(L-R) Mr St Pete Pride Vyn Suazion, Miss SPP Ceazia Giovanni Kreshé and Mx SPP KaMarion Lavish. Photo by Jamarcus Mosley.
St Pete Pride welcomed an estimated 300,000 people to St. Petersburg last June, marking 20 years of service with at least 10 signature events held throughout the month. The post-pandemic return of its parade welcomed 150-200,000 participants alone, cementing its status as Florida’s largest LGBTQ+ Pride celebration.
It set the perfect precedent for St Pete Pride’s 21st season this year, Executive Director Nicole Berman says. Its month-long celebration kicked off June 2 and continues with St Pete Pride staples through June 30, several of which intentionally elevate the most marginalized of LGBTQ+ voices.
“People really like having the opportunity to show up in different ways,” Berman says. “With all of our celebrations, we want to center queer experiences and queer joy. This year I think has a mix of emotions, but overarchingly we’re ready. We hope people show up and stand up for each other.”
Last year’s celebration was her first at the helm, having joined the organization after a nationwide search. When Berman was named one of Watermark’s Most Remarkable People of 2022 for her work, St Pete Pride President Tiffany Freisberg said she was “exactly what St Pete Pride needed to celebrate our 20-year history and move our organization into its next era.”
“We knew we needed an out-of-the-box thinker with grit and a tireless work ethic,” she wrote. “More so, we needed someone committed to making St Pete Pride more diverse, inclusive and equitable than ever before.
“At St Pete Pride, we have a clear mandate: we will not compromise on the integrity of our mission for anything or anyone,” Freisberg continued. “I have watched Nicole fulfill that promise repeatedly.”
That mission — “to strengthen St. Petersburg’s legacy of inclusion and diversity, providing a safe space for the education, self-exploration and celebration of our LGBTQIA+ community and allies” — has faced new challenges this year. While St Pete Pride has continued to champion equality and equity through events and outreach, they’ve done so against the backdrop of the most anti-LGBTQ+ legislative session in Florida’s history.
Governor Ron DeSantis signed four anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law May 17, legislation targeting LGBTQ+ students, live performances like drag, transgender health care and more. Bolstered by a Republican supermajority in the state House and Senate, he championed them throughout his second term before launching a 2024 presidential bid.
Those efforts led statewide and national LGBTQ+ organizations to issue advisories detailing the risks of relocation or travel to Florida. Organizers says that around 30% of St Pete Pride attendees come from outside of the state and they aren’t yet sure how this year’s celebration will be impacted.
St Pete Pride 2023 will go on as planned, however, and already is. In a stark contrast to Tallahassee, St. Peterburg’s elected officials joined other local leaders to proudly raise a Progressive Pride flag above City Hall June 1.
“Intentional inclusivity has always been one of our administration’s core principles,” St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch tells Watermark. He’s expected to ride his motorcycle once again along this year’s parade route.
“Our annual Pride festivities, culminating with Florida’s largest Pride parade and festival, highlight our city’s support for our LGBTQ+ community and all who have experienced marginalization,” he continues. “I’m proud to be leading a city that embraces our LGBTQ+ community. Our citizens are valued for who they are, not who they love or how they identify. We — all of us — are St. Pete.”
Welch also joined other leaders in Florida last month who’ve declared their cities a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, a key part of the LGBTQ+ organization GLSEN’s Rise Up Campaign. He released a proclamation declaring St. Petersburg safe and affirming for residents and visitors on May 3.
It’s just one reason St. Petersburg LGBTQ+ Liaison Jim Nixon is proud of the city he calls home.
“This year the LGBTQ+ community has faced attacks from Tallahassee and across the nation,” he explains. “This June is a symbolic month in which LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies unite in various ways and celebrate Pride. St. Pete will again be no different.
“As long as there is opposition against people from this community and worldwide, cities like St. Petersburg must support our impacted residents,” Nixon continues. “I have attended a Pride celebration every year since 1984, and throughout those 38 years, despite facing unsurmountable adversity, we have stood firm. We will weather this storm.”
St Pete Pride’s 13-member board and Berman have approached St Pete Pride 2023 with that mindset throughout its planning process. Organizers worked with city officials, local organizers and even hired attorneys to ensure this year’s celebration moved forward.
“All of the legislation that popped up brought a level of uncertainty since you don’t know how things will be impacted until they’re signed into law and happening,” Berman explains. “So we spent a lot of time reading legislation, I went to hearings and rallies in Tallahassee and we just kept planning, building in contingency plans.”
While each of the anti-LGBTQ+ laws impact the community St Pete Pride celebrates and serves, some were a key concern in terms of planning this year’s festivities. Among them were Senate Bill 1438, deemed the “anti-drag bill” by LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations like Equality Florida.
While it “is not an outright ban on drag or prides, it threatens excessive fines and license revocation against LGBTQ-friendly businesses, and possible jail time for individuals who admit minors into ‘adult live performances,’” the nonprofit explains. “It uses vague and subjective language that will have a chilling effect on drag shows, an intended consequence of the bill.”
“Once the law was signed, we met with the city and the feedback we got was it didn’t change any existing ordinances,” Berman says. “We’ve always followed decency standards — no nudity, no sexually explicit behavior, no profanity — so we were full steam ahead.”
Berman didn’t anticipate how St Pete Pride’s partner establishments would respond, however, noting that some sponsors aren’t returning this year. Thankfully new sponsors took their place and fundraising remains on track. Some venues have also mandated age limitations for certain events, including this year’s Friday Night Concert with Idina Menzel.
