Tampa Pride vows to ‘Celebrate You’ in 9th year

(L-R) Angelique Young, Alex Barbosa and Brianna Summers. (Photo by Dylan Todd)

When around 100,000 people filled the streets of Ybor for Tampa Pride 2022, it set a regional record. It also showed organizers that after years of pandemic-related shutdowns and uncertainty, the community was ready for a return to form.

The gathering cultivated celebration staples like Tampa Pride’s Diversity Parade and Street Festival while raising the bar for newer initiatives like Pride at Night.

The organization subsequently built on that momentum with the second annual Pride on the River at the Tampa Riverwalk last September, successfully launching their 2023 season.

That culminates with the ninth annual Tampa Pride March 25, set for an Ybor return to “Celebrate You” with a full day of activities and entertainment. The theme was chosen because that’s what organizers have promised to do, despite the anti-LGBTQ attacks mounting state and nationwide.

“‘Celebrating You’ is not always an easy ride in the world that we live in, not even in our supposedly free country,” Tampa Pride President Carrie West explains.

“There are battles within the LGBTQ community and outside of it: just think about those who are against us, who want to spray gasoline on the fire to weaken our civil rights.”

Florida’s 2023 legislative session officially began with a Republican supermajority March 7, kicking off what the state’s largest LGBTQ-focused civil rights organization calls “the 60 most dangerous days in Florida.” Equality Florida warned supporters that multiple bills directly attacking LGBTQ Floridians had already been filed that day.

Among them are efforts to expand the state’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law, which limits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and legislation targeting the parents and health care providers of transgender youth. If passed, it would empower Florida to remove children from their biological parents for affirming their gender identities and more.

The legislative slate also includes what Equality Florida deemed an anti-drag bill, introduced this month to target live performance. Similar measures have been considered and passed across the nation to prohibit drag entertainment in public spaces, asserting the artform is unsuitable for minors in all instances.

Equality Florida says that if the bill were passed, it would expand state law — which already protects minors from explicit or harmful shows — “to include vague language that can be used to attack our drag community.” It “threatens venues that host drag performances with steep fines and injects the government into a parent’s right to determine what art and entertainment content is appropriate for their own children.”

The proposed legislation follows heightened scrutiny from Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis regarding drag entertainment, which critics call a precursor to his long-rumored presidential bid in 2024. In February, his administration moved to revoke the liquor license of Central Florida venue The Plaza Live for hosting “A Drag Queen Christmas,” a family-friendly tour that’s visited several cities in Florida every holiday season for nearly a decade.

It’s something Tampa Pride has monitored closely for months, maintaining communication with fellow LGBTQ organizations like St Pete Pride and Come Out with Pride in Orlando. As Tampa Pride 2023 grew closer, organizers made the decision to limit mainstage entertainment featuring drag to those 18 and up.

“Traditionally, Tampa Pride has been family friendly all around — the parade, the stage area, the festival,” Tampa Pride Executive Board Member Alex Barbosa explains. “We unfortunately had to make the tough decision to make the Cuban Club stage area 18 and up because of the political climate. Everything else is family friendly to the degree that we can control.”

Barbosa joined Tampa Pride pre-pandemic and has served in various capacities ever since. He was asked to join the board earlier this year, which he says he was proud to do as an LGBTQ person of color. He hopes his appointment is just the beginning of increased BIPOC representation on the governing body.

“I’ve seen a lot of discrimination on different fronts — on the LGBTQ front, on being Hispanic; immigration is near and dear to my heart, because I myself didn’t become a citizen until 2016,” Barbosa says.

“I know the struggles that people face just by virtue of who they are, where they were born, how they were born,” he continues. “Having representation from a person of color, it goes a long way in unifying all these different battles that we face as a community.”

It’s something critics of Tampa Pride have long advocated for, efforts which reached a boiling point late last year. Organizers welcomed more than 50 people to their December 2022 planning meeting at Hampton Inn Hotel & Suites in Ybor for “the sole purpose of listening and sharing opinions and ideas.”

