ST. PETERSBURG — After a night-long parade and celebration that didn't wrap up until 3 a.m., Jenna Elwart-Lynn was tired. And hot.
But that didn't stop her 2-year-old son Grayson Elwart-Lynn from giving her a morning workout Sunday as she chased him around the St. Pete Pride street festival, the final day of festivities in Florida's largest gay pride event.
This is the first year organizers have split the over-the-top festival into multiple days, giving the thousands of revelers from all over the world more for their money. But more importantly to Elwart-Lynn, this was the first year she felt comfortable bringing her son to the party. He was so enthralled with the nearly 300 vendors parked on the sidewalk that his frequent trips and falls didn't produce one tear, and his mother didn't have to worry about shielding his eyes from exposed skin and bad behavior.
The family could relax.
“I really wanted to give him exposure to all of this, being out and proud, and he's absolutely loving it,” said Elwart-Lynn, a psychologist who lives in the city with her partner Erin. “We're just a normal family like anyone else, we're just as boring as the next people, so it means a lot to me that we were able to see so many families from all walks of life today just blending in with everyone else here.”
This year's festival landed on the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots, an uprising of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered in response to a police raid at a gay New York City hub. Yet in St. Pete, there was a celebratory aura in the air and a feeling of community and even normalcy that hasn't been there before, Elwart-Lynn said.
This parade didn't seem to be a fight for equality or acceptance, though that discussion is far from over, participants said. This year's festival was a party; a celebration of how far the city has come. An estimated 175,000 attended the more adult-oriented night parade, and the only incidents of concern were 36 reports of heat exhaustion. More than 20,000 returned the next day for the street festival.
“It's just been phenomenal, exactly what we hoped for,” said Pride Executive Director Eric Skains. “What's unique about this event is that so many people have a vested interest in it, from the chamber of commerce to the city and local businesses, and it's become so widely accepted. There's no gay area in St. Pete, not because there isn't a population for it, it's just not needed. You can go anywhere and feel welcomed.”
It wouldn't be a pride festival without plenty of eye-popping leather getups and scantily-clad partiers, but for every fishnet-covered youngster walking down Central Avenue Sunday morning, there was also a pair of grandparents, a family or a gaggle of school-aged kids wanting to join in the fun. Old women with thick southern accents joined in with cross-dressing performers crooning old gospel and R&B favorites, while kids colored under tents next to groups advertising for marriage equality and same-sex couple adoption agencies. Police officers were scattered throughout the area enforcing open container laws, but also ensuring dogs had enough water to drink and chatting with neighbors.
No protestors were visible during much of the afternoon and only three were spotted the night before.
This year's festival didn't feature primarily gay businesses, but large corporations, some of which were even taking job applications from passersby. For the first time this year, the festival featured companies like Raytheon and PNC Bank. There were booths for adult novelty stores next to booths for churches, the University of South Florida and the St. Petersburg Police. Lines began to form at booths offering free AIDS and HIV testing, and halfway through the afternoon the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas had already tested nearly 40 individuals.
School Board member Linda Lerner stood at the tent for Pinellas Youth Pride with school district bullying prevention specialist Joan Reubens. The school district has come a long way from 1998, when nearly 200 came to a school board meeting to debate the formation of one of the first gay-straight alliance clubs in schools, Lerner said. Now, Pinellas is one of few in the nation to have a gay-straight alliance club in every district high school.
“Bullying is still an issue that needs to be addressed, but it's an improving climate and it's wonderful to see,” Lerner said. “It's a much better time, but there's still work to do.”