In 2003, Brian Longstreth and other activists organizing St. Pete’s inaugural Pride event sought history. The request: a proclamation, acknowledging and celebrating the contributions of St. Pete’s LGBTQ community. Rick Baker, Mayor at the time, refused to sign it. So Rick Kriseman, then a St. Petersburg City Council member, did.
For the better part of a decade, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay has worked in concert with St. Pete Pride on production and distribution of its event guide, and despite a pandemic that forced an all-out cancellation of Pride last year, CL and St. Pete Pride teamed up again in 2021 for a standalone guide on stands through the month of June. This piece from Dr. Kanika Tomalin, Deputy Mayor and City Administrator of St. Pete, is pulled from that guide.
“I had no hesitation about signing it. I didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “The LGBTQ community was - and is - an important part of the fabric of St. Petersburg. To not recognize the role that community plays, I thought, was wrong.”
Much more than a piece of parchment, that scroll of whereas clauses signed solely by the Council member from District 1 underscored the annual celebration as an integral keystone of our city’s cultural landscape. And, it lay claim to the dignity and respect every citizen seeks, and deserves, for a segment of our community too long and too often overlooked.
It set in motion more than a decade-long evolution of inclusion and advocacy that has propelled St. Petersburg to the top of the list of America’s most welcoming communities; an accolade that would leave any progressive mayor proud, every progressive city pleased. But Kriseman didn’t do it for the legacy. More than seventeen years later, as he leads the same city, now as its highly-popular mayor closing in on the first half of the final year of his second term, he is very clear as to why he stepped up to sign St. Pete’s first Pride proclamation all those years ago. “It was the right thing to do.”
Now, several times a year, St. Petersburg City Council Chambers fill with members of the LGBTQ community coming to receive acknowledgement, support and gratitude for critical contributions that advance the City toward its goals. Every June, the Pride flag is raised over City Hall. St. Pete has earned a perfect score on the Municipal Equality Index every year since Kriseman was elected. LGBTQ liaisons work in high-profile positions in the Mayor’s Office and police department to ensure pathways to progress and safety are navigable realities. Partnerships with agencies and organizations with a mission of LGBTQ-inclusive service are funded and fostered by the City, and economic development that intentionally considers and elevates opportunities for St. Pete’s LGBTQ community thrives.
“If creating a culture of inclusion is in fact my legacy, that makes me proud...but, I think it’s what everyone should do,” Kriseman said, in reflection. “I don’t look at it as though I’m doing something special. I just look at it as what should always be the case.”
“Leadership starts at the top and you have to demonstrate it if you want others to follow. I’m certainly thrilled to see that we have become a city that is known for its diversity and inclusivity. It’s a big part of what has attracted people here. I hope I played a part in that. And, I hope always being very open and candid about it over the years has brought people along with me.”
Like “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” Rick Kriseman has brought people along with him on a journey where inclusion serves as an engine of actualization for his city’s highest aspirations. And, a key turning point in that journey and the city’s psyche began with Kriseman’s personal aspirations to ascend to the Mayor’s Office.
In 2013, after six years in the Florida legislature, Kriseman tossed his hat in the ring to become the 53rd Mayor of Florida’s fourth-largest city. Lagging in the polls and armed with little more than optimism in what was shaping up to be a competitive race, Kriseman’s decision to march in the annual Pride Parade shifted a waning tide. He would be the first candidate for mayor to ever march - a glimpse into his intent, if elected, to represent every citizen of St. Pete.
On foot, he and his handful of supporters turned onto 30th Street toward Central Avenue and walked into the waiting imaginations and expectations of a changing city ready for leadership that sees value in every person. The crowd erupted. “The energy was amazing,” Kriseman remembered, willing back welling tears that watered his eyes.
“For the first time in the history of the city people saw someone running for Mayor who was leading on their issue - the things that they cared about the most. For the first time they saw someone who was aligning themselves with their community - and it was a turning point,” observes Kevin King, Kriseman’s long-time advisor and Chief of Policy and Public Engagement.
It was a figurative and literal turning point - for the parade, for Kriseman’s campaign, for our City. Kriseman’s participation turned the page on a new chapter in St.Pete’s story and the whole community gathered, crowded on the curbs along the parade route, to help write it. “It felt like this was your town,” said King. It was a first signaling of the dawn of a new day where every voice, every truth, every dream matters. Thousands of people, ready to be seen and respected - a sea of smiling faces, high fives and clapping hands, saluting the man who was running for Mayor to recognize their worth.
“It was powerful. The emotions. The energy from the crowd. It permeates still today. The first time we did the Trans March, a few years back, for instance... Every time we come together in unity around this important celebration, the energy from the crowd, it just carries me,” Kriseman said.
“We’ve created a culture here,” he added. “I wanted a city where everybody felt welcome in every space. I didn’t want lip service. You can talk about creating opportunity and policies for everyone, including the LGBTQ community. But, if you aren’t putting processes in place to ensure that those things actually are happening, then it's just lip service.”
“We set the tone right from the beginning with our vision - our mantra - I share it everywhere I go. And, I work with people who are equally committed. It’s not just me. It’s all of us. You’ve got to ingrain in people’s minds our goal of being a City of Opportunity - certainly inclusive of the LGBTQ community - over and over again. And, then work on it, every day, until it becomes the truth.”
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