ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people flock to central Florida this weekend to take theme park rides, mingle with costumed performers, dance at all-night parties and lounge poolside at hotels during Gay Days, a decades-long tradition.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have defended a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, prompting the US’s most prominent gay rights group and other civil rights groups to issue warnings that the Sunshine State may no longer be safe — Gay Days organizers are still encouraging visitors from all over the world to come to one of Florida’s largest gay and lesbian parties.
They say a large turnout will signal that LGBTQ+ people aren’t leaving in Florida, which continues to be one of the most popular states for tourists to visit. If the expected 150,000 or more visitors come to the half-week of pool parties, drag bingo and thrill rides at Orlando’s theme parks and hotels, then “that’s what matters,” said Joseph Clark, CEO of Gay Days Inc.
“Now is not the time to run. It is not the time to leave,” Clark said. “It’s time to show that we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going anywhere.”
Unlike most of the country, where Pride is celebrated in June, Orlando holds its Pride in October. Gay Days is a bonus party.
Organizers have noticed that the highlight of the weekend will be a Saturday gathering of LGBTQ+ attendees at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, where the first Gay Days began in 1991 as a one-day celebration. Traditionally, the participants wear red shirts to identify themselves, and they meet for the afternoon parade in front of Cinderella’s Castle.
Currently, Disney is embroiled in a legal battle with DeSantis over the governor and Republican lawmakers taking over Disney World’s governing district — after Disney officials publicly opposed legislation that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
Initially, the law banned classroom teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity through third grade, but this year it was extended to all grades. In addition, Florida lawmakers recently passed bills making it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to transgender minors, as well as banning people from entering bathrooms other than their gender assigned at birth, and banning children from some performances, which takes focus on drag shows.
The DeSantis administration, which launched a campaign for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination last week, also proceeded to have 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 alleged minors were present goods.
In response, some Florida cities, including St. Cloud near Orlando, have canceled Pride events altogether.
“These laws have created a climate of fear and hostility for LGBTQIA+ people in Florida,” the organizers of St. Cloud’s Pride events wrote. to announce the cancellation. “We believe holding an LGBTQIA+ event in this area would put our community at risk.”
In response to Florida’s new laws and policies, the Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBTQ+ rights organization in the U.S. — recently released a a travel and relocation alert for the state, which aligns with the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and Equality Florida.
While the LGBTQ+ advocacy group said it was not calling for a boycott of all travel to Florida, it said it wanted to highlight new laws passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature who they say is hostile to the LGBTQ+ community and limiting access to abortionand making the state unsafe for many by allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Even before this travel advisory was issued, some regular Florida visitors were rethinking their plans. Sara Haynes, who lives in metropolitan Atlanta with her husband, decided not to visit the state after lawmakers began planning legislation to limit treatment options for transgender people.
“It’s less of a crusade and more like, ‘I’m not going to spend my money on bad things,'” Haynes said.
But Gay Days organizers and their supporters say Orlando is a gay-friendly city just the way it is, earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign 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 scored well.
“We live in a bubble here in Orlando, where we feel safe despite the chaos in Florida,” said Jeremy Williams, editor-in-chief of Watermark Publishing Group Inc., a Florida-based media company that is one of Gay Days’ sponsors.
Gay Days has survived previous 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 guests who might be offended. Over the past three decades, however, the theme parks and resorts have thrown out the welcome mats as Gay Days have become a profitable jump between spring break and the extracurricular summer rush. SeaWorld’s water park, Aquatica, is a sponsor this year.
Other groups have taken a hostile stance in the past. During Gay Days in the 1990s, hundreds of anti-abortion activists protested Operation Rescue outside Walt Disney World, and the Southern Baptist Convention cited the rally to call for a boycott of all things Disney. Some Christian groups attempted to buy airtime during Gay Days in the late 1990s to pressure people to reveal their sexual orientation, but mainstream Orlando TV stations rejected the ads.
If Gay Days CEO Clark had his wish, DeSantis would accept an open invitation to see one of the drag shows at this year’s festivities.
“Come out and see that not everything you hear out there is reality,” Clark said, as if addressing DeSantis directly. “There’s a part of me that hopes that if he saw a show, maybe his mind would change, or maybe he’d see the people who influence his actions.”
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP