Hundreds gathered at Bo Diddley Plaza Saturday— each with something different in their hearts.
Some came for the fun, some came for the food, but others for their family.
“My brother was probably trans, but labeled as a bad person because of AIDS,” said Alicia Beverly, 50, of Gainesville. She broke down at what came next.
“He died from AIDS in the eighties, and my family never accepted him,” she said.
Also on the mind of festival attendees was a slate of new legislation enacted by the Florida Legislature that targets LGBTQ+ people and was signed into law May 17 by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Those laws would restrict gender-affirming healthcare, transgender bathroom use and drag performances.
The Pride Community Center of North Central Florida hosted the “Can’t Drag us Down” festival as its Pride Days came to a close. The festival allowed the north central Florida community to gather in joy and unity, but also to remember loved ones passed.
“I think he’s here with us today,” Beverly said.
Her daughter, Zarinna Swisher, 29, of Gainesville, joined her mom at the festival. Being a transgender woman herself, Zarinna said her family relies on mutual support.
“I’m here to support her brother,” she said, pointing to Beverly. “And she’s here to support me.”
Beverly said the underlying theme throughout the day became evident quickly: Those seeking support and those who offer it.
Brooke Alker is another example, who said it was not too long ago she was searching for a religious community in Gainesville that would accept her.
“As soon as I walked through the doors, the first people I met was a lesbian couple,” she said of the Temple Shir Shalom. The congregation is the self-proclaimed Alachua County home for reformed Judaism for nearly 40 years.
“There were a bunch of people there with piercings and blue hair, so I was like — OK yes — I am welcome here,” she said through laughs.
Sitting underneath the tent, Rabbi Micheal Joseph smiled.
“We have many LGBTQ members and friends,” he said. “We feel like it’s important to show ourselves at the festival to show our support. We met people last year who stumbled upon us here and then became very active in our congregation.”
President of the nonprofit pride center, Tamara Perry-Lunardo, 43, of Gainesville, said this is why the organization hosts the festival each year.
“The festival is a time to take a break and celebrate,” she said. “But it’s also a way to say we will not be quiet, go away, or be ashamed. Celebrating pride is an act of resistance and protest.”
Founded in 2000, the mission statement of the pride center commits their organization to be a safe-space for marginalized groups. It said, “Visibility changes people’s minds. Here in North Central Florida, LGBTQ+ people deserve access to safe spaces where they can not only express themselves, but where they can also be a part of a community.”
In the wake of recent legislation targeting LGBTQ+ individuals, Perry-Lunardo said the queer community in north central Florida continues to be attacked.
“It’s who we are,” she said. “Especially in an environment where legislation is designed to shame us, make us hide, and make us disappear back into the margins of society.”
SB 254 restricts gender-affirming healthcare for transgender people under the age of 18, allowing the state to take temporary custody of any child who receives such treatment. The legislation also states the department will revoke the license of the practitioner who performs anything related to a sex-reassignment procedure.
The Florida Board of Education had already voted to expand the restriction from kindergarten through 12th grade.
HB 1069 expands the “Don’t Say Gay” law, as named by critics. The Parental Rights in Education law requires health and reproduction education material taught in schools be approved by the Department of Education.
The Safety in Private Spaces Act, HB 1521, requires transgender people to use the bathrooms and changing rooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth. SB 1438 prohibits children from attending any “adult live performances,” which may impact drag performances. The legislation defines “adult live performance” as a show that “depicts or simulates lewd conduct.”
Jim Funk, 73, of Gainesville, denounced the recent legislation while watching a drag performance at the festival.
“It’s terrible,” he said.
Funk said he came out to support women’s rights alongside his family members and friends. He gazed out onto the festival with a hopeful gleam in his eye, and then took a walk down memory lane.
“I’m part of the baby boomer generation,” he said. “In one way we’ve been extremely lucky. We’ve seen the greatest change in humanity ever. You would never see something like this for most of my lifetime.”
Surrounding patrons with vibrant color and rich sound, the festival had undertones of making positive change for the community. But Swisher specified how the festival connects the community.
“It’s all about family.”