St Pete Pride announced the international stage and screen star would headline last month. The longtime LGBTQ+ ally made her Broadway debut in 1996 as Maureen Johnson in “RENT,” later originating the key roles of Elphaba in “Wicked” and Elsa in Disney’s animated “Frozen” films.
“We are specifically excited about Idina because she is using local drag entertainers as a part of her performance,” Berman says. “That was one of the things that really was the hook for us, that our local folks get to be up on stage with her.
“We absolutely recognize that Pride itself was built on the back of Black and brown trans women and drag performers,” she continues. “We recognize that we would not be here today if not for their efforts historically and now. They continue to lead the fight against this legislation and for our rights.”
It’s one of the reasons St Pete Pride crowned Ceazia Giovanni Kreshé, Vyn Suazion and KaMarion Lavish as Miss, Mr and Mx St Pete Pride this year. Their annual drag pageant was rebranded from Miss St Pete Pride to Mx St Pete Pride and held April 30.
“In the wake of the current political climate in Florida, it’s critical that we acknowledge, embrace and forefront the deep diversity within our community,” St Pete Pride’s board of directors announced Feb. 28. “Despite Pride being born from a riot spearheaded by Black and brown trans women, we have watched those very communities become increasingly excluded from the visual narrative of Pride celebrations.
“With violence against the trans community on the rise, it is imperative that Pride recommit to creating safe and equitable spaces that lift every person represented by the Pride flag,” they continued. “In celebration of our city’s rich diversity, St Pete Pride is proud to introduce the Mx St Pete Pride Pageant … open to all contestants, regardless of gender.”
“I think it’s essential that we have more inclusivity in our community,” Kreshé says. “Even though we have the same values that the rainbow flag stands for, we have become more divided. It’s really great that we can now open the door to all sorts of people to be a part of something as big as St Pete Pride. It’s about time!”
The newly crowned representative first competed for Miss St Pete Pride last year, receiving first runner-up in the process.
“I was treated so well and it made me think about what being queen must be like,” she remembers. “So this year I had something to prove and I gave it my all — and I’m so happy I won! I’m truly grateful.”
Kreshé hopes to represent those who look like her while standing proudly beside them, especially in uncertain times. It’s something Suazion agrees with.
Mr St Pete Pride, a fan favorite recording artist and more, says he’s participated in the celebration every year since 2015.
“I absolutely love the comradery that comes to life on the streets,” he notes. “With this Pride event being one of the biggest in the nation, it’s definitely a monumental experience that can’t be missed. I’m so grateful to not only be attending in the year 2023 but to also be a part of the Royal Court.”
Mx St Pete Pride is particularly moved to have been crowned one of this year’s three representatives. Lavish is the first to hold the title.
“It opens an avenue for entertainers that don’t fall solely under the umbrella of female impersonator or male entertainer,” the performer says of the role. “I feel it allows us to be truly yourself … having the Mr and Mx allows the St Pete Pride Pageantry a growing opportunity to not have all the work on our Queen.
“I think it was an awesome move,” Lavish continues. “It’s an honor to be the first and I look forward to making sure we continue to push and open new doors and opportunities for our community.”
St Pete Pride’s court is slated to appear or perform at each of this year’s major events, joined by other fan favorite entertainers from near and far. The family friendly LGBTQ+ Youth and Family Day and adult-oriented “Get Nude: Shades of Melanin” are scheduled for June 10, along with the BIPOC-focused Shades of Pride Festival June 17. It returns with“RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge T.S. Madison ahead of the Stonewall Reception on June 21.
“We do have drag at every event, on every stage,” Berman stresses. “It’s who we are, it’s what we do and there wasn’t any way we were moving forward without them. They’re our headliners, they’re our hearts.”
Additional entertainers include “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Malaysia Babydoll Foxx, season 15’s Miss Congeniality. Read our interview with the entertainer here ahead of her performance preceding this year’s TransMarch and parade.
“We don’t know what to expect in terms of attendance,” Berman reiterates. “We’ll either see a big push for support or we’ll drop off a little bit — but for us, if we still have 90 or 100,000 people on parade day, that’s a win.”
“The Grand Central District Association is proud to be the host for many Pride festivities highlighted by St Pete Pride’s Street Festival on June 25,” GCDA Executive Director David Foote says. Attendees can expect entertainment along Cocktail’s main stage — including pop stars Sheena Easton and Tiffany.
“The District’s community of residents and businesses celebrate diversity and inclusion throughout the year and it’s never been more important to brightly shine our support on the darkness of hate and divisiveness,” Foote adds. “We look forward to an epic celebration throughout the month of June and well beyond.”
As for the official close of St Pete Pride 2023, events include the transgender-focused Transtastic June 28 and the return of “Queer-E-Oke” June 30. The latter will once again welcome “RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge Carson Kressley.
“With everything that’s been happening, this Pride just feel so much more important,” Berman says. “We’re very, very fortunate to be in a city that supports us, because it’s clear that not everyone has that same support.
“We’re ready to go,” she adds. “Come out and support it for the greater good — because if we can hold a very large Pride safely, lawfully and appropriately, then so can the smaller entities around. You can’t stop Pride.”
Learn more about when and where to celebrate 21 years of St Pete Pride here and visit StPetePride.org for even more information.