St Pete Pride fights for Florida in 22nd year

Florida’s largest LGBTQ+ celebration welcomed over 500,000 people to St. Petersburg last June, launching just weeks after the most anti-LGBTQ+ legislative session in state history came to a close.

Nearly 350,000 supporters flanked 8,000 marchers in Downtown St. Petersburg for the Pride parade, led by the Trans March, and over 175,000 filled the Grand Central District for last year’s Street Festival. Organizers said the support sent a clear message that St Pete Pride — and by extension the community it’s served since 2003 — wasn’t going anywhere.

It hasn’t. The organization announced their 2024 lineup in January, a series of 13 LGBTQ+-focused events planned by one of the most diverse boards in St Pete Pride history. That body is led by Dr. Byron Green-Calisch, an LGBTQ+ business owner and an advocate for equity in all spaces. He is also Black, which means his election marked a first for St Pete Pride.

“Being the first Black president is indeed a big deal,” he told Watermark in January. “Representation in and of itself is important. We want to make sure that people are able to see what the future might look like — and we know that if you see something, you’re more likely to engage in it.”

Green-Calisch served as vice president in 2023 with Stephanie Morge, who remains in the role, and said before last year’s event he was “genuinely concerned about our safety.” As festivities came to a close, however, he was reminded of the community’s resilience.

“By the time we got to the end of the month for our big parade weekend, I had goosebumps the entire day because I had not allowed myself to experience the joy that was going to be there,” he explained. “It just rushed over me very quickly, seeing so many young people, seeing so many trans folk come out and participate in the Trans March … Seeing the city come out in full force and witnessing their joy and excitement made all of it worth it.”

It’s a feeling St Pete Pride hopes to replicate this year, efforts which began May 26 at the 2024 Mx. St Pete Pride pageant. Nearly 500 supporters attended the competition, which rebranded from the Miss St Pete Pride pageant last year to let contestants enter regardless of gender.

A total of 15 people competed to become Miss, Mr. or Mx. St Pete Pride 2024. Six vied for the title of Miss, three for Mr. and six others for Mx. The pageant was hosted by Central Florida entertainer Angelica Sanchez with Miss St Pete Pride 2022 Delores T. Van-Cartier serving as head judge.

Joining the panel were Miss St Pete Pride 2010 Kori Stevens, 2024 grand marshal Dena Cass and Isaiah Sanchez Hilton, Mister St Pete Pride 2014. Alyssa Edwards from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” served as special guest judge.

Edwards was among the evening’s entertainment, which also included former winners and highlighted St Pete Pride’s 2023 Royal Court. Miss St Pete Pride Ceazia Giovanni Kreshé, Mr. St Pete Pride Vyn Suazion and Mx. St Pete Pride KaMarion Lavish brought their reigns to a close as only they could.

Contestants participated in five categories, beginning with a personal interview held May 25. The pageant included presentation, in which contestants adorned the Pride flag representative of their LGBTQ+ identity, as well as Evening Gown for Miss, Evening Wear for Mr. and Evening Fashion for Mx. with a Q&A.

Organizers subsequently presented Stevens with a special Rainbow Revolutionary award. “This system would not be here today if not for one person,” St Pete Pride board member and Mx St Pete Pride Pageant Director Clifford Hobbs shared. Among other accolades, Stevens led the pageant for over a decade. He called the entertainer “a staple in this community and the reason why all of us are here tonight.”

Stevens thanked St Pete Pride for the honor, noting her activism isn’t for recognition.

“The things that I do are because they make me feel good,” she explained. “They’re not because I want someone to see what I’m doing … it feels right, and that’s why I dive in as much as possible to make sure that everybody’s treated well and treated fairly.”

The pageant closed with talent, culminating in the crowning of Miss St Pete Pride Kiala Santi, Mr. St Pete Pride Amari Lavish and Mx. St Pete Pride Justine B. Knights. Vivion Rachel Clarke, another Miss St Pete Pride contender that evening, was also crowned Miss St Pete Pride Elite.

The division was created after former pageant winners who conducted her personal interview decided to honor the entertainer’s commitment to the system; Clarke has competed in seven St Pete Pride pageants over the years.

