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 take place at the downtown Ocala Square, 1 Northeast 1st Ave., from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
The event organizers, Ocala Pride Inc., say that Pride Fest is needed now more than ever in light of the discourse around LGBTQ equality taking root in Florida and reverberating around the country.
Coming after legislation like the Parental Rights in Education bill, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill as its dubbed by critics, LGBTQ rights in Florida will take center stage in Ocala this weekend.
Ocala is in the newly redrawn state 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 multiple requests for comment from WUFT News.
The vice president of Ocala Pride, Rodney Harper, 47, said that the focus of Pride Fest is visibility and community outreach. Also part of its mission is education around sexual health and well-being. The Florida Health Department will operate five of the 46 Pride Fest vendor booths to offer confidential on-site and take-home tests for diabetes, HIV and hepatitis.
Ocala Pride Inc. leaders said these services are essential for people who otherwise wouldn’t get tested because they lack the resources or are unaware of their availability.
Pride Fest events also include performances by local bands, vocalists, and drag kings and queens.
“We try to make a space for everyone,” Harper said, “no matter if you’re gay, straight, Black or white.”
Ocala Pride Inc. is a nonpolitical, nonprofit organization focused on LGBTQ advocacy and community education. The organization has close ties to local charities and nonprofits and works with events like Pride Fest, Mr. & Miss Ocala Pride Pageant and drag bingo.
The organization’s leaders stressed the importance of this year’s Pride Fest compared to festivals of previous years. They hope to provide a show of solidarity and a reminder of the LGBTQ presence in Ocala, they said.
“There’s this narrative that we’re somehow trying to turn people gay,” said Ocala Pride Inc. treasurer Charlotte Katz, 69. “With more visibility, people will see that we’re just like everyone else.”
Katz, a former nurse and current nursing instructor, refuted the conservative arguments that teaching about LGBTQ identity and history is inappropriate for young children and is a means of “indoctrination.” One angle to that argument is that the instruction of gender identity and sexuality is equivalent to teaching children in kindergarten through third grade about sex.
“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” wrote Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw in a Tweet. But Katz said that they’ve 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 serves as an opportunity for members of the LGBTQ community to come together and feel accepted. “They often feel alone,” Katz said, “this is a chance to not feel that way.”
It’s not just harmful stereotypes that Ocala Pride hopes to combat, but verbal harassment and physical violence as well.
Ocala Pride vice president Rodney Harper said he is disturbed that many in Ocala do not feel comfortable being openly gay or displaying affection with their partners in public. He said this discomfort stems from fears of hate-driven harassment or violence.
“I don’t say anything when you kiss your straight wife,” Harper said. “I just want the same freedom.”
Harper said he has been the target of homophobia since he came out as a gay man in 2018.
Harper, also known by his stage name “The Bearded Drag Queen,” was part of an event called Drag Queen Story Hour held at a sponsoring Starbucks at 53 S Pine Ave. Parents would bring their kids to listen to Harper read children’s books.
The general feedback was overwhelmingly positive, he said. But leading up to the event, some Ocala locals and members of the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist organization, left derogatory comments on the Ocala Pride’s Facebook page. Things escalated on July 12, the day of the event.
More than 20 protestors and around eight Proud Boys showed up with signs and some began to shout 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 because of the protestors and Proud Boys alone. The LGBTQ community and their supporters – who numbered more than twice the number of protestors – turned out too, organizers said.
“They lit 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 singing over them with “You Are My Sunshine,” Harper said.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Harper said.
Security later escorted Harper to his car out of fear of violence from the protestors. Brought to tears, he said that it was the first time he truly felt terrified since he came out as gay.
Despite continued requests for Drag Queen Story Hour, Ocala Pride has decided to stick to drag bingo for the safety of the Starbucks staff, children, and their families. While the community support moved Harper, Ocala is not ready to fully embrace LGBTQ equality, he said.
Other challenges come with operating an organization like Ocala Pride in a city where it’s uncommon to see Pride flags flying. Safety is a concern when hostility of the Starbucks event looms as a possibility. After the incident with the Proud Boys, getting security for their events has become more challenging, Harper said.
Leaders also said that it’s often unclear whether 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 are not always guaranteed, they said.
Considered a largely conservative city, Ocala can seem like a daunting place to host an LGBTQ advocacy group. But with more visibility, the leaders of Ocala Pride said there’s nothing that should stop the city from having a Pride Fest like the ones 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 for the future of Ocala Pride and other advocacy groups around the state. She emphasizes the importance of the next generation’s involvement in the cause for LGBTQ equality.
“You can’t just sit back and hope it all gets better,” Katz said, “you have to do something.”