The meeting drew unprecedented attendance in response to the resignation of former Secretary Mark Bias, a co-founder of Tampa Pride’s current iteration and West’s husband. He resigned Dec. 5 after sharing a derogatory social media post likening female entertainers who perform in drag to “fake drag,” for which he later apologized.

It was one of the reasons entertainer Angelique Young attended the meeting. She told Watermark at the time that while Tampa Pride had accomplished amazing things over the years, “I noticed that the board didn’t have much diversity, even though they have a Diversity Parade.”

“I walked into the room being one of just a few people of color, and out of those, three of us were Black, trans women,” she explained. “The change has to start with us … anyone who wants to see things become better, they have to start to show up.”

The entertainer has done that in the months since, working directly with organizers on events and other initiatives. She says it’s given her a new admiration for Tampa Pride.

“My involvement came at a time where there were a lot of shifts and movements within the organization,” Young says. “Getting to see how much work is put into the event has given me more of an appreciation for the organization and for what they manage to accomplish.

“I look forward to being a part of that in the future,” she adds. “I want to help it expand and grow to make it an even more enjoyable experience that gives back to the community.”

While Young has previously attended and performed during Tampa Pride, this year will mark her first as a co-host on Tampa Pride’s main stage. Coinciding with the 2023 street festival, she’ll lead entertainment outside of the Cuban Club from noon-4 p.m. with Cortez Blue and Hazel E. Genevieve, Miss Tampa Pride 2023.

Genevieve says she’s proud to represent Tampa Pride. “I’ve lived in Tampa for about three years and it’s where I’ve learned to express myself as a transgender person and entertainer,” the performer explains.

“Tampa has a special place in my heart. I’m happy that we’re still having Tampa Pride this year because it shows we’re not backing down and we’re sticking together, no matter what bills are being passed,” she continues. “Come out and support us to show us that you care.”

Outdoor entertainers will also be joined by an impressive cast indoors at the Cuban Club, led by host Te Monet. She was approached last year to help guide Tampa Pride’s scholarship fund — which is accepting applications to help LGBTQ students through April 30 — and this year’s festival.

“I’m excited about the way this board is growing and evolving, because Pride belongs to all of us,” she told Watermark last December. The sentiment is a key tenet of Tampa Pride’s 9th annual Diversity Parade.

The processional kicks off at 4 p.m. and once again winds down Ybor’s 7th Ave. The sold-out parade will be led by this year’s grand marshals.

Tampa Pride’s 2023 honorees include five individuals and one organization, all of whom were celebrated during the organization’s Grand Marshal Gala March 2.

Each received a plaque and medal for their contributions to the local LGBTQ community in Downtown Tampa.

“We’re so happy to get together for our grand marshals this year,” West told attendees. “Before you know it it’s going to be March 25 and they will be parading through Ybor City!”

The organization’s president subsequently introduced the grand marshals, who were nominated by the community and chosen by the board in January. They are Grand Marshal Chuck Henson, former Spectrum News 9 traffic expert and anchor; Grand Couple Michael Wilson and Chou Chou Guilder, managers of Southern Nights Tampa and celebrated entertainer Esme Russell, who will serve as Tampa Pride’s trailblazer this year.

“I was born in 1961,” she told those gathered, “so I’ve been around for a minute and I’ve seen a lot of things.” She noted she had performed in drag within the city for nearly 50 years.

“The word ‘trailblazer’ is kind of scary for me, because in my mind I thought that all the things that my generation had fought for were a done deal,” she shared.

“I mistakenly told myself that we were good. But it’s not all good and we have to keep fighting. We have to keep voting, because voting makes a really big difference.

“Being a trans person right now is like walking around with a bullseye on your forehead every day,” she continued. “It’s very, very scary and it’s not a game. I didn’t choose to be transgender, I was born transgender and wanted to find my happiness. Whoever you are, live your truth because I’ve always lived mine. The job is not over.”

Additional honorees include CAN Community Health CEO and President Dr. Rishi Patel, this year’s recognized community leader, and Southern Nights Tampa. The Ybor staple is this year’s recognized community business.

