Under a cloud of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, some Pride celebrations have been scaled back or canceled — which is what Ron DeSantis wants.
On the same day that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed more anti- LGBTQ+ bills into law last month, someone hacked an electronic traffic billboard in Orlando, leaving a violent threat toward an already targeted community.
It was another attack in a state where the Republican-led legislature has spent recent years codifying hate — and that’s having a stifling effect on Florida’s usually ebullient Pride Month. Out of an abundance of caution, some organizers have scaled back celebrations or canceled them entirely.
In St. Cloud, a small city near Orlando, Kristina Bozanich and Brenda Torres planned to end their second annual Pride event with a two-hour drag performance. After the state’s so-called Protection of Children Act, which prohibits minors from attending “live adult entertainment,’’ became law, Bozanich and Torres added a provision that only those over 18 could attend.
Yet that still didn’t assuage fears of harassment or violence. The “drag queens did not feel it would be safe for them to perform,’’ Bozanich told a Florida news station. Then came the news about the electronic billboard doctored with a threatening message.
Concerned that they couldn’t provide enough security for patrons and performers, Bozanich and Torres canceled their event. “It’s dehumanizing the people that we work with, that we live with, that are part of our community,’’ Torres said. “And so it’s a very sad moment when these unfortunate things happen, because [they’re] just creating more room for hate.’’
Even before DeSantis signed his anti-drag restrictions, Port St. Lucie organizers canceled the city’s Pride parade in April and instead hosted a much smaller festival. No one under 21 was allowed to attend drag performances. Pridefest Kissimmee went on this month as scheduled — but its drag events were moved inside the city’s civic center and attendees were required to show proof of age.
Forty years ago, indoor daytime Pride events weren’t unusual in Florida. In a region with such spectacular weather, this might have seemed absurd, but the reasoning was based in logic and empathy — not everyone who wanted to participate felt comfortable doing so openly in the streets.
Living in South Florida in the mid-1980s, I was one of those people. Out to no one, the last thing I wanted to do was run into a friend or (even worse) a co-worker. So I drove 45 miles to Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial for my first Pride celebration. It was packed. With performers ranging from drag queens to a men’s chorus on a stage above the crowd, at times it felt more like a concert than what I imagined a raucous Pride event would be.
It wasn’t exactly the Pride I’d always wanted. But at that point in my life, it was the Pride I needed. And I felt safe. But that’s no longer the case for many in Florida’s LGBTQ+ community where events are being moved inside because of harmful anti-drag laws.
In the wake of what it called Florida’s “most anti-LGBTQ legislative session in history,’’ Equality Florida, joined by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), updated its travel advisory detailing “risks associated with relocation or travel to the state’’ for LGBTQ+ people.
“Because of Ron DeSantis and his frenzied appeal to extremists, LGBTQ+ people in Florida are finding themselves in a state of emergency every single day,’’ Kelley Robinson, HRC’s president, said in a statement last month. “Since the day he took office, Governor DeSantis has weaponized his position to weave bigotry, hate, and discrimination into public law for his own political gain.’’
When DeSantis was elected governor in 2018, there was reason, however slight, to believe that even as a Republican, he wouldn’t make vilification of the LGBTQ+ community a vital part of his platform.
He made his first visit as governor in June 2019 to the memorial at the site of the Pulse nightclub massacre, where a mass shooter killed 49 people, many of them LBGTQ+. DeSantis wrote this message on a remembrance wall: “Florida will always remember these precious lives.’’
Now a Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis has spent recent years showing what he really thinks of LGBTQ+ lives. His incendiary rhetoric, the removal of books from public schools written by or about queer people, bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth, and penalties for drag performances that can be viewed by children have made the state hostile ground for LGBTQ+ people.
Of course, that is his goal. DeSantis wants to push people underground and back into long-abandoned closets where they’re expected to live a lie for the comfort and control of bigots.
From its origins more than 50 years ago, Pride has been about visibility and finding peace in one’s own skin. In Florida, where laws are endangering their existence, LGBTQ+ people are being forced to choose between being loud and proud during Pride Month — and every other month — and protecting their increasingly imperiled safety.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.
Image Credits: Joe Raedle-Getty Images