Pride swells to record numbers as Jacobs’ appearance stirs controversy

Come Out With Pride 2013 broke all records to become the largest LGBT Pride event in Florida. In its ninth year, the Oct. 5 rally and parade were the culmination of a week’s worth of activism, partying, and community-building that saw more than 120,000 people participate throughout the day, according to COWP estimates. Official City of Orlando numbers are expected Oct. 10.

“There are so many things this Pride that really hit 100%,” says Mikael Frank Audebert, Executive Director and Senior Executive Producer of COWP.

Although Audebert is overjoyed with this year’s growth, he’s already looking forward to improving the event next year.

See Watermark’s complete coverage of COWP – including loads of beautiful photo galleries.

Jacobs’ speech stirs controversy
The rally boasted many memorable moments, including the first time an Orange County Mayor, Teresa Jacobs, signed a proclamation and spoke to the crowd.

“COWP 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,” Jacobs read from her county proclamation of the event while standing at the bandshell.

Part of Jacobs’ motivation may be the passing of her aide and COWP leader Chase Smith, who at 41, lost a battle with cancer on Aug. 28.

“I am heartbroken that he isn’t here to share in this event, and in the pride of this community,” said a tearful Jacobs.

Still some were not happy at Jacobs’ inclusion in COWP, based on her past record with LGBT equality issues. In 2011 and 2012, Jacobs stalled on the implementation of a domestic partner registry, even passing up an offer to create the registry alongside the city of Orlando.

“I don’t want to intimate that her relationship with Chase was anything less than sincere,” said local civil rights attorney Mary Meeks (who often also contributes a column to Watermark). “As far as I know, though, Jacobs still would deny people like Chase the opportunity to marry and to adopt children.”

“Jacobs fought like hell for over a year to try to stop us from getting the domestic partnership registry. She eventually voted for it, but not because she supported it. I had many private conversations with her where it was clear she did not support it,” Meeks added.

After nearly two years of frustrating negotiation with the Orlando political and community leaders, Jacobs and her county commissioners passed a nondiscrimination ordinance for Orange County on May 24, 2012.

“What stands out is what Jacobs didn’t say,” Meeks said. “She didn’t say she supports the right to marry. She didn’t apologize for what she put the community through in fighting for the domestic partnership registry.”

To Audebert, it’s clear that Jacobs’ participation was related to Chase’s death.

“I think her relationship with Chase may have affected her decision to participate,” Audebert said.

In reference to the Jacobs controversy, Audebert said that eight years ago, “half of the COWP sponsors” would not have attended the Pride event.

“Does it make them bad people today? No, evolution is a good thing,” he said. “You know, if tomorrow, Chick Fil-A came and said they wanted to be part of it, I’d applaud that. I want them to make an apology by being in the parade.”

At COWP, Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan also spoke of Smith’s time as her aide. State Representative Joe Saunders spoke, and a proclamation by Senator Alan Grayson was read. LGBT service members were recognized, with special attention to reservist Lusinda Recor, who was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

The parade saw significant growth, which brought a few new hurdles to overcome for 2014. The number of floats increased from 82 last year to 101 this year, creating some long breaks as everyone was coordinated. Along Rosalind Avenue, many parade watchers got rambunctious and stood directly in the traffic flow, blocking some larger floats; the crowd was trying to interact with floats and marchers, causing some delays and safety concerns.

“Our top priority is safety, but we can only do so much if people decide not to follow our directives,” Audebert said, noting that extra police coverage and barriers to keep watchers safe in the future would bloat COWP expenses by another $12,000.

“Nobody wants us to charge, not even a dollar. Even I’m against that,” Audebert said, adding that he hopes he can find other solutions in the future to prevent people from putting themselves and parade participants in danger.

“The businesses in Thornton Park raised $3,000 to keep Pride in the area,” he reported.

The Saturday events concluded with fireworks, now in its third year and one of the most popular features of COWP.

“For the very first time, we had our vendors requesting to stay later, since the park still had so much foot traffic at 8:30 p.m.,” said Audebert, “Areas of the park that were always sparse were packed to capacity.”

Parliament House also reported a huge crowd. COWP grand marshal Taylor Dayne rode in the parade Saturday afternoon then headed to Parliament House for her Saturday night performance. According to Parliament House owner, Don Granatstein, Dayne sang to a crowd of 3,300 at the resort.

Prelude to Pride
The week’s events kicked off with John Waters bringing his one-man show to the Out in the Open film festival in a sold-out event. The director, author, and artist, famous for his skewed and crass humor, delighted the audience with his off-color stories and tasteless jokes.

“I love all these labels we give ourselves: bears, otters, fems, nancies, butches, and then I just heard one recently, blouse. I had to ask what it meant, and my friend told me, you know, blouse, an effeminate top.”

Waters also touched upon all of his full-length films in chronological order, each with an anecdote or two. He then opened up the floor to audience questions.

“Waters was very gracious and generous,” Audebert said of the director best known for his gross-out humor.

