ORLANDO, Fla. – Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people are flocking to central Florida this weekend to go on theme park rides, mingle with costumed performers, dance at all-night parties and lounge poolside at hotels during Gay Days, a decades-long tradition.
Even though Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have championed a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ laws — spurring the most prominent gay rights group in the U.S. and other civil rights organizations to issue warnings the Sunshine State may no longer be safe — Gay Days organizers are still encouraging visitors from around the world to come to one of Florida's largest gay and lesbian celebrations.
They say a large turnout will send a message that LGBTQ+ people are not going away in Florida, which is continually one of the most popular states for tourists to visit. If the hoped-for 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 the point,” said Joseph Clark, CEO of Gay Days Inc.
“Right now is not the time to run. It’s not the time to go away,” Clark said. “It’s time to show we are here, we are queer and we aren’t going anywhere.”
Unlike most of the country, which celebrates Pride in June, Orlando holds its Pride in October. Gay Days is a bonus celebration.
It's not lost on the organizers that the highlight of the weekend will be a Saturday meetup of LGBTQ+ visitors at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, where the first Gay Days started as a single-day celebration in 1991. Traditionally, 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 fight with DeSantis over the governor and Republican lawmakers' takeover of Disney World's governing district — after Disney officials publicly opposed legislation that critics have dubbed “Don't Say Gay.”
At first, the law banned classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity up to 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 banning people from entering bathrooms other than their sex assigned at birth, and prohibiting children from some performances, which takes aim at drag shows.
The administration of DeSantis, who launched a campaign for the 2024 GOP 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 hosted drag shows where investigators claim minors were present.
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,” organizers for 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.”
Responding to Florida's new laws and policies, the Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBTQ+ rights organization in the U.S. — recently issued a travel and relocation warning for the state, joining the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Equality Florida.
While the LGBTQ+ advocacy group said it wasn’t calling for a boycott of all travel to Florida, it said it wanted to highlight new laws passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature that they said are hostile to the LGBTQ+ community and restrict abortion access, as well as make 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 come, forcing the cancellation of dodgeball and flag football tournaments. But the multi-sport competition that is held annually at Gay Days will still have beach volleyball, golf, pickleball and kickball.
Even before these travel advisories were issued, some regular Florida visitors were reconsidering their plans. Sara Haynes, who lives in metro Atlanta with her husband, decided not to visit the state after lawmakers started planning legislation to restrict treatment options for trans people.
“It’s less a crusade and more like, ‘I’m not going to spend my money where bad things are going on,’” Haynes said.
But the organizers of Gay Days and their supporters say that Orlando is as gay-friendly a city as they come, earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign index, which measures how inclusive cities are of 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 sponsors of Gay Days.
Gay Days has survived past challenges, including in the early years when Disney posted signs at the Magic Kingdom's entrance warning visitors there was a large gathering of gays and lesbians and offering passes to other parks for guests who might be offended. Over the last three decades, though, the theme parks and resorts have thrown down the welcome mats as Gay Days has become a profitable bounce between the spring break and out-of-school summer 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 Southern Baptist Convention cited the gathering in calling for a boycott of all things Disney. Some Christian groups tried to buy air time during Gay Days in the late 1990s to pressure people to renounce their sexual orientation, but mainstream TV stations in Orlando rejected the ads.
If Clark, the CEO of the Gay Days business, had his wish, DeSantis would accept an open invitation to see one of the drag shows during this year's festivities.
“Come on out and see that not everything you hear out there is reality,” said Clark, as if he were directly addressing DeSantis. “There’s a part of me that hopes that if he were to see a show, maybe his mind would change, or maybe he would see the people his actions are affecting.”
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP