There’s more to being part of the LGBT community than partying. The following organizations are among the many that offer alternatives to the local bar scene, from helping kids to playing softball to singing show tunes. Not that these groups eschew the bars; hey, one of the prime benefits of, say, playing softball, is the beer afterwards. It’s all about balance — and, in many instances, combining socializing with social service.
Pillars of the community: Balance Tampa Bay
Balance Tampa Bay was founded in April 2011 based on three pillars: philanthropy, service and fun.
“We really want to help the community,” said Scott Kligmann, the organization’s president.
The group tries to offer at least one service and one social event each month.
In April, Balance held its annual Kickball for Kids event, raising over $7,000 for this year’s beneficiary, the LGBT Welcome Center in St. Pete.
The center’s functions will include providing a safe space for homeless gay youth.
“The [Kickball] event has become a pillar and a staple for us,” Kligmann said.
Another well-known Balance event is Party for Presents, held each holiday season at G Bar in Ybor City. This past year the group collected close to 500 toys and dropped them off at different community organizations to disperse to needy children.
They also assist the Hyde Park United Methodist Church each month, helping the church feed the hungry every first Sunday. Last Saturday, June 21, they once again helped The Toymakers paint wooden toys that were donated to children in local hospitals and other agencies that care for children in need. And in July they’ll spend an evening at the Moffitt Cancer Center’s Benjamin Mendick Hope Lodge, cooking dinner for families of loved ones undergoing treatment.
But fun is just as important, Kligmann said.
“We’re definitely more of a community organization, but we realize the social part is important as well,” Kligmann said, “When you’re painting a building together it’s not like you’re relaxed and just sitting there talking.”
Their next social event will be Thursday, July 17, 6 to 8 p.m., at Aviators Sports Pub in Clearwater. Balance likes to hold gatherings at bars that aren’t traditionally gay, which can lend the outings visibility and even a measure of unpredictability. For instance, a mostly male contingent (the group welcomes women, but only a few are presently members) met recently at The Lodge in South Tampa’s SoHo district. The bartender was pleased to see such a crowd, but asked, “Did you know this was ladies’ night?” (The one lady in the Balance group lucked out: she got two complimentary bottles of Champagne.)
The organization has also added a fourth pillar: mentorship.
This fall, Balance’s mentorship program will kick off. Older men will mentor college students and those who recently graduated, Kligmann said. Those interested in being a mentor should email [email protected].
For more information, visit www.balancetampabay.org.
The Red & The White: ROTC & STP
Every St. Pete Pride parade features a number of memorable performances, but two always stand out: the swirling red flags of ROTC (an acronym for the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps) and the crisp routine of the white-clad St. Petersburg Twirling Project (STP).
“We’re big, red and fun,” said Frank Hay, ROTC’s director.
ROTC ST. Pete formed 11 years ago, after Hay saw ROTC Los Angeles perform in the West Hollywood Pride Parade.
He recruited several friends, ex-members of high school and college marching bands, and ROTC St. Pete grew from there. Today, with 34 members, it’s the biggest group of its kind in the country — even bigger than its sister organizations in Chicago, New York and Seattle.
Hay is also proud that it’s the most diverse of all the ROTC groups around the country.
“We do not believe in discrimination,” he said. “Gay, straight, men, women. We welcome everyone.”
They also welcome performers of all skill levels, even beginners.
STP director (and Bay News 9 traffic reporter) Chuck Henson is no stranger to ROTC; he formed the country’s first ROTC outfit in Chicago 22 years ago. So when the St. Pete group formed, he was eager to get involved.
Then seven years ago, he decided to branch out and form STP. The differences between the two organizations are subtle, he said. First, STP is an all-male group. It’s also a much smaller ensemble, with 14 members currently, and a focus on experience and higher skill levels.
“We’re able to be a little more precise and produce a higher level of performance,” he said.
He stresses, though, that anyone is welcome to join STP.
“It’s not easy to get up to speed,” he said. “But I’m willing to show them the ropes if they’re willing to put in the time.”
Good parenting: PFLAG Tampa
When John and Nancy Desmond’s son J.P. came out to them five years ago, they didn’t just support him unconditionally, they became tireless advocates for the entire LGBT community.
It clicked for Nancy prior to meeting her son’s partner of eight years, when she overheard a conversation between them. She stood on the first floor of her son’s home while upstairs he reassured his partner that his parents would love him when they met.