“I had no idea they were going to do this,” Clarke says. “They told me I personified what the pageant was about and it was so touching to me. I just turned 60 and I feel very blessed that I’m still here in this community.

“I felt old,” she muses, “but very proud to be here. It means the world to me to represent St Pete Pride. I feel like everything I’ve done wasn’t in vain — and as I give of myself, I want people to know that I’m giving of my heart.”

Santi — a case manager for Positively U, which provides support for persons living with HIV and more — is also eager to serve. She says she’s thankful for the title, in part, because it creates a platform to help her reach the community in a new way.

“I want to make sure that we are letting people know that it is okay to get the health care that you need,” she explains. “You don’t have to come to my organization, but I want people to keep their health as a priority.”
The Tampa-based entertainer, who regularly performs at Southern Nights in Ybor, also notes she wanted to compete because she admires St Pete Pride’s authenticity.

“Everything is done times ten in St. Pete,” she explains. “St Pete Pride feels more inclusive, it feels like progress … they’re open to new ideas and to making way for and allowing all voices to be heard. Being a person who identifies as a Black trans woman, we don’t always have that voice and we don’t always have a seat at the table to make decisions.”

Making space for the entire community is what drew Knights to this year’s competition as well. The nonbinary, genderfluid entertainer says they’re particularly proud of being crowned the second-ever Mx. St Pete Pride.

“St Pete Pride’s mission is something I truly believe in,” Knights says. “They inspired me to want to compete and represent the system wholeheartedly; most pageants don’t have a Mx. division.

“It’s something fairly new in pageantry, so when I finally saw a division that was local to the city that I live in do something so diverse, it really pushed me to want to represent this system,” they continue. “It feels good to start up a new path. I truly believe the Mx. division is going to open up more doors for our community.”

It has so far, something Mr. St Pete Pride 2024 understands well. Lavish is married to the inaugural Mx. St Pete Pride and watched the system grow through his spouse’s eyes in 2023.

“I love the support the community provides to one another,” he says. “The events, the supporters, the LGBTQ+-based organizations all pour overwhelming amounts of love and energy into this community and series of events … St Pete Pride to me means inclusivity and equality, leaving no one out. All are welcomed, accepted and loved equally.”

“I’m thrilled about the new 2024 court,” Hobbs says. “Not only are they all seasoned entertainers, but they are also dedicated community servants … They truly embody our theme of Rainbow Revolutionaries, and I’m excited to see the great work they do both on and off the stage.”

Lavish is as well. “Look out for the Mx. St Pete Pride Royal Court,” he teases. “We have a lot in store for you already and I can’t wait for the community to see it all together.” Read more about the pageant and view Watermark’s photos below:

This Pride season hasn’t been all rainbows, of course. News broke May 8 that none of the bridges in Florida — including Tampa Bay’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge — would display rainbow lights for Pride this June. Instead, they’ve been lit in red, white and blue since Memorial Day as a part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Freedom Summer.”

Mayor Ken Welch also announced May 24 that the city’s Progressive Pride street mural would have to be refreshed after it was vandalized. The community-funded mural was completed in 2020 and has been repainted by LGBTQ+ advocates ahead of each celebration ever since, most recently on May 6:

The St. Petersburg Police Department was notified May 17 that it had been defaced by at least two vehicles, which left tire marks across the design. At least one subject has been identified and an investigation into the matter is ongoing.

“I want to emphasize that there is no place for hate in St. Petersburg,” Welch shared afterwards. “We stand united in valuing and appreciating every resident, regardless of their orientation, gender identity, or expression. Our differences make St. Pete the vibrant and diverse community we cherish.”

The repainting took place May 30, emphasizing Welch’s message that “together, we can show that love always wins.” See photos below:

Still, the vandalism wasn’t the community’s only cause for concern. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority confirmed the day prior that the agency would not wrap buses for Pride this year, something they’ve done ahead of every St Pete Pride since 2016.

The news followed this year’s passage of HB 1301, a measure supported by the state’s Republican supermajority and signed into law by the governor that takes effect July 1. It limits what public transit vehicles can display and according to the law, the Florida Department of Transportation will soon release guidelines for marketing and advertising initiatives.

Officials initially planned to wrap buses ahead of St Pete Pride for two months but opted not to move forward with the plans before FDOT’s release.

