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Florida Pride Organizers Weigh Navigating DeSantis's Anti-Drag Law or Canceling Events

Florida Pride Organizers Weigh Navigating DeSantis's Anti-Drag Law or Canceling Events

Pride parade and DeSantis

Many organizers with events planned in the month of June must decide now if they want to be test cases for the law.

Days ahead of the start of Pride month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law widely seen as dragging drag and targeting Pride celebrations. How will that impact Pride events throughout the state this year? Already, some events were abruptly canceled. But other organizers have vowed to soldier on as planned.

“We are determined to march on!” reads an email blast from Come Out With Pride Orlando.

But Orlando won’t hold its annual Pride parade until October.

Enforcement and litigation will play out in coming weeks and months that could offer Pride organizers around the state a better understanding of what will and won’t be tolerated under the new law. Many organizers with events planned in the month of June must decide now if they want to be test cases for the law.

DeSantis on May 17 celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia by signing a series of anti-LGBTQ bills. Those included Senate Bill 1438, which allows the state to go after licenses for any venue or individual allowing children into live adult entertainment. While Florida already prohibits minors from going to nude shows, this bill expanded definitions to cover any performance that was sexually suggestive and which included showing of prosthetic breasts or genitals.

While most laws passed by the Legislature this year won’t go into effect until July, the anti-drag law went into effect immediately. That means it will be in effect through Pride month.

In Wilton Manors, Florida’s most prominent LGBTQ haven, Stonewall Pride is scheduled for June 17.

Jeffrey Sterling, CEO of Stonewall Pride, said he doesn’t think anything needs to change with the festival’s plans. The event for years sought to be family-friendly. “Drag queens will be there, will be performing and will be welcome,” he insists.

He said that’s happening despite a recent vote by the Wilton Manors City Commission adjusting the event’s special event permit. Mayor Scott Newton in a letter to the community said the city had to make adjustments and promise the city, as a venue for the Pride event, won’t allow anything that runs afoul of the law.

“This vote was necessary to protect our businesses, and to minimize the risk of receiving penalties, fines, and legal repercussions,” Newton wrote. “The amended special event permit in no way bans or prohibits any member of our community from expressing themselves. It does, however, seek to ensure that adult performances take place where only adults are present.”

Sterling said when it comes to all audiences portions of Pride, he will have to enforce a code of conduct. That includes a parade being held on a state road. He said drag performers absolutely will be allowed to participate, but will need to cover up more than at an adult show.

“Those are the things never enforced in South Florida, which is its own little world. The dress code and code of conduct are different here than most of the country. Now we have got to raise it up some.”

He doesn’t believe city police and local officials will create a problem for the event, but he figures many homophobic groups will show up this year and try and bust anything they subjectively believe runs afoul of the new law.

But in South Florida, the event will go on. Other local Prides have decided to cancel festivities altogether.

Tampa’s annual Pride on the River event later this year has been called off. The Tampa Pride Diversity Parade already took place in March this year, before the new law went into effect. But the upcoming event was to include drag brunches at hotels along the Hillsborough River, a boat parade, and a stage for live performances, including one by the RuPaul Girls.

“The political climate is changing so fast with DeSantis thinking he wants to be King and ruler of the U.S.,” Tampa Pride President Carrie West.

Other Pride organizers remain in conversations internally about how to deal with the law. Equality Florida sent out guidance to Pride organizers trying to denote what does and noes not run afoul. While Rep. Fine, the drag bill’s sponsor in the Legislature, said he was inspired to file it after he could not shut down drag queen story hour at Space Coast Pride last year, the advocacy group notes the bill doesn’t explicitly prohibit drag.

“Local governments may not issue permits for events involving ‘adult live performances’

where minors are knowingly admitted. Permitted events that do not involve adult live

performances or do not admit minors should not be impacted by the bill,” the Equality Florida guidance states. “Nothing in the bill explicitly bans Pride parades or festivals, including those involving drag.”