“It was almost like an epiphany standing at the landing as a mother hearing her son loving someone like that,” Nancy said. “It was a wonderful experience as a parent. I’ve never seen that side of J.P.”
The couple also learned that their son had joined an LGBT-friendly church, the United Church of Christ, and become a deacon. When they returned home from their visit, they decided to join the First United Church of Tampa. It was through this church that they first learned of PFLAG: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
A church bulletin alerted them to an upcoming meeting of the Brandon chapter. They were amazed by the support they received from the group and were dismayed to learn there was no Tampa chapter. So they decided to start one.
“All moms and dads, when your child comes out as gay, you worry about the safety of your kid,” Nancy said. “Are they going to be able to lead a good life? What’s going to happen to them?”
She added, “We’re often the first group that people turn to when they find out their loved one is gay.”
Voted the organizational Grand Marshal of this year’s St. Pete Pride Parade (along with individual Marshals Jay Aller of ASAP and City Councilwoman Darden Rice), PFLAG Tampa filled a niche.
Each meeting is “magical,” she said. “You never know who will walk through the door.”
Some people attend one meeting, get the necessary answers to their questions and, relieved, don’t come back. Others come on a regular basis for support or to assist others whose loved ones recently came out to them.
The Desmonds, who are both retired, branched out from there, working with a variety of organizations in the region, both LGBT-focused and not — ACLU, GLSEN, The Spring of Tampa Bay, The Homeless Coalition, Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
“Sometimes it’s just about us being there to lend a voice that’s a little bit different,” Nancy said. “It’s like having this passionate job that you always wanted to have.”
They’ve also lobbied for LGBT rights in Tallahassee and spoken out at local city and county meetings supporting domestic partnerships and other issues.
PFLAG Tampa holds its meetings on the first Wednesday of every month, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Florida-Bahamas Synod ELCA in Tampa.
For more information, visit www.pflagtampa.org.
Risk takers: She Runs with Scissors
Claire Eli knows that when people first hear the name She Runs with Scissors a salacious thought or two might run through their head.
“We are a lesbian group, after all,” she said.
But the name is really about taking risks and doing something different. And when she and her friend Mari Bolivar founded the group with the goal of reaching out to Tampa Bay’s lesbian community through LGBTQ advocacy, service and empowerment, the name She Runs with Scissors was thrown out there half as a joke at first.
“Then we said, 'why not? Why can’t we call it this?'” Eli said.
And though the group has only been hosting events for the past several months, it’s already turning heads for reasons other than its memorable name. Its events offer an alternative for the lesbian community, focusing less on the bars and more on supporting and enriching the Tampa Bay community.
So far SRWS’ volunteer opportunities have included events at the Thai Temple and collecting toys for All Children’s Hospital. They’ve also hosted a number of social events, including basketball games and a bowling night.
The group’s official launch, “Ladies with Pride,” will take place during St. Pete’s Pride celebration weekend on Friday, June 27, 10 p.m. to 3 p.m., at NOVA 535 in St. Pete. General admission tickets are $15 online and $25 at the door. Live entertainment includes burlesque performers, fire dancers, belly dancers, body painters and more.
SRWS will also host a St. Pete Pride Parking Lot Party the next day, Saturday, June 28, starting at 4 p.m., at Cregan & Co. in St. Pete. The parking lot will be blocked off for games, music and body painting.
And a few days later, the night before Florida’s marriage equality case goes to court July 2, the group will gather to release wish lanterns
during a peaceful vigil at Courtney Campbell Causeway.
Homerun: Suncoast Softball
Gay softball got its start in Tampa in 1985, when a team of openly gay players participated in the city of Tampa’s men’s league.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, in 1994, that an all-gay (but straight-friendly) league, Suncoast Softball, got started.
It was perfect timing for the league to form, said Gerre Reynolds, the league’s commissioner. The March on Washington for LGBT rights took place in 1993, and more and more individuals were comfortably coming out of the closet.
“It was kind of like a coming of age for the community,” he said. “People were more comfortable, and not afraid to get things started. People who weren’t involved in anything before now wanted to get involved. It was the coming out of the community.”
There were a few gay bars, but not many LGBT social organizations at the time, especially in Tampa Bay. So Suncoast Softball filled a niche, Reynolds said.
