Pride in Pinellas Arts — Celebrating our Uncommon Bonds
Pride Month means every June is full of parades and performances that recognize the long struggle for equality for queer people in the U.S. and around the world. But the month was chosen, at least in part, to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a series of violent clashes following police raids on a New York City club gay club.
That progression from violence to celebration is emblematic of the importance of the arts for communities like Pinellas. While the Stonewall Riots catalyzed movements for LGBTQ liberation, art and other forms of communication are crucial to forging the lasting mutual understanding that allows a diverse society to thrive.
In Pinellas, artists have publicly expressed their commitment to the radical proposition that we share a common humanity, however and whomever we love.
St Pete Pride, Florida’s largest Pride celebration, brought in an estimated total economic impact of $22,321,700 last year, according to the organization. Having grown from a single-day street festival in 2003 to a multi-day destination event, St Pete Pride has become a major draw in the Tampa Bay region at large.
While there’s no hope of entirely capturing the diversity of our region’s artists in less than a dozen books, we wanted to highlight just a sampling of the great work they’re doing.
One such important figure, the Latin Pop painter John Gascot, has established programs locally to help both LGBTQ and minority youth. Gascot’s work often touches on the lives of women in particular, showing the ways that consciousness-raising for one group can become a broader sort of empathy.
— John Gascot (@LatinPop) June 8, 2017
The same could be said of the work of local writer Brit Chism. Chism (who shies away from labels that he says make him feel “pigeonholed”) is a man, but is deeply concerned with the social struggles of women. In a recent story, Chism delves into the challenges faced by Muslim women in America, and his upcoming collection, Mnemosyne’s Daughters, addresses similar concerns through the lens of classical mythology. Proceeds from the collection, published by the local and LGBT-owned Breaking Rules Press, will benefit LGBT causes (We intend to review it here soon).
The same kind of open-armed empathy and concern can be seen at freeFall Theatre Company. The Theatre was founded and is largely led by members of the LGBT community, but that might go totally unnoticed by many Pinellas residents. While the theater never set out to cater to any single segment of the Pinellas community, its ability to connect with so many of them is, in a very direct way, a product of its roots.
“freeFall celebrates all people of all backgrounds and tries to tell the story of everyone,” press director Matthew McGee says. “But that comes with being a member of a community that can sometimes be on the margins.”
Of course, for those tuned into its sensibility, freeFall does reflect what some would call a gay sensibility. McGee points to productions such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which tackles love and AIDS, and productions of both Mame and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado that subverted certain gender norms.
“I don’t know a lot of people who would do The Mikado with all men in Kabuki Vegas drag,” he laughs. But some of the company’s edgier productions have also been its biggest hits, showing that empathy cuts both ways.
Of course, the LGBT community itself has reached a point where it benefits from its own rule-breakers, and one of my personal favorites is Mark Castle. Castle could be very loosely described as a singer and drag queen, but he subverts most of the holy writs of the form — starting with its most foundational.
“I’m not trying to look like a woman,” Castle says. “My thing isn’t female illusion. I just want to be the visual interpretation of what I’m feeling.” That can mean anything from surreal sci-fi makeup to boyish gym gear to his latest summer mermaid iterations. He finds he often has more in common with punk and noise audiences than gay crowds.
More than gender or even gay identity, Castle is preoccupied with performance itself, filtered through our contemporary obsession with celebrity. He posits that Katy Perry and Justin Bieber are both, in their own way, drag artists, performing heightened and artificial visions of gender. His online and stage persona, a character he sums up as “deluded,” wraps a serious commitment to music and visual expression in a big question mark about what it means to create a public self.
That instability and questioning sums up the transition from the Stonewall generation to the “queer” culture of today. In many ways, that’s just the next step on the road to radical empathy — the idea that we all share not only a common humanity, but the freedom to express it and embrace it in any way we see fit.
For more information on this month’s St Pete Pride parade and other events, visit stpetepride.com/en/2017.