Though John Waters was a huge success, “the Out in the Open Film Festival itself will probably need some revamping,” admitted Audebert. “We are in talks with the Global Peace Film Festival [which typically occurs in September] to include it there.”

“There’s so much going on at Pride, it’s very difficult to get a film festival done properly, especially since it wouldn’t necessarily attract a lot of visitors from out of town,” he said.

On Oct. 2, local comic Jeff Jones hosted the Pink Collar Comedy Show.

“It was also sold out,” said Audebert of the first-time event.

On Oct 3, the Cheyenne Saloon on Church Street re-opened for one evening for a cowboy-themed fete, where some guests took the opportunity to dress in their best Western gear. The night “also sold out” boasted stilt-walking cowboys roaming the ground floor, and a VIP area was set up on the top floor with a private bar in front of a beautiful stained-glass window. Bartenders in the VIP area wore cheeky loincloths made from bandanas.

The multi-tiered space also played host to young, out country star Steve Grand, who has recently found fame after his music video, featuring gay romance, went viral.

As the handsome performer was introduced, the crowd immediately filled the floor in front of the stage. Grand performed his songs “All-American Boy” and “Stay.” Grand then stayed through the weekend, participating in the Pride parade and performing once again at the Lake Eola Amphitheatre a few hours before the fireworks.

“I think what convinced Steve to stay for Saturday’s Pride event was all the positive Orlando energy he saw,” Audebert said. “People had come all the way from South Africa and Brazil, and so Steve decided to extend his stay.”

Friday night, Oct. 4 was the Pride Church Street Block Party, where a capacity crowd danced to disco diva Martha Wash.

“I’ve been working for three years to get Church Street more involved,” Audebert said of both the Cheyenne Saloon Opening Ceremony and the free Friday concert open to all ages. “We proved this year that we can do it without losing money, by coordinating with businesses like Hamburger Mary’s and Ceviche Restaurant,” he said.

Saturday was about Making History
COWP’s main event was Saturday, Oct. 5, which kicked off with a five-kilometer run/walk called Be the Change. This fundraiser was organized by Reeves United Methodist Church, which provides meeting space to Orlando Youth Alliance (OYA).

“OYA is so grateful to Lisa Schmidt and Rev. Sarah Miller for organizing the event,” said OYA development director Michael Slaymaker. “Reeves UMC is a wonderful church that members of our community should look into.”

The Be the Change 5K attracted over 300 participants and generated more than $6,000. OYA was a partial beneficiary of the proceeds.

OYA has been in operation for 23 years, and its goal is to provide a safe space for LGBT youth in Central Florida. OYA has groups in Orange and Seminole Counties, and is meeting with folks in Mt. Dora to start a chapter there.

Very early in the morning of Saturday, Oct. 5, merchants, food vendors and organizations started setting up their tents and trucks around Lake Eola. Police had already cordoned off a lane of Rosalind, preparing for the parade and events later in the day, which would necessitate diverting traffic around the park for six and a half hours. The weather proved cooperative, if a bit windy and warm, with gusts up to 20 mph and temperatures reaching 88 degrees by the late afternoon.

“We had 122 vendors and seven large pavilions,” Audebert said. Pavilions included the Disney Kid Zone, and the Wedding Alliance and the Imagination Station (sponsored by Microsoft).

“We lost the CIA and NASA because of the furlough [the government shutdown]. Employees were forbidden to participate,” said Audebert.

Every year, the number of protesters shrinks. This year, there was only one protestor, a man with a speaker who is most often seen on Orange Avenue every Friday and Saturday nights admonishing Orlando partiers with stories of hellfire and damnation. His handheld speaker was overwhelmed by a small group of parade goers who decided to follow him and whoop and cheer every time he tried to speak.

By 1 p.m., Lake Eola was full shoulder-to-shoulder with COWP attendees.

Svedka Vodka boasted a line all day, as the company printed shirts in a Plexiglas display for anyone who would wait. Couples brought their children to the Kid Zone. Many others brought their dogs, and a few even adopted a new animal at pet rescue tents.

One very prominent area at Lake Eola was the Zebra Coalition Village. To call attention to its work, they offered a live zebra to pet. The large temporary village also boasted a climbing wall, face painting, temporary tattoos, merchandise, raffles, and fundraisers for the group.

“We really wanted it this year so that everyone who came to Pride would have to walk through the Village,” said Zebra Coalition Director Dexter Foxworth. “We just wanted it to be bigger and better. We partnered with the Central Florida Zoo to bring the animals, and we have more of everything we’ve offered in the past, plus new stuff. Everything is more interactive with visitors so we have more time to talk with them about our mission.”

The Zebra Coalition is network of organizations providing services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and all youth. They assist young people facing homelessness; bullying; physical, sexual and drug abuse; and isolation from their families and communities.

Audebert said at next year’s COWP, Lake Eola itself will be incorporated.

“We just don’t know how and where,” he said. “And we’re also looking to add more outdoor activities. We want to add an element of fun, so that all people from all walks of life bring their families and come to understand more about the LGBT community.”

Additional reporting by Jamie Hyman.

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