International Dance Diva Pepper MaShay — a five-time, Top 10 Billboard-charting recording artist known for hits like “Dive In The Pool” — also serves as this year’s celebrity grand marshal. The LGBTQ ally has entertained audiences in Tampa for numerous Prides now, most recently during Pride on the River 2022. She’ll mark her 70th birthday at this year’s celebration.

“The community is built on individuals who make a difference and we are proud to celebrate this group,” West said. The grand marshals will be followed by hundreds of individuals and floats.

Absent from this year’s festival and parade, however, will be the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa. The organization is a longtime supporter of Tampa Pride and has served the region for more than 50 years, but announced it would not participate March 9.

Its board of directors cited West as their reason, noting that he “once again used his public platform to misgender a member of the trans community.” It’s a decision they made March 7 during an emergency meeting that followed Tampa Pride’s final public planning session the night prior.

West repeatedly misgendered Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw during the gathering, the church’s senior pastor who is a trans man. The reverend, who is also a Watermark contributor and served as a Tampa Pride grand marshal in 2018, says it wasn’t the first time.

“Let me be clear. This problem is not about me. This is about a pattern of harmful behavior. It impacts our whole community,” he said in a statement March 9.

“For the first several years that I knew Carrie West, he treated me with respect,” he explained. “This changed when he learned that I am a transgender person … his attitude toward me changed drastically, including a recurring problem of misgendering me in public.”

Instances include Tampa Pride’s 2018 Grand Marshal Gala and during a previous Interfaith Service, a Tampa Pride event held at MCC Tampa in recent years. It was scheduled to return in that capacity March 20 but was held without their involvement.

MCC Tampa’s board said in their statement that the decision to withdraw from this year’s Tampa Pride was not one they made lightly.

“Staying true to MCC’s roots in social justice and activism we are compelled to stand in solidarity with our siblings who are trans, drag performers and people of color, and we demand better from our community leaders,” they explained. “Therefore, we have taken direct action to express a need for a leadership change at Tampa Pride that uses its platform to uplift and advance the dignity of all of Tampa Bay’s queer community.”

Tampa Pride was first notified of their intent to withdraw from this year’s event March 8. “Plainly put, Carrie West, and therefore Tampa Pride, are failing at their mission of ‘championing our shared experiences, honoring our differences and strengthening our community,’” they said in a letter.

The board requested that Tampa Pride remove all references to MCC Tampa from their website and social media feeds, prompting the organization to delete a public apology. It was initially shared March 7 and noted that “everyone deserves to be recognized for who they are, and we are extremely grateful to the Pastor for taking the time to correct and teach us, allowing for a meaningful and necessary dialog across the room.”

The statement was signed by West, Barbosa and Cassandra Hair, another executive board member. It noted that “our trans community is under constant threat of bans and bodily harm — we must be better, and we will be better.”

Watermark spoke with West March 8, who confirmed he made “a pronoun mistake” multiple times in misgendering Hero-Shaw. He added that “I have supported him in everything that he has done with MCC Tampa.”

West also denied that he is racist or harbors any ill will toward people of color, those who are transgender or those who perform in drag, additional concerns from the church.

“We’re sold out at Tampa Pride and we’ve put together a great community program,” he notes. “Ethnicity, gender, it doesn’t matter — this is a day of celebration to recognize what Tampa is for its LGBTQ members. We work hard at that and working together with other groups is very important.”

Hero-Shaw values that work, but also notes that “until we recognize that ethnicity and gender do matter, we can’t heal. Trans people and people of color are not ‘other groups’ outside of the LGBTQ community. We cannot celebrate the LGBTQ community and ignore the importance of diversity within it.”

MCC Tampa’s board agrees but stresses that they aren’t seeking a boycott of Tampa Pride. They encourage supporters to go should they wish and are also hosting an “Inclusion Fusion” event from noon-6 p.m. on March 25. It will serve as an “informal space to drop in, have some food and connect with the community.”

“The Board of Directors at MCC Tampa recognizes that there are wonderful people who are involved in Tampa Pride, we celebrate their efforts to increase diversity and to help Tampa Pride live into its mission,” they shared. “We celebrate everyone who is being honored in the Tampa Pride Festival and Parade.

