Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people flock to Florida for Gay Days festival

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people flock to central Florida this weekend to take part in theme park rides, mingle with costumed performers, dance at all-night parties and lounging poolside at hotels during Gay Days, a decades-long tradition.

Even though Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have championed a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, inciting the most prominent gay rights group in the US continues to encourage visitors from around the world to attend one of Florida’s largest gay and lesbian celebrations.

They say a large turnout will send a message that LGBTQ+ people are not leaving Florida, which remains one of the most popular states for tourists. If the expected 150,000 or more visitors come to the midweek of pool parties, drag bingo and thrill rides at Orlando’s theme parks and hotels, then “that’s the point,” said Joseph Clark, CEO of Gay Days Inc. .

“Right now is not the time to run. This is not the time to leave,” Clark said. “It is time to show that we are here, that we are queer and that we are not going anywhere.”

Unlike most of the country, which celebrates Pride in June, Orlando celebrates its Pride in October. Gay Days is an extra celebration.

It is not lost on organizers that the highlight of the weekend will be a Saturday gathering of LGBTQ+ guests at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, where the first Gay Days began as a one-day celebration in 1991. Traditionally, participants they wear red shirts. to identify themselves, and they gather for the evening parade in front of Cinderella’s Castle.

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Disney is currently embroiled in a legal fight with DeSantis over the takeover of the governing Disney World district by the governor and Republican lawmakers, after Disney officials publicly opposed legislation that critics have called ” Don’t say gay.”

The law originally prohibited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity until third grade, but this year it was expanded to apply to all grades. On top of that, Florida lawmakers recently passed bills making it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to transgender minors, as well as prohibit people from entering bathrooms other than the sex assigned at birth and prohibit children participate in some performances, which takes aiming for drag shows.

The DeSantis administration, which launched a campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination last week, also moved to revoke the liquor licenses of a Miami hotel and a performing arts center owned by the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation after they staged drag shows where investigators claim the minors were minors. They were present.

In response, some Florida cities, including St. Cloud near Orlando, have canceled Pride events entirely.

“These laws have created a climate of fear and hostility for LGBTQIA+ people in Florida,” organizers of the St. Cloud’s Pride events wrote to announce the cancellation. “We believe that holding an LGBTQIA+ event in this environment would put our community at risk.”

In response to new Florida laws and policies, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ rights organization in the US, recently issued a travel and relocation advisory for the state, joining the NAACP, the of United Latin American Citizens, the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Florida Equality.

While the LGBTQ+ advocacy group said it was not calling for a boycott of all travel to Florida, it did say it wanted to highlight new laws passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature that they said are hostile to the LGBTQ+ community and restrict access to abortion. as well as making the state unsafe for many by allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Some participants in the Pride Cup athletic competitions at Gay Days decided not to attend, forcing the cancellation of the dodgeball and flag football tournaments. But the multi-sport competition held annually at Gay Days will continue to feature beach volleyball, golf, pickleball and kickball.

Even before these travel advisories were issued, some regular visitors to Florida were rethinking their plans. Sara Haynes, who lives in the Atlanta metropolitan area with her husband, decided not to visit the state after lawmakers began planning legislation to restrict treatment options for transgender people.

“It’s less of a crusade and more like, ‘I’m not going to spend my money where bad things are happening,'” Haynes said.

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But Gay Days organizers and their supporters say Orlando is a gay-friendly city, earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s index, which measures how inclusive cities are for LGBTQ+ residents and visitors. They say tourists can support the LGBTQ+ community by visiting cities like Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg, which also received perfect scores.

“We live in a bubble here in Orlando, where even with the chaos in Florida, we feel safe here,” said Jeremy Williams, editor-in-chief of Watermark Publishing Group Inc., a Florida-based media company that is one of the the sponsors of the Gay Days.

Gay Days has survived past challenges, including in the early years when Disney posted signs at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom warning visitors that there was a large gathering of gays and lesbians and offering passes to other parks for visitors who might be offended. Over the past three decades, however, theme parks and resorts have thrown out the welcome mats as Gay Days have become a profitable rebound from out-of-school spring and summer break crowds. SeaWorld’s water park, Aquatica, is a sponsor this year.

Other groups have adopted hostile attitudes in the past. During Gay Days in the 1990s, hundreds of anti-abortion activists with Operation Rescue protested outside Walt Disney World, and the meeting was cited by the Southern Baptist Convention to call for a boycott of all things Disney. Some Christian groups tried to buy airtime during Gay Days in the late 1990s to pressure people to renounce their sexual orientation, but major Orlando television stations rejected the ads.

If Clark, the CEO of the Gay Days company, had his wish, DeSantis would accept an open invitation to see one of the drag shows during the festivities this year.

“Go outside and you’ll see that not everything you hear is reality,” Clark said, as if addressing DeSantis directly. “There’s a part of me that hopes that if I went to see a show, maybe I’d change my mind, or maybe I’d see the people who are affected by their actions.”