“In our last legislative committee meeting we presented a revised plan for bus wraps based on the discussions the Florida Legislature had this spring and newly passed House Bill 1301,” PSTA Communications and Public Relations Manager Stephanie Weaver told Watermark.

“Since that committee meeting, we’ve learned that FDOT is in the process of developing regulations related to the implementation of that law that they have told us they will get to us later this summer,” she continued. “As a result of that information, we’ve decided not to install a Pride wrap, or any other holiday/parade wrap and hold off until FDOT provides this clarity on the law.”

The decision impacts wraps supporting veterans and other events like Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Weaver noted that the decision was not made lightly and PSTA will continue to support St Pete Pride in other ways, offering park and ride shuttle service on the day of this year’s parade and more.

Green-Calisch says the organization is thankful for PSTA’s continued support. He notes that whenever “there is an opportunity for increased social movement, that usually the next step after that is a backlash and an attempt to retract power or re-oppress the oppressed group.”

Efforts like targeting Pride-themed light displays, bus wraps and street murals, he says, are examples of that backlash.
“St. Pete has been a beacon for the queer community and an amazing example of how a city should support its residents in a state has been riddled with pieces of legislation that are designed to attack the LGBTQIA community,” he explains. “While these showings don’t change the support of the people who installed them, it is a really great example of how the work that we do is incredibly important because of these moments.”

St Pete Pride supporters echoed that sentiment May 31, gathering at St. Petersburg City Hall to raise the Pride flag above the local landmark for the 11th year. The ceremony began with an introduction from St. Petersburg City Council Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who said “the impact of the LGBTQ community on our history, nationally, internationally and right here at home is undeniable.

“So while some may choose not to illuminate the Skyway Bridge, and tried not to have the wrap on our buses, there will still be enough light, laughter and love … to light up the sky,” she continued. “Please join me in encouraging the greater acceptance and support for all, as refreshing and as beautiful as a rainbow.”

State Rep. Lindsay Cross spoke next, reflecting on the city’s “commitment to inclusivity” that stands “in stark contrast to the attempts at the state level to stifle our celebrations and to dim the light of beautiful members of our community.”

She subsequently highlighted anti-LGBTQ+ legislation supported by the state’s Republican supermajority — including attempts to ban Pride flag raisings at government facilities — measures she opposed in Tallahassee.

“Bills like the flag ban, the Don’t Say LGBTQ+ expansion bill, the anti-trans bathroom bill, the gender-affirming care ban are meant to divide us and put us against each other,” Cross noted. “But that is not who we are in St. Pete … I look forward to walking with you all in the Pride parade, joining everyone at St Pete Pride events and most importantly continuing to celebrate Pride each and every day of the year.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor followed Cross, highlighting her fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights in D.C. She promised to pass the Equality Act and more should Democrats regain control of the U.S. House in November and praised Welch for his commitment to equality.

The mayor began his remarks by noting “it’s been a challenging year since we last raised the flag for Pride month, but we have persevered.” He noted he was proud to “stand together today to celebrate our progress, our principles and who we are as a community” before reading a proclamation declaring June as Pride month in St. Petersburg.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. said so profoundly, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Welch said. “His words remind us that the fight for true equality and equity is far from over, but we are committed to standing with you on this journey.”

St Pete Pride Executive Director Nicole Berman closed the ceremony, thanking supporters and calling this year’s St Pete Pride “not just a celebration, but a beacon of hope and resilience.”

“When you attend St Pete Pride you are not only remembering our history and celebrating our community, you are making a statement that we are in this together,” she said. “That we stand in solidarity with our Black, brown, Indigenous and trans siblings. That pride — especially in St. Pete — is a visible reminder that we are all welcome here.

“We need you to show up and show the world that being queer in Florida is celebrated,” she stressed. “That no matter what legislators or public figures are telling us, that we are welcome here. We are calling on you, our LGBTQIA+ family and allies, to join us in showing up and standing up for liberation, celebration, representation and resistance.”

View Watermark’s photos from this year’s flag raising and subsequent St Pete Pride events below.

St Pete Pride will hold events throughout June. Learn when and where to celebrate here and in the official St Pete Pride Guide. Pick up a print edition in current editions of Watermark and view the digital version here. Learn more at

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