ST. PETERSBURG — Florida’s biggest gay-pride festival has called St. Petersburg home for 11 years, but city leaders have always kept it at arm’s length.
With crowds in excess of 100,000, the St. Pete Pride festival fills local hotel rooms, restaurants and bars and raises the profile of the city.
But the flamboyant anything-goes parade of more than 100 rainbow-bedecked floats with drag queens, men in leather chaps and revelers throwing out condoms was too out there for previous Republican mayors, who refused to take part in an event they said was not family-friendly.
That lack of support was never more glaring than last year, when Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn walked in the parade while then-hometown Mayor Bill Foster maintained his perfect nonattendance record.
With the city now led by a Democrat for the first time in decades, this year promises to be very different.
Mayor Rick Kriseman next month will become the first city leader to take part in the Pride parade and is promising that the city will fully embrace the event that celebrates the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
And for the first time in the event’s history, city police officers and firefighters will be allowed to walk in the parade in uniform.
Other city workers will be encouraged to take part, and organizers seem likely to get some financial backing with the city considering waiving some of the costs for barricades, policing and paramedics.
“In years past, it was treated as a second-class event; now, we’re getting the recognition as a true event for the community,” St. Pete Pride Executive Director Eric Skains said. “It means we’ve come a long way. We’re excited about it.”
Other changes this year could include recruitment booths for police and vacant city jobs that are typically at other city sponsored events, but were not a past Pride events. Kriseman said the city is planning to announce other events to coincide with LGBT Pride Month, which is June.
The event also will expand to three days this year, June 27-29.
“It’s one of the biggest events we do,” Kriseman said. “It’s good for the city; it’s part of my job to be involved in a big event in the city.”
He added that he has no concerns about the sometimes-adult nature of Pride that deterred his predecessors.
“I guess the mayor of Tampa would never go to Gasparilla in that case,” he said, referring to the annual Tampa celebration renowned for excessive drinking by rowdy and often skimpily clad revelers.
Backing the Pride event is part of a bigger attempt by the new administration to live up to the city’s reputation as supportive of diversity.
That goal received a jolt when the city was ranked below Tampa in a 2013 national report that rated cities on how well they promote equality for LGBT residents.
Kriseman plans to ask two existing employees to serve as LGBT liaisons, a move that would improve the city’s ranking. One will be in the city’s police department, the other in City Hall.
“When businesses are looking to relocate, especially LGBT individuals, they’re looking at that index, especially when we’re behind Tampa,” said Kevin King, Kriseman’s chief of staff.
The approach marks a dramatic turnaround from 2003, when St. Petersburg first hosted Pride.
Kriseman, then a city council member, signed a proclamation supporting the event. But then-Mayor Rick Baker would not sign a Pride proclamation throughout his two terms as mayor and never attended a parade.
His successor, Foster, signed a proclamation in his final year in office but never attended a parade.
That 2013 event was the first time all eight members of the City Council signed a proclamation.