Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith reflects on the importance of Pride as celebration and activism

Conscience of the community

click to enlarge Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith in the Pride Parade in 2021 - Photo by J.D. Casto
Photo by J.D. Casto
Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith in the Pride Parade in 2021

Orlando’s Come Out With Pride is here, and the celebrations are taking place in the midst of trying times for LGBTQ folks here in Florida. In the past year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers have become increasingly emboldened in their attacks on this community. Along with the passage of the Parents’ Rights in Education Act — or the “Don’t Say Gay” law — the DeSantis administration recently banned Medicaid reimbursements for gender-affirming care, which is expected to impact about 9,000 transgender Floridians. It’s just the latest assault from a governor seeking attention on the national stage.

With the state’s rising hostility toward LGBTQ people as a backdrop, Orlando Weekly spoke with crusading Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith about how Pride fits into this picture, as well as his personal connections to this Orlando tradition.

What does Pride mean for you?
I love Orlando Pride, not only because of the fact that it’s such an awesome celebration of who we are as an inclusive and affirming community for LGBTQ people, but also because I’ve participated in Pride every year for as long as I can remember. My husband actually proposed to me on stage [at the Disney bandshell] a few years ago at Pride. So I hold that memory very close to my heart and associate my engagement with Pride every year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis continues his attacks on trans folks in Florida. What are your thoughts on his administration’s recent assaults on that community?
Right now in Florida, our governor is attacking the freedom of trans people to exist. He has turned the existence of trans and non-binary folks into some sort of political debate. It’s not a political debate. But that’s what makes this year’s Pride even more important — because it’s our opportunity, especially the trans communities, to be very visible, to celebrate their identities, and the fact that we have a very inclusive and affirming community here in Orlando. And that gives this year’s Pride a bit of extra meaning, I think.

Do you see the governor’s attacks as a somewhat cynical way to drum up support from his base?
Oh, absolutely. Ron DeSantis has used LGBTQ people — queer youth and trans folks in particular — as political pawns to advance his own ambitions to become president of the United States. That’s very obvious. But what I don’t like doing is using the term culture wars, because culture wars implies that these attacks on LGBTQ people are just a silly political sideshow that doesn’t mean anything. They actually have a harmful impact on people’s lives. They put us in harm’s way and make us targets for the far right, who have been stirred up into a moral panic by this governor. So we need to take these attacks seriously. It’s why it’s really important that we vote, but also so important that we remain visible. Because nowadays, participating in Pride is also an act of defiance, which I think brings us back to our roots on why Pride was started in the first place.

"Nowadays, participating in Pride is also an act of defiance, which I think brings us back to our roots on why Pride was started in the first place."

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How can Orlandoans get involved to stand up for LGBTQ folks in their community?

Well, I think it’s important that we do more than just encourage people to vote. That is very important, but that’s really the minimum. I think it’s really important for LGBTQ people and allies to be part of the movement and get involved with organizations that are focusing on LGBTQ equality. Organizations like Equality Florida, QLatinx. Supporting groups like the Zebra Coalition that provide shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. These are important organizations that it’s critical we support during times like these and that we stay engaged with to really be able to make a difference.

How can we support students in the era of the “Don’t Say Gay” law?
I think it’s really, really important that we continue to stay engaged with our local school boards and school districts. Too many school districts across Florida have been misinterpreting the “Don’t Say LGBTQ” law and being more broad with their interpretation of the law, which, of course, is what the supporters intended. They wanted schools to overreact to the “Don’t Say LGBTQ” law in a way that really censored LGBTQ people in schools. So I think it’s important that people also are in touch with their local school boards and school districts to ensure that we continue to provide safe and healthy educational environments in our classrooms for everyone, including queer kids.

You mentioned that Pride, in some ways, is getting back to its roots in terms of defiance. Do you expect it to be equal parts activism and celebration?
I think we’re gonna see a lot of both. I think we’re gonna see a lot of people at Orlando Pride saying LGBTQ, saying gay, saying trans in defiance of the political environment that was ginned up by Governor Ron DeSantis.

Do you think Hurricane Ian will affect the celebration at all?
A lot of times after a disaster or after a crisis, people gravitate towards celebrations and other outlets for them to participate in — really for cathartic reasons. So I see in the wake of Hurricane Ian that this Pride celebration is going to be just as vibrant, if not more than in years past, because people really need an outlet to be able to celebrate and be with community.
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