“There were not as many choices for us then,” he said. “So many people came out of the woodwork, guys who never felt welcome in PE class.”
There are several divisions, including a Masters Division for those 50 and older, and everyone is welcome to join — men, women, straight allies.
Today, Suncoast Softball is a local institution with national reach: Earlier this year the league hosted the 20th Annual Gasparilla Softball Classic, attracting more than 60 teams from across the country. The teams also vie to compete in the Gay Softball World Series. This year, Pitch Slapped has qualified to represent Suncoast Softball in Dallas in September.
For info, visit suncoastsoftball.org.
“A social alternative”: Outings & Adventures
Robert Geller, chief adventure officer, founded Outings & Adventures in 2008 to offer “a social alternative” to the LGBT community — kayaking, hiking, cooking lessons, glass blowing.
Though the company’s services have changed in recent years — it’s rebranded as a gay active travel company — its initial goal to offer something different to local LGBT individuals remains the same.
“And we still have our roots in bringing the community together,” Geller said. “We just wanted to do it on a bigger scale.”
Outings & Adventures offers the inaugural voyage of its exclusive gay charter cruise this fall. A windjammer ship will take 24 guests to the Caribbean in October.
“It’s not your stereotypical circuit party with booze, drugs and drag stars,” Geller said.
Instead, there will be yoga, massage, hiking through islands and into the mouths of inactive volcanos, relaxing beach days and more. There will even be a health and wellness coordinator, Justin Rockett, onboard.
This first cruise is only open to men, and there are still three cabins left. But Geller is already planning a second voyage, set for summer 2015, to a whole new set of islands, and both men and women can sign up for the trip.
The company will also sponsor a SMART Ride team for the 165-mile bike ride from Miami to Key West to raise funds and awareness for AIDS organizations throughout the state in November. In the meantime, Outings & Adventures will host a monthly Big Gay Yogurt Social, alternating between the St. Petersburg and South Tampa/Gandy Yogurtology locations.
“It has a low entry price point barrier, not a $150 ticket to a gala or a party with Jell-O shots involved,” Geller said. “That’s not in the spirit of Outings & Adventures. We’re offering something on the healthier side.”
For more information, visit www.outingsandadventures.com.
Step up to the mic: Oral Fixation
Oral Fixation’s monthly open-mic series offers a creative haven for the local LGBTQ community, a place where individuals can comfortably get behind the mic, speak their minds and show off their stuff through multiple artistic mediums, including poetry, comedy, and song. The open-mic series has hosted performances from all over the spectrum over the past several years, from emotionally charged and heart-wrenching to comedic, lighthearted work, said the event’s organizer, St. Petersburg College professor and author Sheree Greer (whose upcoming novel Let the Lover Be will be released in August.)
“It’s like a talent show, but with no prize,” she said. “People just come and do something creative.” And for the LGBT community, “it’s really important to have that safe space. Other open mics are not as inviting as they’d like to seem.”
Over the past year, the popular open mic has added a co-host to the mix — poet and writer Adrien Julious — and just wrapped up a submission call for the group’s first-ever anthology due out next March.
The open mic got its start in 2010 as a one-time event held in a hotel conference room during Tampa Black Pride weekend. But it was such a hit that Greer was asked to turn it into a monthly event.
Originally held at the Chelsea Nightclub, which shut its doors in 2012, Oral Fixation is now held the third Thursday of every month at Ybor City’s R Bar, 1820 N. 15th St., Tampa.
For more information, visit www.getyouroralfix.com.
Singing sensations: Crescendo & Una Voce
The talented members of Crescendo: The Tampa Bay Women’s Chorus and Una Voce: The Florida Men’s Chorale offer stunning vocal performances at events throughout the year.
In fact, you might’ve caught Crescendo this past weekend, at the group’s June 21 “Women Make Music” concert. And Una Voce just returned from performing at Various Voices, a European LGBT choral festival held in Dublin earlier this month.
But the two organizations are very active off-stage as well, assisting a number of community organizations in the Tampa Bay area.
“Supporting the community has always been a part of our vision,” said Tom Barker, managing director of Una Voce. “We like to say we’re changing lives one song at a time.”
And Crescendo specifically decided that “Community Connections” would be their theme for 2014.
“We wanted the season to be more about outreach in the community and making a difference there,” said Kathie Michael, general manager of Crescendo.
