How 2021 impacted the LGBTQ communities of Central Florida and Tampa Bay

We don’t know about you, but 2021 simultaneously seemed like both the quickest and slowest-moving year for those of us here at Watermark.

As we looked back through every edition we published in 2021, stories found in the first few issues of the year surprised us. They felt like they happened years ago.

It was at the start of 2021 that the country witnessed an insurrection of the U.S. Capitol building and, despite this, the changing of the guard when Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States. Hope also arose as vaccines were on their way to every American, showing signs that we might be over this pandemic.

Unfortunately, their roll out hit several roadblocks as misinformation spread along with COVID-19. 2021 also became the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, which included tragic losses here in Florida and even within our local communities.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 50 known people were fatally shot or killed by other violent means in 2021. They are not forgotten.

2021 was also a year of celebration. We came back out for Pride events in Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg, throughout Florida and across the world.

We also saw individuals in the sports, film and pop culture arenas come out and live their truth – including football player Carl Nassib, singer Demi Lovato, dancing star Jojo Siwa, White House staffer Kal Penn and the Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira.

While we cannot believe we are already looking ahead to 2022, we invite you to join us as we look back on a year full of tragedy and triumph – reviewing the local, statewide and national stories that impacted the LGBTQ communities of Central Florida and Tampa Bay in 2021.

As the new year begins, Watermark features the One Orlando Alliance’s new leadership – board chair Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet and executive director Josh Bell – on the first cover of 2021. We follow that with a look at local entertainment venues as they slowly reopen during the pandemic, showcasing the talented Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker on the Central Florida cover and “Drag Race” superheroes, led by Bianca Del Rio, on the Tampa Bay cover.

In Central Florida, the community celebrates Orlando being named the best destination for LGBTQ families by as well as celebrates 15 years of Pom Pom’s being in The Milk District. But January isn’t all cheers as we say goodbye to local drag legend Nazhoni T. Foxx, who passes away Jan. 15 after battling COVID-19.

In Tampa Bay, the St. Petersburg mayoral race gets the year going as openly LGBTQ City Councilmember Darden Rice files to succeed term-limited Mayor Rick Kriseman. Sarasota’s ALSO Youth expands into Manatee County, kicking off the merger between the youth organization and Prism Youth Initiative with an outdoor event Jan. 23.

Equality Florida starts the year with a detailed, LGBTQ-focused Equality Agenda. The city of Fort Lauderdale joins in on an amicus brief calling on the state to rehear the issue of conversion therapy.

In Washington, as the nation is occupied by the Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capital, outgoing President Donald Trump quietly rescinds regulations implemented by the Obama Administration barring discrimination among HHS grantees with respect to sex, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. At least five known transgender or gender nonconforming individuals are killed, with the friend of Louisiana’s Fifty Bandz asking “When are we as a community going to do something?”

As February starts so does confusion surrounding the recently announced COVID-19 vaccines. Speaking with local medical experts, we try to answer some of the vaccine questions in the in-depth feature of our third issue. We then highlight some of the local trans women of color who are launching businesses and leading nonprofits.

In Central Florida, some of those very trans leaders are honored with an event at Orlando’s City Hall Feb. 1. The day is declared as “All Black Lives Fund Day” which recognizes the contributions of Black-led LGBTQ groups and celebrates the fundraising efforts – $100,000 at that point – of Contigo Fund’s All Black Lives Fund. Orlando also goes viral in February when a video of a six-year-old drag fan lip syncing during Hamburger Mary’s Broadway Brunch takes the internet by storm.

Not to be outdone, Tampa has the eyes of the country Feb. 7 as they host Super Bowl LV. During the preshow, openly LGBTQ Tampa General nurse Suzie Dorner shows off her Pride with a rainbow watchband as she is featured in a segment highlighting health care professionals during the pandemic. Throughout the month, Empath Partners in Care virtually steps out with its first AIDS walk since 2017 with its virtual “I Run For Safe Sex” 5K/10K.

Statewide, the LGBTQ community gets a big win when the Florida Commission on Human Relations announces Feb. 3 that it will protect LGBTQ Floridians by enforcing the Florida Civil Rights Act and accept claims of sex discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Alexus Braxton becomes the first known trans person murdered in Florida this year, with three more members of the community following this month.

On a national level, the newly sworn in Biden Administration announces HUD will accept cases of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing. The month also marks the first time an LGBTQ person is confirmed to a Cabinet-level position as Pete Buttigieg is sworn in as transportation secretary.

