It was almost an afterthought before it happened. Back in the blurry early-millennia years of Orlando’s gay-pride past, there was no real structure to any of this. Those looming dark clouds staring down from the sky on a weekend afternoon? They meant that we should probably wait and have another drink at Firestone on Orange Avenue, event schedule be damned. But there was a buzz, that peculiar parade-hum of hot-glue guns racing toward sequins, crepe paper blowing in the wind, a veritable neurocenter of ambition for what we saw on our televisions, in magazines, in our futures: a real pride parade for the City Beautiful. Inevitably, the rain would come, the parade would fade around a corner just two blocks away and we, the gathered downtown denizens attached to this club or that partner, would wipe away our running mascara to the sound of a dance beat and race back into the summer. Pride would remain on the inside.
As this Saturday’s theme park-sized bonanza of queer acceptance makes its way around Lake Eola – organizers expect nearly 100,000 to participate, nearly half the population of the city proper – it arrives as a far different beast than it was a decade ago, and an even further cry from how it began. It’s a year of big change for Come Out With Pride: Most notably, the festivities have been bumped up a day from Sunday to Saturday (Oct. 8), and there’s been some internal structural shifts in leadership. Come Out With Pride has grown into a formidable holiday in its own right, something for Orlando to actually be proud of. It’s a gay Independence Day, replete with strollers and fireworks, drag queens and condo moms, and it is quickly growing into a reliable economic development engine for an unlikely Southern municipality. How did those ill-fated parade routes of yore lead to this day-long luxury lap? Let’s call it human nature.
Local gay historians point to 1983 as Orlando’s first pride moment. Nearly 800 people reportedly turned up for a “Gay Pride Sunday” at Turkey Lake Park back then, before heading down to Church Street for a pride brunch. But it wasn’t a parade until the early ’90s, when four gay activists, collectively known as Orlando Regional Pride, led a self-bankrolled movement down Pine Street, rolling along garbage cans to recoup costs, says Patty Sheehan, Orlando’s only openly gay commissioner.
“I did not get involved until the second or third year,” she writes in an email. “My recollection was that I was proud, but fearful. I had already been demoted at my job for attending the March on Washington, and I was a little worried about being photographed in the newspaper again. My how times change!”
By 2005, after a series of ebbs and flows with the event (one year no permits were pulled and celebrants just walked along the sidewalks of Lake Eola, legend has it), Come Out With Pride – a subsidiary of the gay chamber known as the Metropolitan Business Association – took up the reins of the operation and moved it to Lake Eola, at least in part to coincide with National Coming Out Day in October, but also to move it out of the shadow of the annual GayDays events of June. The inaugural parade was even co-emceed by this reporter, and attendance grew to nearly 20,000.
The ensuing years have seen monumental growth in the enterprise – by 2009, attendance estimates were around 55,000; last year it jumped to 70,000 – taking the event from its original niche status to that of a bona fide, cross-cultural attraction. This year, addressing concerns that the finances of Come Out With Pride had grown unmanageable, the group behind the event reformed its leadership by creating a new position, executive director, and handing the finances over to the president of the Come Out With Pride board (and the MBA board), Gina Duncan. According to executive director Mikael Audebert, that’s allowing him more time to work on the product itself.
“It is taking a new direction,” he says. “First, it’s getting much better. It’s attracting people from all over the state and of course the U.K. Every year we get a huge amount of people coming from abroad to celebrate Orlando Pride. And this year, more than before, we actually are focusing more on the community.”
Since its inception, the city has been supportive of the endeavor, partially waiving fees for the use of Lake Eola Park (an average of $3,000 in rental fees was offset in 2006 and 2007; the city’s parks department threw in $850 this year; Sheehan’s discretionary district budget assists; the Downtown Development Board routinely allocates thousands, as well). But Come Out With Pride is still an expensive affair, with the Orlando Police Department commanding an estimated $16,000 for its necessary detail and park rental hovering around $13,000. According to Duncan, the event typically needs to bring in at least $150,000 in revenues in order to continue its youth scholarship and grant programs. Audebert insists the costs will come down from “six figures” to “five figures” this year, thanks to some aggressive sponsorship seeking and major tweaks in programming. Instead of employing national live track acts – an entertainment option that became as limiting in space available at Lake Eola’s Walt Disney Amphitheater as it was in taste considering the breadth of the community – Come Out With Pride will now feature a fireworks display for everyone. A certain universality is necessary when dealing with 100,000 people.
“Obviously, the accomplishments of the LGBT community over the past years have opened the doors for people to be not only supportive, but also to come out of the closet,” Audebert says. “And those people who are proud of coming out of the closet and proud gays, they want to celebrate. They really think that it’s their right to celebrate, and it’s their duty to celebrate and inspire others. One thing I think Orlando has over other pride events is we also attract a very large crowd of straight allies. If you look at the parade route, you’ll see a lot of families with kids. About 25 percent of our attendance is straight allies.” (That means no throwing condoms at babies, Audebert adds).
