ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — 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 that 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 aren’t 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.