While the world is still socially distancing due to COVID, that doesn’t stop us from moving forward with our annual Watermark Awards for Variety and Excellence, or WAVES. Even though the annual parties don’t go on as planned, the community still picks their favorites in nearly 50 categories. The reason for the different WAVEs is reflected in the cover of our last March 2021 issue as we look at one year of COVID.

Orlando’s Ribbon Maker, Ben Johansen announces that he is bringing his Orlando Ribbon Project to an end. The Project, started in the hours after the tragic 2016 Pulse shooting, created 1.3 million ribbons which made their way to all 50 states, 67 countries and every continent. The Orlando Gay Chorus holds its first concert since the start of the pandemic at the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center March 21.

In Sarasota, Project Pride announces it is installing a Pride crosswalk and mural in the city’s downtown area. The Rainbow Pride Walk and Street Mural is the first major installation of its type in the city. St Pete Pride joins in with other organizations returning to in-person events with its Taste of Pride in the Grand Central District.

In South Florida, Fort Lauderdale’s first openly gay mayor, Dean Trantalis, comes under criticism after he signs a proclamation honoring Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. The church, which was founded in 1960, was a platform of founder Rev. D. James Kennedy’s anti-gay views for more than 30 years, including promoting conversion therapy. Trantalis defends his support by advising “it’s time to build a future based on love and not hate.”

Three transgender women are killed across the nation in March. In D.C., the Biden Administration makes history again as Rachel Levine becomes the Assistant Secretary for Health. Levine is the first openly trans person to obtain Senate confirmation as a presidential appointee.

April begins with an examination of The Equality Act, which passed in the U.S. House earlier in the year, and whether the Senate is likely to pass it. The year will conclude without a Senate vote on the bill. We also take an in-depth look at Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs. We speak with subject matter experts to find out who TERFs are and what they believe.

In Central Florida, GayDays and One Magical Weekend both decide not to move forward with their June events, the National Trans Visibility March announces it will be coming to Orlando during October’s Come Out With Pride and both the Florida Film Festival and AIDS Walk Orlando move forward with their events – FFF with its 30th festival in person and the AIDS Walk virtually.

In Tampa Bay, Dining Out For Life moves forward with its 16th annual HIV/AIDS fundraiser and St Pete Pride announces that instead of its traditional parade and festival over the last weekend of June, the organization will partner with other LGBTQ groups for a series of events to be held throughout the entire month of June.

Tallahassee gets on the anti-trans bandwagon with a pair of bills that would ban trans youth from playing in sports in school. HB 1475 passes in the Florida House April 14 but its companion bill in the Senate – SB 2012 – stalls April 20. The Senate resurrects it April 28 as a last-minutes amendment to SB 1028. Gov. DeSantis, appearing on FOX News April 29, indicates he will sign the bill into law.

The bad news continues as seven trans or gender nonconforming Americans are killed. Also, Arkansas bans gender-affirming treatments for trans youth, Caitlyn Jenner announces she is running for California governor and Putin bans same-sex marriage in Russia.

Celebrating its 30th festival, we feature the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival on May’s first cover as they return to in-person shows. For the next issue, we split the covers and focus on LGBTQ travelers on the Central Florida cover and highlight disco queen Martha Wash, who performs at Tampa Pride, on the Tampa Bay cover.

In Central Florida, the LGBT+ Center Orlando announces its Diversity Award recipients, which include honoring Mayor Jerry Demings and U.S. Rep. Val Demings with Lifetime Achievement Awards. The Center also partners with the nation’s largest blood centers to be one of the few LGBTQ community centers in the U.S. to host the ADVANCE study, which looks to change laws banning men who have sex with men from donating blood.

In Tampa Bay, Clearwater’s Keri Washington becomes the first known trans person and one of 10 members of the community murdered in May. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist also confirms he is running to unseat incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022. Tampa Pride returns with an in-person parade and festival May 22, marking the first Pride organization in Watermark’s readership area to return with a full traditional parade since the start of the pandemic.

Across the state, elected officials – both past and current – stand up for trans youth against DeSantis. More than 100 elected officials across Florida signed onto a letter titled “Let Kids Play.” The letter urges DeSantis not to sign the anti-trans youth sports bill into law.

The northeast of the U.S. makes headlines as Vermont bans the use of the “gay panic defense” and New York City Pride announces that it will ban police officers from marching in their parade until at least 2025. In other parts of the world, Wales elects its first nonbinary mayor, Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health displays a Pride flag and the president of an LGBTQ rights group in Tonga is murdered.

Never forgotten, Watermark begins the month by reflecting on June 12, 2016. Five years later, we sit down with Pulse owner Barbara Poma as survivor Brandon Wolf, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and more remember that tragic day. We also examine Gayborhoods for Pride Month, LGBTQ-centric neighborhoods celebrating our community all year long.