Pleasing everyone isn’t always easy. Moving the event to Saturday has spurred an unexpected religious conflict, even if it may appease some of the churches along the route. The solemn Jewish holiday of fasting, Yom Kippur, falls on the same day as the parade, meaning that some of the area’s prominent bar owners and longtime participants – like Parliament House owners Don Granatstein and Susan Unger – may have to sit out the bacchanalia. (“We are taking that into consideration for next year’s planning,” Audebert says.) Also a consideration is the suggestion that the group may have to start charging admission to the parade – an idea floated after last year’s Come Out With Pride that Audebert says “right now I’m opposed to.”
But at its core, Come Out With Pride remains a florid sight to behold and a sometimes thumping bassline in which to lose yourself. The notion that it’s grown too big for its rather small britches is counterintuitive, with local activist groups like Equality Florida throwing as much respect in the direction of the proceedings as the corporate sponsors involved.
“I never thought in a million years that this little gathering of friends marching with banners would become the huge event that it has become,” says Commissioner Sheehan in her email. “I am proud of the years that I spent on Orlando Regional Pride, and very proud of what the event has become, one of the largest events that draws the largest crowds in downtown Orlando. It is because we are, as a community, committed to standing up to prejudice, to being exactly who we are, and for being just really creative and a fun group of folks.”
That fun may be the event’s key point. The enormous size of Come Out With Pride is more a testament to its origins than it may appear on the surface, says longtime local gay activist and playwright Michael Wanzie – even in its trash-can rolling days, it was a “reprieve from being political all the time.”
“Although it’s less and less as time goes on, there have been some horrible conflicts over the years about wearing too much leather or going in drag,” he says. “The whole point of pride parades around the country is not to put our best face on for the general public. It’s our celebration of who we are.”
A local LGBT marching band finds strength in numbers
By Jessica Bryce Young
When Roy Clement moved to Orlando more than 10 years ago, he hoped to join a band similar to the one he’d played with previously, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. The SFLGFB, “the first openly gay musical group in the world,” was founded in 1978 as a response to Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade; its first public appearance was marching behind Harvey Milk in a parade in ’78, and it continues as a fixture at various charity walks and neighborhood festivals. Clement, an arts administrator and proficient multi-instrumentalist, had fond memories of the community involvement that band enjoyed and wanted to create a group with the same vision of fun and diversity.
Since the ’70s, lesbian and gay bands formed across the country (visit gaybands.org for more information) with the same motivation. There’s the political statement of visibility made by any all-LGBT cultural group, and most bands also hope to provide support to local issue-based organizations. But it’s also about the music. Clement says the bands give people a chance to “return to their instruments. It’s fun. It’s a social sort of thing.”
Ten years ago he talked to a like-minded local; tentative plans were made, but nothing came of it. Six months ago, he decided to try again, and he met with some people with similar goals. One of them looked familiar: It turns out that Juan Canasi was the same man he’d talked to a decade ago about forming a band. “Once we met again, we realized that this just has to be done,” he says. “Not to be cheesy, but it’s kind of a destiny that this is going to happen this time.”
The Central Florida Sounds of Freedom Band and Color Guard – a convivial group of gay, lesbian and transgender musicians, many of whom haven’t marched with their instruments since high school – is now roughly 30 members strong. With just three months of practice under their belts, they’ve got full instrumentation, new uniforms and a dozen-member color guard, complete with drum major. Musicians from the Orlando Concert Band and the Orlando Gay Chorus are part of the CFSFB, but some band members haven’t picked up an instrument in 20 or 30 years. “It’s a challenge to get people playing like they were in high school,” Clement says. “There’s a little bit of fear there.”
Co-founders Clement, Canasi and Scott Stowell have worked hard to coax the band into shape by the weekend of Orlando’s Come Out With Pride festival; being “together enough” to take part in the parade has been their goal from the beginning.
The Parliament House parking lot has been home to the group’s practice sessions, and visitors haven’t failed to notice the festive group hot-stepping it across the asphalt. According to Clement, when prospective band members drop by Parliament House and see the musicians marching and sweating while the color guard is out front twirling their silks, they may be swayed: “They look fabulous.” (Sadly, however, the drum major is thus far resisting calls to twirl a fire baton at the parade.) In a show of unity, members of the South Florida Pride Marching Band and New York’s Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps will join the CFSFB in Saturday’s parade. “They’re doubling our numbers – we’re going to be over 60 people,” Clement says.
With several songs under consideration, the band has narrowed it down to four classics to be played Saturday, but Clement won’t reveal the final choices. Suffice it to say there’ll be no John Philip Sousa, though: “It’s a gay parade, honey. It’s gonna be fun,” he promises.
