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Pride celebration organizers grapple with new Florida laws on drag, transgender rights

Amanda Rabines, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the small south-central Florida city of Sebring, a “Bearded Lady” contest almost got an upcoming Pride celebration canceled.

“Is that not really another name for a drag queen show?” Sebring City Council Member Terry Mendel asked Highlands County LGBT+ Caucus director Christopher Davies during a May 16 public meeting. Davies was seeking approval for road closures for the fourth-annual Highlands County Pride Fest on June 11.

“It does seem to me that this is going to result in inappropriate displays of sexuality in front of our children, so I’m very concerned about that,” Mendel said.

Davies told city council members the “Bearded Lady” contest is a costume contest and not sexual in nature. He added that the event would be closed off to anyone younger than 21 years of age, in an effort to comply with SB 1438.

The bill, signed into law last week, established penalties against businesses for hosting live performances that display unsuitable, salacious material in front of minors. Critics say it was vaguely written to allow the targeting of drag performers.

“(Mendel) was trying to draw out this false and deeply negative narrative that the gay community is out to groom your children, and that’s simply not the case,” said Jeffrey Schoop, executive consultant for the Highlands County LGBT+ Caucus.


Mendel’s remark, which mirrors anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that often baselessly implies a link between drag and child abuse, is an example of the kind of talking points, partly fueled by the recently enacted Florida policies, that are creating stumbling blocks for Pride event organizers in communities large and small across the state.

Like in Sebring, Central Florida organizations known for throwing Pride events and parades are facing a downpour of politically charged accusations, framing them as amoral for going forward with Pride festivities this year. At the same time, organizers are rushing to understand and adhere to new state laws that critics and several recently issued travel advisories say create a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ communities.

“We don’t agree with the legislation out there, but we’ll navigate it,” Schoop said. “It’s not that we’re about self-censoring, but we’re trying to throw the best event within the confines of how we need to act under the new laws.”

Organizations in Orlando and Lake County are also marching forward with Pride celebrations as a show of solidarity against recent attacks on LGBTQ+ progress in the state, but organizers say they are going over logistics with caution.


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