But anyone who lets a minor into a show that does violate the law could be subject to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine. The DeSantis administration even before the law passed came after the liquor license of a hotel that simply catered a Christmas-themed drag show.

Tallahassee Pridefest took place already on April 15, less than a week before the Florida Legislature passed the anti-drag bill. Several lawmakers supporting LGBTQ causes stopped by the event, but ultimately, Republican supermajorities in the Florida House and Senate rammed the bills through.

“Kleman Plaza is behind City Hall, which is next to the Capitol. The juxtaposition of what took place at these two locations was not lost on anyone that day,” said Dana Farmer, an organizer of the event.

Farmer feels strongly the language of the legislation was meant to attack LGBTQ-friendly businesses, along with local governments allowing events with drag performers.

“The bill is written broadly and threatens entities with excessive fines and misdemeanor charges with the intention of sparking fear and intimidation that will lead to self-censorship,” Farmer said. “Tallahassee Pride rejects these politically-motivated efforts to marginalize our community and chose to move forward with our event while being mindful of the family-oriented nature of Tallahassee Pridefest and the safety of all involved. Our entertainers were presented with the content of the pending bill and were briefed on safety.”

Meanwhile, Naples Pridefest in conservative Southwest Florida has always faced some resistance. Callie Soldavini, organizer for the event, said the group was “gravely affected” by the new law. Members of the Naples City Council called for reconsideration of permitting the event in the wake of the new law. After Pride organizers made their case at City Hall, the City Council voted 5-2 to honor the permit for the June 10 event, but only after a litany of anti-LGBTQ activists in town labeled the event as indoctrination.

“It’s hard not to be loud, not to fight against this blatant violation on our constitutional rights and freedoms. But we moved drag inside to keep our loved ones safe and ensure we could celebrate our community after a tremulous year,” Soldavini said.

“Our Naples Pride Fest will remain a family-friendly celebration where children can become more accepting of themselves and others. For those struggling with their identity, we will be a supportive community for them to explore that relationship with themselves without hate or judgment. Children do not become gay or transgender just because they saw a drag performer, attended a pride festival, or saw same-sex parents. So what is the bill protecting children from?”

In Venice, city officials instilled a new code of conduct on Venice Pride events after Proud Boys and other anti-LGBTQ groups criticized a display. Co-President Jay Pennell said the next Venice Pride now won’t happen until November, and it won’t happen in downtown again. Rather, the city has suggested the event move to the local fairgrounds.

“We had drag queens coming from the theater last year,” Pennell said. “We have a couple thoughts on just holding a drag show event in support of the community on private property. But it’s very much a challenge down here.”

In Sebring, Highlands County LGBT+ Caucus director Christopher Davies recently had to publicly assure city officials been a “Bearded Lady” contest would be held inside and no one under 21 would be allowed in, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel. He addressed city officials after a Sebring City Councilman asked if the contest was another word for “drag show” and if that would run afoul of city laws.

Rather than fight this, many organizers have decided to cancel Pride events altogether. Pride in St. Cloud, nixed plans for its June 10 celebration. Treasure Coast Pride canceled a parade last month, according to NBC affiliate WPTV.

Further north in Sarasota, organizers say they aren’t worrying about the new law. City officials there have been supportive of the event, and even have plans to light a local bridge in rainbow colors through June. The local police department will provide extra security, and in fact assigned gay officers to the event, according to Project Pride President Jason Champion.

“I do feel like the law was aimed at Pride celebrations,” Champion said.

At the same time, he said the provisions in the law are nothing event organizers can’t handle. A decision had already been made to hold all major events, starting on June 1, indoors this year. That was as much about Florida’s hot weather and its inhospitable political climate, Champion said. Beyond taking that step, any official activity will avoid anything that dances near the state’s obscenity laws.

“We can’t control what our audience does,” he said, “but we can control our programming.”

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