The way we were
The GLBT History Museum of Central Florida offers history without a home
By BIlly Manes
When we last visited with the folks behind the GLBT History Project in 2006, there seemed to be an insurmountable task at hand. The cobbling together of a reputable timeline from the yellowing newsprint and paraphernalia surrounding a community that was at best secretive and at worst persecuted for much of its existence came off, though honorable, as a catch-up exercise in hearsay. Stacked in a musty backroom of the Center, the old salacious Parliament House posters and candid personal photos awaited organization, a scrapbook, a legacy.
Now in its seventh year exhibiting at Come Out With Pride, the GLBT History Museum of Central Florida (recently incorporated as a nonprofit) has grown its archives to more than 5,000 items (many of which are visible online at gayorlandohistory.com), even if it doesn’t necessarily have a permanent place to put them. The all-volunteer board continues to collect and curate, and with the explosion of social media, has become far more adept at placing its bric-a-brac in appropriate context via simple communication and photo- tagging.
“These are people who are really dedicated,” says Ken Kazmerski, the museum’s board president. “It’s just that we want to save our history. That’s it. We don’t want it lost.”
Though it maintains a “mobile museum” which has popped up at Orlando International Airport, Darden Restaurants corporate offices and Wells Fargo headquarters, the group can’t seem to strike a fair deal with the Orange County Regional History Center (which doesn’t want it) or University of Central Florida (which would maintain ownership of it) that suits their collection. The Metropolitan Business Association, Orlando’s LGBT chamber of commerce, and Come Out With Pride have leaned in with rental for storage space, but Kazmerski still hopes for a permanent home someday. For now, its pride of place is in the “big tent” at this year’s Come Out With Pride celebration. Kazmerski says the museum’s space has doubled to 10 by 10 feet this year.
The museum has two special tributes planned this year, in addition to its usual timeline and “wall of remembrance” honoring locals who have perished. One is honoring deceased gay activist – and Kazmerski’s former UCF student – Saviz Shafaie, who fled Iran after being one of the first to speak openly about homosexuality in the 1970s and went on to champion important gay causes in Orlando. The other celebrates Jack Nichols, who helped launch the underground gay activist group Mattachine Society in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s before relocating and becoming an activist in Cocoa Beach. Both are part of a rich gay Floridian history that’s worth digging for, especially for Kazmerski who says he is in this for “the long haul.”
“It’s very affirming,” he says. “When you look back … our info only really goes back to the ’70s. Everything before the ’70s was secretive. People didn’t want their pictures taken.”
But now their histories remain somewhere.
An Orlando group is raising the profile of LGBT veterans
By Jeff Gore
When President Obama ordered the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell last December, it signaled the long-awaited end of a painful period for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered veterans. Since then, Orlando’s LGBT veterans and their advocates, not content to simply celebrate the policy change, have begun to lay the groundwork for a new social order. This past June, the VA Medical Center hosted a gay pride celebration for the first time in its history. Less than six months prior, the LGBT Community Center of Central Florida (otherwise known as “The Center”) installed what is only the third monument in the nation to specifically honor the military service of LGBT individuals. And two months prior to that, at the Orlando Veterans Day Parade, LGBT veterans marched openly for the first time ever.
This impressive level of activity by and on behalf of LGBT veterans in Orlando is due in part to a robust local organization called Out & Proud Veterans of America. Though it hasn’t been around long – the group held its first official meeting in July – it’s already assumed the role as one-stop-shop for LGBT vets. Among its many functions are providing referrals to veterans aid organizations, advising the local VA Medical Center on mental and physical health issues particular to LGBT veterans, holding regular social events (and irregular ones, such as the Sept. 20 party at the Orlando VAMC celebrating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) and erecting monuments to honor LGBT veterans like the flagpole at the Center.
The monument honors a different veteran (or group of veterans) every month, and more flagpoles are planned for other LGBT centers across the state. A $50 donation earns you the privilege to hoist a brand-new American flag in honor of the veteran(s) of your choosing – whatever their sexual orientation – and at end of the month, the flag is given to you. In August, the veteran of honor was Andrew Wilfahrt of Minnesota, a gay Army corporal killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in February. On this occasion, Out & Proud Veterans of America and the Center fronted the money for the flag, which was presented to Wilfahrt’s parents on Sept. 24 in Miami.
Most encouraging about Out & Proud Veterans of America is the group’s potential to go national – the group’s founder, Navy veteran Mark Cady, says he has already been asked to help create a chapter in Portland, Ore. He says he politely declined because he wants to avoid suffering the fate of other groups that expanded too quickly. “What we’re trying to do is start it more grass roots, on a local level, and once we get a really solid hold on that, then we’re going to start to spread,” he says. Either way, Orlando wins.