Gay Days will see LGBTQ+ celebrations at Disney and venues across Orlando in the midst of Governor Ron DeSantis' sweeping anti-gay legislation
Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people will descend on central Florida this weekend as the state’s lamakers continue to champion a slew of anti-gay rights laws.
The annual Gay Days celebration sees the community flock to Walt Disney World and other theme parks, party with drag queens and take over hotels - but, this year, the backdrop to the decades-long tradition is significantly dampened by discrimination from the regional government.
Rhetoric from divisive Florida governor Ron DeSantis - who last week announced he’s running for president - has forced some of the most prominent gay rights groups in the US as well as civil rights organisations to warn that the Sunshine State may not be entirely safe for LGBTQ+ people.
Gay Days organisers are fighting back though, encouraging visitors from across the globe to take part in one of Florida’s largest gay and lesbian celebrations.
Joseph Clark, CEO of Gay Days Inc says it’s crucial that a large turnout make the point that the community cannot be pushed out of Florida despite controversial legislation from the top.
Expecting 150,000 or more LGBTQ+ visitors to attend the celebration, Clark says: “Right now is not the time to run. It’s not the time to go away. It’s time to show we are here, we are queer and we aren’t going anywhere”.
Gay Days was first held in 1991 as a single-day celebration and has grown in size ever since. Participants tend to wear red shirts to identify themselves and a highlight of the festivities is a parade in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney.
That element is especially pertinent this year as the Disney company is embroiled in a legal fight with DeSantis over the Republican lawmakers’ takeover of Disney World’s governing district, which comes after Disney officials publicly spoke out against legislation that critics have dubbed ‘Don’t Say Gay’.
The law initially banned lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity up to third grade (typically 8 and 9 year olds) and this year was expanded to all schoolchildren.
Florida lawmakers also passed bills making it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to transgender minors, banning trans people from entering bathrooms according to their gender identity, as well as taking aim at drag artists.
DeSantis’ administration has gone even further, moving to revoke the liquor licences of a Miami hotel and a performing arts centre which hosted drag shows which allegedly had minors present.
Earlier this year, as the culture wars raged, a former principal of a Tallahassee school was forced to resign after parents complained her lesson containing images of Michelangelo’s iconic David statue was “pornographic”.
Some Florida cities, including St. Cloud near Orlando, have responded by cancelling their Pride events altogether. Organisers for the city’s event explained, “These laws have created a climate of fear and hostility for LGBTQIA+ people in Florida. We believe that holding an LGBTQIA+ event in this environment would put our community at risk”.
Among numerous other bodies, the Human Rights Campaign - the largest LGBTQ+ rights organisation in the country - has gone so far as to issue a travel warning against Florida.
While they say they’re not calling for a boycott of all travel to Florida, they explained that it’s important to acknowledge some of the laws passed by the Florida Legislature are hostile to the LGBTQ+ community as well as significantly restricting abortion access and creating an unsafe environment by allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
However, Gay Days note that some of Florida is very gay-friendly; Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg received perfect scores on the Human Rights Campaign index, which measures how inclusive cities are of LGBTQ+ residents and visitors.
In its three-decade-long history, Gay Days has faced countless challenges.
In the early years, Disney chose to post ‘warning’ signs at the entrance to Magic Kingdom about the presence of gay and lesbian people, in case other visitors might have been offended.
While Disney and other theme parks in the area have since welcomed the community - not least because it’s a profitable event - other groups have responded with hostility.
During Gay Days in the 1990s, hundreds of anti-abortion activists protested outside Walt Disney World and the Southern Baptist Convention attempted to call for a boycott of all things Disney.
In the late 90s, some Christian groups tried to buy air time during the event in an attempt to pressure people to renounce their sexual orientation. Mainstream TV stations in Orlando, though, rejected the request for the advertisements.
While attitudes to Gay Days have largely improved, Ron DeSantis and his supporters remain staunchly against the entire community.
Joseph Clark explains that he wishes DeSantis would accept his open invitation to come to a drag show during this year’s event.
“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”, Clark says.
Pride is typically observed globally in June, Orlando holds its Pride in October - Gay Days is another bonus celebration and will no doubt add even more colour to the Sunshine State, regardless of the hurdles it faces.