Orlando businesses and events based on LGBT tourism push back against Equality Florida's travel advisory

Flock to Florida or stay away?

When it comes to politics, Orlando is not Florida. But that won’t be enough to shield the city from the recent legislative assault on LGBTQ Floridians. This tension between local and state politics has set off disagreement over how to approach the “slate of hate” passed out of Tallahassee this year.

The list of hateful legislation from this session is unfortunately long. It includes an intentionally vague anti-drag bill that threatens businesses and even individuals that admit children into “adult live performances,” which some fear might even affect events like city pride parades. Lawmakers also expanded last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law through eighth grade, criminalized gender-affirming care for youth, and passed a bill that prohibits transgender-inclusive bathrooms in schools and other government facilities. The list goes on.

These new laws (along with laws that loosen gun control, roll back reproductive health rights, attack voting rights for people of color, target immigrant communities, etc.) are why the organization Equality Florida issued a travel advisory on April 12. It warned that the state “may not be a safe place to visit or take up residence” for members of the LGBTQ community. The Florida Immigrant Coalition has issued its own travel advisory, and the Florida chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has urged the same from the organization’s national board.

“I understand the reasoning behind the travel advisory from their standpoint,” Joseph Clark, CEO of Gay Days Inc., told Orlando Weekly of Equality Florida’s warning. “I disagree with this sense of almost encouraging people to stay away from Florida because of what's going on. In my opinion, it’s that we should be doing the opposite. We should be flooding Florida with the LGBTQIA guests.”

Clark’s organization, Gay Days Inc., hosts events near Orlando theme parks at the beginning of Pride Month. It’s based on a grass-roots gathering that began in 1991 when gay and lesbian Orlandoans gathered at Walt Disney World. In the following years, despite backlash from predictable corners of the right, the event exploded in popularity, with tens of thousands gathering in matching red shirts at the Magic Kingdom. This year, Gay Days Inc. is hosting events from May 31 through June 5 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld.

Other organizations have echoed Clark’s call to invite people to the Sunshine State. The KindRed Pride Foundation is calling for people to “flock to Florida” for RED Shirt Pride Days June 1 through 5 at Disney.

Clark says people come not just from out of state but out of the U.S. to attend Gay Days each year — in 2022, that included travelers from Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Brazil and Spain. Unfortunately, he says Equality Florida affects LGBTQ-owned businesses like his. “It discourages the traveler from coming because from outside looking in, it doesn't look like a very welcoming state.”

Tatiana Quiroga, executive director of Come Out With Pride, which has organized Orlando’s annual pride festival at Lake Eola since 2005, agrees with Clark on the travel advisory. She recognizes that the passage of recent laws make many parts of Florida unsafe for the LGBTQ community, especially the trans community. However, Quiroga says the advisory could have been developed collaboratively.

“My hope would have been that we would have been part of that conversation and kind of give a different perspective that an advisory like that will have direct impacts and roll downhill to smaller organizations such as ours,” Quiroga told Orlando Weekly. “We've got large national sponsors that are now too scared to participate in Pride and scared to physically have their team members attend Pride, and they’re pulling out.”

Equality Florida says the advisory was not a call to boycott Florida’s LGBTQ businesses or recommendation on whether to travel to the state. It was simply meant to lay out policy attacks on the community.

“It was with a heavy heart that we had to respond to the litany of inquiries we were receiving about the risks associated with relocating or traveling to Florida with an honest look at the impending policy landscape so that people could make the best decisions for themselves and their families,” Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, said in an email to Orlando Weekly.

Wolf added the organization is asking people to buy from LGBTQ-owned businesses in the state via Open Doors, a directory put together by Equality Florida.

The repercussions of lawmakers’ anti-LGBTQ agenda could be mitigated, somewhat, in Orlando and Orange County because of the local governments’ support for the community. Clark says he hasn’t had any issues with permitting, for instance.

“There are cities such as Orlando that are welcoming, that are safe, that were not carved out in that statement,” Clark said.

“I hate that there's this misconception that all of Florida has become this, like, war zone or hunting ground. And, where so much of it is, places like Orlando aren't,” Quiroga said. “We really do have support from the local government.”

But Wolf with Equality Florida points out the laws passed in Tallahassee affect the whole state.

“The Orlando International Airport will be subject to a ban on transgender visitors using the bathroom they typically use at home, for example. As will the Orange County Convention Center. And the University of Central Florida campus. If the city or county has committed to refuse to enforce unjust, anti-LGBTQ laws or provide resources to the community to offset the impacts of these policies, we look forward to immediately amplifying those efforts and updating our advisory.”

Even before the 2023 session, there was proof Orlando’s welcoming stance could only go so far to protect against the fallout from extreme state politics. Quiroga notes Mayor Buddy Dyer was part of the campaign to bring WorldPride to the city in 2026, the 10-year anniversary of the Pulse tragedy. But she says last year’s legislative session — which included passage of the original “Don’t Say Gay” bill, but pales in comparison to the attacks this year — worked against the city’s bid. Amsterdam was ultimately selected to host the 2026 event.

Like Clark, Quiroga says for Come Out With Pride on Oct. 21 this year, the process for obtaining permitting and licensing, including permits from the state to serve alcohol, has been easy. “We have not felt any pushback whatsoever from either the permits that have to do with the city or the state so far.”

That doesn’t mean planning for other parts of the festival at Lake Eola will be easy. It’s still unclear how the new laws will change the event. For instance, will the anti-drag bill be enforced, and if so, how?

There’s also the anti-trans bathroom bill.

“Here we are planning this huge celebration with over 200,000 people — how is the bathroom ban going to now impact us, being that it's going to be open to the public?” Quiroga said.

In response to a query from Orlando Weekly about any effects the new state-wide law might have on Come Out With Pride 2023, a spokesperson for the Orlando Police Department responded: “We are carefully reviewing the new legislation and how it may impact the city. Specific to your question, at this time we do not believe it will have any impact on the Pride parade hosted by Orlando Come Out With Pride. Additionally, as we get closer to the event, the City of Orlando will work closely with the Orlando Come Out With Pride organizers to ensure a safe, enjoyable and vibrant Pride parade that complies with all applicable laws.”

This, of course, doesn’t answer the question of the drag performances in the bandshell at the daylong Lake Eola Park event.

Pride festivals have become a celebration of gains for the LGBTQ community. But they’re rooted in the 1969 Stonewall riots, a protest against police violence that kicked off the wider pride movement opposing discrimination in the culture at large. After years of progress, many feel the pendulum swinging back toward darker days.

“We’ve had definitely years of privilege for Pride to be a party,” Quiroga said. “But this year, in particular, Pride is more than a party. We’re looking at much more than just that.”

Similarly, the slate of anti-LGBTQ laws are reminiscent of the earliest Gay Days of the 1990s. The Christian right adamantly opposed the tradition, especially as it grew in popularity. With hate rampant not just in Florida but across the country, Clark says this year Gay Days will hark back to the days when people wore red to Disney to be seen, as well as even earlier struggles.

“We can't fight what's happening by going back into the closet. We need to stand out there and stand together. The fight is here.”

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