On Watermark’s anniversary, founder Tom Dyer reflects on two transforming decades

When I started Watermark back in 1994, my goal was to share—and encourage—the richness of the local LGBT experience. Looking back, I see now that I had only the slightest idea what that meant.

In the last 20 years, Watermark has been my entrée to unimagined people and experiences—and I hope yours, too. We’ve stood up to discrimination in its ugliest forms, been patient as friends and representatives evolved, and discovered a real—almost cocky—pride in our uniqueness. And we’ve laughed with, and been inspired by, legends of this unique time in history.

I’ll never forget walking through our offices and overhearing Cyndi Lauper’s distinctive Betty-Boop-from-Brooklyn voice responding to questions by our Kimboo York.

Or Scottie Campbell gushing over Larry Kramer until the busy activist and playwright interrupted and said, “Do you have any questions?”

Or Joan Rivers scolding Kirk Hartlage for wearing pajama pants to work: “It shows no respect!”

Or Phyllis Diller telling Sam Singhaus she was the inspiration for Cruella De Vil.

Or Gloria Steinem (still goose bumps) telling me about the patriarchy: “They’re threatened by same-sex couples because they can’t imagine equality in partnership.”

Or a then-single Rep. Barney Frank grabbing my ass at a fundraiser in Sarasota—in front of my mother.

Or our staff’s excitement as we watched my “I’m sorry” interview with Charlie Crist go viral after being picked up by HuffPost.com, MSNBC.com and CNN.com.

I’ve told the Watermark story before, but it’s our 20th anniversary. Here’s the condensed version.

In the spring of 1994, I went to a Metropolitan Business Association meeting where some local elected officials made uninformed—even condescending—remarks. I was frustrated that only the few dozen in attendance could react.

A few days later I was in Atlanta having lunch at a restaurant in Virginia Highlands where everyone seemed to be reading Southern Voice. I began to fantasize about people sitting in cafés in the awakening Thornton Park neighborhood reading Orlando’s LGBT newspaper.

The image was so invigorating that I drove to the nearby offices of Southern Voice and asked to meet with the publishers, Chris Cash and Leigh Vanderels. They indulged my many questions and loaded me down with media kits, business cards and notes.

I began sketching out ideas and crunching numbers—a process that consumed me for months. Eventually I shared my obsession with my parents, expecting them to redirect me back to my new law practice. But Mom said, “There’s a reason you can’t shake this, so go for it.” My dad, who’d recently suffered a stroke, agreed with a hearty thumbs up.

The name was chosen to reflect a demarcation point for the local LGBT community. But after the first issue was published, a reader pointed out the more inspiring symbolism. A watermark is a transparent insignia on fine stationery, visible only when held up to the light. What a wonderful metaphor for being gay.

I started the paper with $25,000 borrowed from friends willing to take a risk. It was enough to buy a computer and hire start-up staff. Keith Peterson set about selling $12,000 in ads, and April Gustetter and I cranked out a 24-page first issue featuring Winter Park’s Amanda Bearse (Married With Children) on the cover.

Mom did the billing that first year, leading to this memorable phone exchange: “Enough with the pleasantries, Tom… has Pig Boy Leather paid yet?”

And friends came out of the woodwork to offer their help. David Almeida, George Alvan, Jim Crescitelli, Mike Kilgore, Ken Kundis, Ted Maines, Jill Porter, Nan Schultz, Patty Sheehan, Sam Singhaus, Nan Schultz, Rosanne Sloan, Clive Thomas, Dimitri Toscas, Greg Triggs, Yvonne Vassel and Diane Wilde all contributed, each in unique ways and with little or no compensation. When we expanded to Tampa Bay in 1995, Todd Simmons and Nadine Smith—both respected activists and experienced journalists—joined our growing family. The faith these talented people had in me and my vision still touches me.

There have been many more since. And in many ways, that’s the experience I never could have imagined. So many talented and devoted people have pitched in to bring the newspaper to this 20-year, well, watermark. We’ve dug in through some difficult times, and often with very different perspectives. You know who you are, and there’s a place in my heart for each of you.

The touching, inspiring arch of the past two decades is presented in interviews with Nadine Smith and Patty Sheehan, columns by Todd Simmons and Ken Kundis, and 20 pages of year-by-year highlights.

If you’re reading this, then please share my pride in 20 amazing years.

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