became apparent that torrential rains would shut out the parade. There were fireworks on that date, but the parade itself was moved to November as “take two.” Jon Lovitz from the LOGO television network emceed and played grand marshal and Orlando Sentinel straight dreamboat columnist Scott Maxwell gave a speech. Oh, this is also the year that the parade moved to Saturday, sparing the workday world so many obvious hangovers.
What we remember: “Sure, [it] was a washout replete with bangs (the fireworks still happened!) and ample whimpers, but the hastily rescheduled November Come Out With Pride Parade “Take Two” turned out to be a shimmering success. The moral of the story, of course, is that you can’t keep a good gay parade down.” – Billy Manes via orlandoweekly.com
What you might remember: In short, Debbie Gibson. As grand marshal for the parade, Gibson pulled double duty and played the Parliament House following the Oct. 6 parade-meets-fireworks at Lake Eola. The vendor areas around the lake were expanded, and a “global pride” theme was presented via a “world showcase” on Central Avenue. Oh, and 100,000 people showed up, at least in part due to the growing political groundswell for marriage equality (both the county and city had already signed their domestic partnership registries into effect) and for the November election.
What we remember: We built what was supposed to be a giant red wooden DJ booth/Tardis box for the parade and tossed beads to people. That and Debbie Gibson. Timeless.
What you might remember: If you were anywhere near the Weekly van, you’ll remember that we all looked like clown-balloon butterflies (because we were). There was a bit of a country theme that year, via hunky YouTube sensation Steve Grand, who held a shindig at the old Cheyenne Saloon on Church Street. But perhaps the most memorable thing about last year’s pride was the presence of Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs on stage with city commissioner Patty Sheehan. In her speech, Jacobs – a controversial Republican pick given her previous votes against gay rights – honored her former ombudsman Chase Smith (who had passed away earlier that year). “We will all continue to fight for equality until every last person who struggles against oppression and discrimination is recognized,” she said. She has since been lukewarm on marriage equality, until this year when she suddenly announced that she had “evolved” on the issue. Jacobs will appear – with Republican Orange County Clerk of Courts incumbent candidate Eddie Fernandez – once again this year.
What we remember: Most of the above. But we also remember the distinct feeling that Come Out With Pride had somehow mellowed, something illuminated by our interview with Come Out With Pride executive director, Mikael Audebert, last year.
“I remember four years ago I got criticized because I was trying to clean it up a little bit,” Audebert told us. “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 straighten the record.”