After two years of cancellations due to COVID-19, Ocala Pride Fest is back to celebrate LGBTQ culture with vendors, live music performances and an assortment of food. The Fest will be held at downtown Ocala Square, 1 Northeast 1st Ave., from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
Event organizers Ocala Pride Inc. say Pride Fest is needed more than ever in light of the discourse on LGBTQ equality taking root in Florida and reverberating across the country.
After legislation like the Parental Rights in Education Bill or the Don’t Say Gay Bill as critics dub it, LGBTQ rights in Florida will take center stage in Ocala this weekend. .
Ocala is in the state’s newly redesigned Congressional District 22, which is served by Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, the sponsor of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which took effect in July . Rep. Harding did not respond to WUFT News’ multiple requests for comment.
Ocala Pride Vice President Rodney Harper, 47, said Pride Fest’s goal is community visibility and awareness. Sexual health and well-being education is also part of its mission. The Florida Department of Health will operate five of Pride Fest’s 46 vendor booths to offer confidential on-site and at-home testing for diabetes, HIV and hepatitis.
Ocala Pride Inc. executives said these services are essential for people who otherwise would not get tested because they lack resources or are unaware of their availability.
Pride Fest events also include performances by local bands, singers, and drag kings and queens.
“We try to make room for everyone,” Harper said, “whether you’re gay, straight, black, or white.”
Ocala Pride Inc. is a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on LGBTQ advocacy and community education. The organization maintains strong ties with local charities and nonprofits and works with events such as Pride Fest, Mr. & Miss Ocala Pride Pageant, and drag bingo.
Leaders of the organization highlighted the significance of this year’s Pride Fest over festivals in previous years. They hope to offer a show of solidarity and a reminder of the LGBTQ presence in Ocala, they said.
“There’s this narrative that we’re kind of trying to make people gay,” said Ocala Pride Inc. treasurer Charlotte Katz, 69. “With more visibility, people will see that we are like everyone else.”
Katz, a former nurse and current nurse educator, rebutted conservative arguments that teaching about LGBTQ identity and history is inappropriate for young children and a means of “indoctrination.” One angle of this argument is that teaching about gender identity and sexuality is equivalent to teaching children about sex in kindergarten through third grade.
“The bill that liberals erroneously call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an anti-grooming bill,” Governor Ron DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in a Tweet. But Katz said they missed the point.
“It’s not about sex, it’s about relationships,” Katz said. “It’s about learning acceptance for all families.”
Katz said Pride Fest is needed to show that gay people are not to be feared. But more importantly, Pride Fest is an opportunity for members of the LGBTQ community to come together and feel accepted. “They often feel lonely,” Katz said, “it’s lucky not to feel that way.”
It’s not just harmful stereotypes that Ocala Pride hopes to combat, but also verbal harassment and physical violence.
Ocala Pride Vice President Rodney Harper said he is troubled that many Ocala residents don’t feel comfortable being openly gay or showing affection to their partners. in public. He said this unease stems from fears of hate-motivated harassment or violence.
“I don’t say anything when you kiss your straight wife,” Harper said. “I just want the same freedom.”
Harper has said he has been the target of homophobia since coming out as a gay man in 2018.
Harper, also known by her stage name “The Bearded Drag Queen”, was part of an event called Drag Queen Story Hour held at a sponsor Starbucks at 53 S Pine Ave. Parents took their children to listen to Harper read children’s books.
Overall feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, he said. But before the event, some Ocala residents and members of the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist organization, left derogatory comments on the Ocala Pride Facebook page. Things escalated on July 12, the day of the event.
More than 20 protesters and about eight Proud Boys showed up with signs and some began shouting insults at Harper and other organizers. According to police reports, officers were dispatched to the scene after calls alerting them to the disturbance.
The Starbucks exceeded the maximum capacity of 55, but not just because of the protesters and the Proud Boys. The LGBTQ community and their supporters — who numbered more than double the number of protesters — also turned out, organizers said.
“They started a fire in the community,” Harper said, “and the community showed up to put it out.” Every time a member of the Proud Boys tried to antagonize the organizers, the crowd responded by chanting over them with “You Are My Sunshine,” Harper said.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Harper said.
Security then escorted Harper to his car for fear of violence from protesters. To tears, he said it was the first time he had felt genuinely terrified since coming out.
Despite continued requests for Drag Queen Story Hour, Ocala Pride decided to stick with drag bingo for the safety of Starbucks staff, children and their families. Although the community support moved Harper, Ocala isn’t ready to fully embrace LGBTQ equality, he said.
Other challenges come with operating an organization like Ocala Pride in a city where it’s rare to see Pride flags flying. Safety is a concern when Starbucks event hostility looms as a possibility. After the incident with the Proud Boys, securing their events became more difficult, Harper said.
Executives also said it’s often unclear if a sponsor will object to working with them because of who they are. Chains like Starbucks are willing to work with Ocala Pride for charity events, but with few gay-owned small businesses, local partners aren’t always guaranteed, they said.
Considered a largely conservative city, Ocala can seem like an intimidating place to host an LGBTQ advocacy group. But with more exposure, Ocala Pride leaders said nothing should stop the city from having a Pride Fest like those in more progressive cities like St. Petersburg and Miami.
“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t believe how many LGBTQ people there are here,'” Katz said. “We’ve all been here.”
Katz remains optimistic about the future of Ocala Pride and other state advocacy groups. She highlights the importance of involving the next generation in the cause of LGBTQ equality.
“You can’t just sit back and hope for the best,” Katz said, “you have to do something.”
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