Tatiana Quiroga is named Come Out With Pride’s first executive director in Orlando. She enters the role seeking to “create a Pride that speaks to all our futures.” SPEKTRUM Health also gets a new home in the city while opening another facility in Melbourne.

Traditionally the state’s largest LGBTQ celebration, St Pete Pride officially kicks off its reimagined month of festivities after skipping 2020 but skips its parade. Sarasota makes history with the help of Project Pride, formally recognizing June as Pride Month for the first time.

Gov. Ron DeSantis welcomes June differently. He signs Florida’s anti-LGBTQ bill barring transgender youth from playing sports aligning with their gender identity into law on the first day of Pride Month. He also vetoes funding for Pulse survivors and LGBTQ youth in the state’s budget.

Two trans people are killed in Virginia and Ohio. Seeking change in Florida, donations pour into Orlando for Pulse victims and LGBTQ youth as lawmakers share political prospects in 2022. U.S. Rep. Val Demings announces her bid for the U.S. Senate and State Rep. Michele Rayner, the first Black and openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Florida Legislature, shares that she will seek outgoing U.S. Rep. Crist’s seat.

We spotlight authenticity in July. Watermark begins the month with a photo-focused issue highlighting trans and nonbinary individuals who detail what gender euphoria means to them. Gay magicians then showcase their authentic acts in Tampa Bay and Central Florida.

The five-year mark of Pulse continues to reverberate throughout Orlando and well beyond. After Biden signs a bill designating the National Pulse Memorial in the final days of June, entrepreneur Richard Branson visits space wearing a ribbon from the Orlando Ribbon Project.

Ahead of August’s primary election, term-limited St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman endorses another longtime LGBTQ ally as his successor: former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. It’s also announced that local veteran and cyclist Monica Sereda will represent the U.S. in Tokyo for the Paralympic Games, running parallel to the Olympics.

Nathan Bruemmer steps into his new role as Florida LGBTQ+ Consumer Advocate for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He was appointed by Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried – the only statewide-elected Democrat also running to unseat DeSantis – and is the second person to fill the role and first who is transgender.

In New Jersey and Maryland, two Black trans women are killed. The nation’s largest LGBTQ-focused civil rights organization also partners with Florida’s largest. After the Human Rights Campaign files a federal lawsuit against the state’s law targeting trans youth, Equality Florida promises to continue the fight on the ground while HRC vows to fight similar laws nationwide.

As COVID cases spike across Florida due to the Delta variant, the state enters crisis mode. Watermark speaks with specialists and local organizations about staying safe, getting vaccinated and more.

We also examine finance, detailing the LGBTQ community’s generational wealth gap and speaking with local experts. They weigh in on unique challenges facing our community and the LGBTQ dollar.

Trina Gregory-Propst, owner of Se7en Bites, once again puts Central Florida on the Flavortown map. The restaurant owner wins Guy Fieri’s realty TV series “Guy’s Grocery Games.” Parliament House also moves forward with opening a new location and after debate, Come Out with Pride confirms law enforcement officers will be welcome to march in their parade.

Metro Inclusive Health opens its 30,000-square-foot facility in Ybor as the month begins, also unveiling its 1,500-square-foot home beside the facility for LGBTQ programming. The expansion doubles its services in Tampa. In St. Petersburg, voters determine that mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon will advance to the city’s general election, edging out openly gay Darden Rice who later endorses Welch.

Three trans women of color are killed in August. As the Olympics come to a close overseas, “Team LGBTQ” takes a victory lap. Over 180 openly LGBTQ athletes competed in Tokyo for the Games, more than tripling 2016’s number. Had they competed as a country, they would have ranked 11th in total medal count with 30 different countries represented by at least one publicly out LGBTQ athlete across 34 sports.

As students return to classrooms nationwide, Watermark checks in with local Gay Straight or Gender and Sexuality Alliances. We highlight support LGBTQ youth are receiving in and outside of school.

We also focus on the evolution of entertainment, beginning with the Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. We preview TIGLFF’s 32nd year ahead of its in-person and virtual screenings. Orlando’s Ginger Minj also sits down with Watermark to discuss “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and her move to country music as Sarasota’s Harvey Milk Festival rebrands as the Fabulous Arts Foundation.

After being denied access to COVID-19 data from the state, Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and the Florida Center for Government Accountability file a lawsuit for its release. News media companies follow their lead. Music superstar Lil Nas X also raises funds for Central Florida’s Bros in Convo and other LGBTQ nonprofits with his first album.

