Pride takes on special meaning in Orlando this weekend. Less than four months after the Pulse massacre, an event normally noteworthy for its revelry and celebration must now also acknowledge the somber and mournful.
“What happened in the Pulse is part of the fabric of the city; there is no escaping it,” says Jeff Prystajko, director of marketing and communications for Orlando Come Out With Pride. “It’s something this community will be dealing with for a very long time.”
Organizers know there will be a somewhat different tone to the event than in 2015, when numerous same-sex couples held public wedding ceremonies months after Florida began issuing its first marriage licenses.
There will still be rainbow flags and feather boas and fireworks and Broadway stars, of course, but there will also be moments of silence to honor the 49 people killed after Fort Pierce man Omar Mateen burst into the club on June 12 with a Sig Sauer MCX and launched what is called both a hate crime and a homegrown terrorist attack.
But while the tragedy casts a certain shadow on festivities, it also serves to remind that Pride events didn’t launch as street parties but as civil rights protests, Prystajko notes. “In the last four decades that there have been Pride events, there’s a lot of incidents where either the community has been antagonized or there has been some kind of violence or hatred directed toward them,” he says. “Pride has always been a time for the LGBT community and our allies to come together in the face of opposition and to stand strong.”
A Community United
The fact such a deadly hate crime could take place in Orlando remains unbelievable to a community that promotes itself as “The City Beautiful” and which many know by the Walt Disney World tagline as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” This city, not Miami or Fort Lauderdale, was the first in the state of Florida to elect an out gay politician to office. The shooting took place shortly after Gay Days at Disney, and the community long was recognized as a haven from intolerance. With Pride, officials hope to regain that reputation.
“We are celebrating that our community is diverse and inclusive,” said Mayor Buddy Dyer in a video message to citizens. “We’ll continue to show the world that because Orlando is a welcoming city, we will not be defined by June 12, but instead be known worldwide as a place that celebrates our differences.”
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who became Florida’s first out elected official in 2000, said the tragedy within her district served as a too-close-to-home reminder that homophobia remains a deadly threat.
“I talk to these mothers all the time,” she recounts, referring to families of the 49 people killed. “Some are doing better than others. Our community is still healing.”
A big part of that comes this weekend, and for someone like Sheehan, who worked as an activist in the early days of Pride helping organize parades, that seems especially poignant: “It’s been exciting to see Orlando floats in parades from New York to North Carolina.”
At the Orlando event, Pulse survivors will serve as grand marshals of the parade, along with city officials and first responders. Christopher Hanson, who was in the Pulse when shooting started and escaped, then helped paramedics treat victims, said the event will show the world that the LGBT community can’t be destroyed by violence.
“People thought the hate would divide, but it really has united us,” he said. “There is so much love and so much expression and commitment, so many people coming together.”
He has been involved in several Pulse-related art efforts since the shooting; living through the event made him and other survivors unwitting public figures, and he looks to do good with his newfound fame. But he still has mental scars and suffers flashbacks to the deadly night. A recent trip to Epcot proved jarring, he says, when fireworks began to go off and he had to constantly remind himself the source of the explosive sounds was benign.
There will be fireworks again Saturday night as the greater Orlando community gathers around Lake Eola. The city landmark has become the site of many a community gathering since June. A vigil remembering victims drew more than 50,000 June 19; that’s a bigger crowd than would later attend the city’s Fourth of July fireworks. A crowd much larger than that will be on Eola’s shores this weekend, where painters are preparing now by painting an iconic band shell in the colors of the rainbow flag.
Schedule of a Celebration
Hurricane Matthew has kept Pride organizers glued to National Hurricane Center reports. With the storm tracking so close to Orlando, officials canceled an official launch party scheduled for Thursday at the Abbey as well as a Church Street Block Party originally planned for Friday night. Problems with flight cancellations could well affect the festivities further, but for now, all festivities planned for Saturday are expected to proceed as scheduled. (Incidentally, the 2016 Out and Equal Workplace Summit happening this week at the nearby Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, an indoor affair, remains unaffected.)
But the main event comes Saturday at the Come Out With Pride Festival, when entertainers flock to Orlando for the occasion. Prystajko says his organization became flooded with requests from LGBT personalities anxious to be part of the Orlando event. Several Queer as Folk cast members — Michelle Clunie, Peter Paige, Robert Gant — will reunite for a panel and discuss an episode from the fifth season about a hate-fueled bombing attack similar to the Pulse tragedy. Singer-songwriters Eli Liebe and Brandon Skeie will perform the song “Pulse,” which they wrote in the wake of the shooting.
Singer Brian Justin Crum from America’s Got Talent will also take the stage, as will Hairspray director Adam Shankman. Several cast members from The Fosters, a show run by Paige, will also entertain, and there will be appearances by Sirius SM On Broadway host Christine Pedi and Florida-native YouTubers RJ Aguiar and Will Shepherd of Shep689. Also on the roster: comedians Matteo Lane and Sabrina Jalees, and actors Drew Droege, Michael Cervaris, Alice Ripley, Darious de Hass, and Adam Berry. Trans reality TV star and activist Jazz Jennings of I Am Jazz will attend, as will musicians Evin, Emily Kopp, Brian Michael Diaz, and Brandon Parsons, along with such local institutions as the Orlando Gay Chorus and Central Florida Sounds of Freedom. A Taste of Pride event will feature out celebrity chefs Cat Cora and Art Smith, plus several local cuisineers to entice LGBT-friendly foodies.
Prystajko took notice when the Pride celebration in nearby St. Petersburg, which normally attracts around 200,000 attendees, drew 250,000, as it was held just weeks after the Pulse shooting. Orlando’s Pride event normally attracts some 150,000 people, but this year organizers are bracing for at least 200,000, if not far more.
Increased corporate sponsorship helps provide record resources, both from companies with local ties such as Disney and Full Sail University and from national brands like Wells Fargo and Delta. That’s good, because after the shooting, security costs for Pride will run as high as ever. And the event may prove more pointedly political. The parade features such groups as Gays Against Guns and the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence.
For Sheehan, it’s all a chance to show how Orlando fights for its citizens and embraces diversity. It drives her crazy when media call Mateen the “Orlando shooter” since he came from the Port St. Lucie–Fort Pierce area, a Florida enclave that is less LGBT-friendly.
“Even as a tolerant and loving and decent community, we can all fall victim to someone coming in who does not share out views and who is a homophobe,” Sheehan says, “but we cannot live our lives in fear.”
As the hurricane may continue to affect the Pride schedule, visit ComeOutWithPride.com for updates.