There was an abundance of rainbows, smiles and yes, love and support at the Fernandina Beach Pride parade and festival Saturday.
“What I see is Fernandina Beach coming together with tremendous support and for that, I say thank you,” said former Mayor Johnny Miller, addressing the crowd at Central Park from the event’s performance stage.
Miller recounted how the Fernandina Beach Pride parade and festival was born out of the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016.
“People from everywhere are here. People from Brunswick, South Georgia, Jacksonville and Nassau County because we’re the only (Pride) event in June,” said Genece Minshew, president of Fernandina Beach Pride. “We could not be more pleased at the turnout and all the love we’re feeling here.”
Minshew estimated the Pride Central Park attendance to be at about 2,000 people. There were 70 vendors at the park for the event. It’s Pride’s third festival, having missed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is about providing a safe place for the local LGBTQ community,” she said. “We are everywhere even in Florida small towns and it’s important that we recognize ourselves where we live. It’s important to show we’re a big part of the community as well as the other non-profits.”
The festival was kicked off with a morning parade through the historic downtown. Marchers heard calls of support, cheers and applause from people lining the streets.
The struggle for equality came to the forefront when people at the festival told their stories.
Makayla Davis, 19, from Callahan, recalled how she had endured years of torment while attending West Nassau High School.
“We were bullied and called freaks by other students. We’d ask the school administrators to do something about it, but nothing ever happened,” she said. “Pride is important to me because we have a safe place. We’re making advancements. This sort of event would never happen in Callahan.”
One of Davis’ friends, a transsexual, and still a student at West Nassau High School, said during the past school year she was told by some classmates to kill herself.
“It’s these friends who keep me safe and sane,” he said. “This festival reminds me to be who I am.”
Stephanie Crum drove from Kingsland to attend the festival in support of her bisexual daughter.
“It’s important for me to be here because for many years they (the LGBTQ community) have been exiled and not respected by the community. Their rights need to be recognized as humans just like us,” Crum said.
“The support should start at home because they’re being pushed, out in the community, so you have to show them love at home. You have to instill their confidence to be who they are. We don’t have anything like this in Kingsland. I think if it starts here, hopefully in time a Pride festival will reach my community.”
Even though it was a bright day with blue skies, there was no escaping the political undercurrent of anti-gay sentiment felt by many in attendance.
News media has reported that, according to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2023, more than 525 legislative bills were introduced in 41 states, with more than 75 anti-LGBTQ bills signed into law as of June 5.
Locally, Citizens Defending Freedom (CDF) worked unsuccessfully to block the festival from taking place at Central Park. CDF also worked to have Fernandina Beach Pride’s Drag Queen Bingo event stripped of its plan to play bingo.
CDF targeted drag queen Hecate in its effort to prohibit bingo at the Pride event.
“There’s a whole list of myths about drag queens, that we’re bad people, we’re sinful,” said Hecate, whose real name is Louis Vallejos. “I use drag queen performances to raise money like for the Pride scholarship fund and animal rescue. So far this year I’ve raised $103,000 for charities in Georgia and northeast Florida.”
Vallejos said political pressure from state and local agencies has severely handicapped those fund-raising efforts.
“I used to do about 12 bookings a month, but now I’m down to about four to five per year,” he said. “So it’s not just the LGBTQ communities that are affected, it’s all these non-profits that I support that are impacted.”
Vallejos, who has been a performing drag queen for the past six years, said current conditions have “many people at the lowest point.”
“This is why Pride is so important right now to show that we’re not going to move,” he said.
As soon as the interview concluded, Vallejos was in demand with hugs and smiles from people seeking photographs with the performer.
“What a great day. What a feeling,” Vallejos exclaimed when swarmed by admirers.