St Pete Pride announces its new leadership to guide the organization into next year’s 20th season, naming its first lesbian president in Tiffany Freisberg. Tampa Pride subsequently holds the neighboring celebration’s inaugural Pride on the River, kicking off its 2022 Pride season with a boat parade and more.

Equality Florida welcomes Nikole Parker as its new director of transgender equality and it’s announced that two other staff members will serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ Florida Advisory Committee: Nadine Smith and Brandon Wolf. Three trans women of color are murdered. President Biden also recognizes the 10-year mark of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as discharged LGBTQ veterans are awarded overdue VA benefits.

Watermark kicks off the month with our annual Halloween issue. We detail LGBTQ frights and delights coming to Central Florida and Tampa Bay, including the inaugural Halloween on Central in St. Petersburg.

We also say goodbye to the city’s outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman, who sits down with Watermark to reflect on eight inclusive years in charge. Local content creators for OnlyFans also detail how conservative groups have impacted their work on the popular platform.

A record 200,000 people turn out for Orlando’s Come Out With Pride, with more than 300 groups and organizations participating in the Most Colorful Parade. The celebration also welcomed the third National Trans Visibility March, the first to be held outside of Washington, D.C. Advocates reflect on the known trans lives lost to violence in 2021, which by the year’s end reach the highest number on record.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon each commit to supporting the city’s LGBTQ community ahead of November’s election. PFLAG Riverview is also honored at PFLAG National’s 2021 convention for the chapter’s exponential growth during the pandemic.

Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature files its latest attack on trans youth, a bill to criminalize health care providers who perform gender-affirming care. In Miami Gardens, Royal Poetical Starz is murdered; one of five trans people this month. Dr. Rachel Levine also becomes the first openly trans admiral in the U.S. and the U.S. regains its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council under President Biden.

With Broadway on its way back, Watermark puts Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center and Tampa’s Straz Center centerstage as we detail the return of touring productions. Ahead of World AIDS Day 2021, we also check in with local experts about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting those living with HIV.

Orlando incumbents win big in the city’s election after some notable challenges. Police also make an arrest after the onePULSE Foundation shares that a man had set fire to one of the banners hanging on the Pulse memorial.

Ken Welch makes history with the support of LGBTQ-focused groups in Tampa Bay. He is elected as St. Petersburg’s 54th and first Black mayor with more than 60% of the vote. As advocates prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance, Tampa’s Jenny De Leon becomes the 46th known trans person murdered this year, making it the deadliest year on record for trans and gender nonconforming people. Three others are murdered this month.

The Human Rights Campaign, which tracks the data, also releases the results of its 10th annual Municipal Equality Index. Of Florida’s 20 cities scored, half receive a perfect score of 100 for their LGBTQ inclusivity. They are Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Oakland Park, Orlando, St. Peterburg, Tallahassee, Tampa, Wellington, West Palm Beach and Wilton Manors.

Openly LGBTQ candidates across the nation also make history. At least 184 win elected office in 2021, more than in any other odd-numbered election year ever recorded. Trans women had the highest win rates of any gender identity at 63%, with 12 trans women winning their respective races.

Watermark closes 2021 by reflecting on 20 people who made it a remarkable year for the local LGBTQ community. Our Remarkable People issue returns to highlight 10 incredible individuals in Central Florida and 10 more in Tampa Bay.

Come Out with Pride’s Tatiana Quiroga covers one edition while U.S. Paralympic cyclist Monica Sereda covers the other. We also look back on the people, places and events that resonated with readers online and in print in this, our Year in Review issue.

Orlando welcomes the Orlando Otters RFC, the city’s first LGBTQ rugby team. Players hope to pave the way for more LGBTQ representation in sports. After Flagler County Schools drew national attention for the banning the LGBTQ book “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” officials continue to keep inclusive content from Central Florida students.

Pinellas County Schools do the same. “Gender Queer: A Memoir” is removed from general circulation in two Tampa Bay student libraries after the district “heard concerns” regarding the LGBTQ graphic novel. The LGBTQ-owned and operated bank Daylight also reflects on launching locally this year.

Gov. DeSantis and his administration end the year how they spent much of it. The Florida Department of Education removes a web page featuring anti-bullying resources that include information about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ youth.

Our nation’s neighbors to the north act to protect LGBTQ youth as Canada bans the discredited practice of conversion therapy. France follows suit. In the states, Nikai Davis, a trans woman, is murdered in California. An analysis of a U.S. Census Bureau survey also reveals that at least 20 million Americans could now identify as LGBTQ, almost doubling prior estimates. That community looks toward 2022.

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