“We in no way see the actions of the Pride president as a reflection on the amazing activists, performers, artists and others who are being honored,” they continued. “We hope that all those who have a platform will use this opportunity to advance trans rights, racial equality, and social justice in Tampa and beyond.”

“There are some truly wonderful people involved in creating Tampa Pride,” Hero-Shaw adds. “There are incredible folks being honored during the festivities. I’m grateful Tampa Pride exists and I’m hopeful for real change in the future.

“My heart hurts for the whole situation, including for Carrie West who did seem genuinely distraught when he saw how much his behavior hurt me, this time,” he continues. “I am still hopeful for the possibility of learning and real change.”

Love and inclusion are on the forefront for Brianna Summers, who will lead festivities after this year’s parade. The entertainer will host Pride at Night on the main stage from 6-11 p.m.

Summers has a long history with Tampa Pride and most recently hosted Pride on the River 2022. She says she’s eager to perform amidst Florida’s political climate.

“It’s more crucial than ever before that we celebrate,” Summers explains. “If these anti-LGBTQ bills are passed and signed into law, we might not have a Pride to celebrate next year.”

The full-time entertainer says her fears aren’t unfounded. Just last month, a regularly scheduled Drag Brunch she was set to host in Tampa Bay was canceled “due to hatred and threats.”

The event was organized by DJ Greg Anderson at Salty Shamrock, who shared Feb. 24 that “in my 30 years of DJing and putting on events, I have not had to cancel one of my events for this.”

“The threats were severe coming from a few local people stating that having a drag show that is 21+ will not be tolerated in their area,” Anderson explained. “The decision was not easy, but with the political climate that we are in, for the safety of patrons, staff and entertainment, this was the only decision we could make.”

“It was going to be a really fun show, but the venue got emails and calls where people were threatening to bring in the liquor board to get them shut down,” Summers says. “They took it further than the venue felt comfortable with so they decided to cancel the show — but that doesn’t mean we’re done. They had never had threats like these and so it was canceled for safety.”

The community showcased their support in a big way with Anderson creating a GoFundMe for lost wages. It raised $960 for Summers and three additional entertainers. Salty Shamrock also “made it clear that they are allies to us,” she says, and confirmed future events would take place.

Attacks like these are why Summers and Young aren’t troubled by Tampa Pride’s age requirement. The latter actually says it will enhance this year’s entertainment.

“While I do love performing for children, with it being 18 and up we’ll get to express ourselves freely in our art form,” Young explains. “We’ll get to do the songs that we want to do, and the type of acts we want to do. We want to show our true selves in this environment, especially considering it’s Pride.”

“I feel that we’re setting ourselves up to be able to continue our celebration,” Summers adds. “We’re still doing everything that we can to have the essential parts of a Pride celebration without having a full-on target on us. We just want to be able to move forward and have Tampa Pride for years to come.”

That’s the sentiment for all involved, something Pride at Night attendees can expect to see firsthand. The show will also feature Miss Tampa Pride 2023, Tampa Pride’s Trailblazer Esme Russell and other fan favorites.

Additional guests include Dougie Nelson and headliner CupcakKe, a rapper and songwriter known for hits like “LGBT.” The song was released “strictly for the gay community to know that they are loved and don’t need to feel judged,” the entertainer has said.

“We’ve seen a lot of very good reception to having CupcakKe and we’re excited,” Barbosa notes. “We’re hopeful that all of these pieces will come together to let the community know that Tampa Pride is moving forward and we’re excited to change.”

That takes support from the community, organizers note, especially with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions growing in both Tallahassee and Tampa.

“As we look at the politics, the state of the state and the country overall, we are being attacked in not-so-subtle ways anymore,” Barbosa says. “We want everybody to come together. Not just for a celebration, but to show each other support.”

“We can’t let the actions of a few spoil Pride for the many,” Young adds. “Allow us time to reorganize and make Tampa Pride even better — you will not be disappointed. Come enjoy this now, live it up and that way we can have another one that’s even better next year.”

Tampa Pride is scheduled for March 25 in Ybor. For more information, visit TampaPride.org and read the official 2023 Tampa Pride Guide.

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