Just some of the organizations Una Voce has partnered with or performed benefit concerts for include Big Brothers Big Sisters Tampa, the Gulfport Senior Citizen Foundation, and AIDS Service Association of Pinellas. And this year, because the St. Pete Pride Parade is at night, they’re hosting a spaghetti dinner beforehand, rather than their traditional early-morning pancake breakfast.
Crescendo sponsored a songwriting workshop at The Spring of Tampa Bay, and has worked with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service, The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, and the Centre.
Both groups are always seeking new members. Una Voce next holds auditions on Monday, Aug. 11, 7 to 9 p.m., at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City Performing Arts Center.
There are no set audition dates for Crescendo, but Michael said they’ll be meeting with interested singers this summer. The group is also losing their longtime, founding artistic director Sunny Hall after nearly 21 years, so the search is on for her replacement.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Michael said.
“A historic milestone”: TIGLFF
Twenty-five years ago, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, held each October, began as an extension of Tampa’s gay pride celebration. Today, it’s grown into one of the largest LGBT film fests in the United States.
“This year is especially exciting for us because we’re celebrating such a historic milestone,” said Margaret Murray, the festival’s executive director. “To have, for a quarter of a century, a thriving and vital LGBT film festival is something that I think the whole city can celebrate.”
And everyone will be invited to celebrate — the opening night film screening of this year’s festival, which runs Oct. 3-11, will be free, and TIGLFF will host a street party in front of the Tampa Theatre.
The festival is keeping its youngest viewers in mind as well. All of its age-appropriate films will be free for everyone 18 and under.
“We wanted to remove as many barriers as possible and create a place where LGBT youth and their friends and family could experience the entire gamut of LGBT life in a safe and affirming place,” Murray said.
TIGLFF stays busy throughout the year. It screens LGBT-themed movies each month. Because of 2014’s milestone anniversary, this year’s film series has taken a retrospective look at the festival’s history, featuring “films we’ve shown that have had a profound impact on the LGBT community, either politically, artistically or culturally,” Murray said.
The festival is active in the community in other ways, too. This year, it was a sponsor of SeXxx Dreams, and it’s teamed up with American Stage, and worked with Bluebird Books Bus to give away free books during World Book Night. It also co-produced an evening of comedy with Suzanne Westenhoefer with Metro Wellness, and invites the organization’s mobile testing buses to each film screening.
For the first time this year, TIGLFF will offer a family event during Pride — a screening of The Muppets Saturday, June 28, 11 a.m., at St. Pete’s Museum of Fine Arts.
“We have such a strong fan base in St. Pete and we wanted to do something, but Pride really is a time for parties — not many folks want to sit through a movie when there are so many other events going on,” Murray said. “But gay families are still under-served in our area, and we thought a film and museum activity would be a great way to include them in the fun of Pride.”
There are a number of volunteer opportunities available leading up to and during the festival.
“We don’t just want people to serve as unpaid staff — we’re really looking for people who want to become leaders within the organization and help shape the future of the festival,” Murray said. “Leading up to the festival, we have programming committees and other fun things to work on, and during the festival itself, volunteering is a blast. It’s a great way to meet people, see films, and have a great time.”
With open arms: LGBT Welcome Center
It won’t be long before Metro Wellness’ much-anticipated LGBT Welcome Center opens in St. Pete’s Grand Central District, said Larry Biddle, director of center development. He’s hoping for a soft opening later this summer, with an official grand opening event in late September.
The Welcome Center — only the third of its kind in the country — will serve those visiting Tampa Bay as well as locals, with a focus on providing a safe space for LGBT youth and a venue where the community can gather.
In addition to offering travel information for visitors, the building will include an LGBT-focused café, which will serve Kahwa Coffee. There will also be space available to individuals and organizations for meetings, studying, socializing and community events.
“We wanted a very public kind of space that’s flexible in its use,” Biddle said.
The focus on LGBT youth is critical, as “40 percent of homeless youth in Tampa Bay are LGBT,” he said. The hope is the Welcome Center will become one of the first places these youths turn to for assistance. “We want to connect people to the services they need.”
VIP tours of the building will be offered Thursday, June 26, 5 to 7 p.m., by reservation. Contact Biddle at [email protected] to schedule a tour.
Though some areas are still under construction, people will still get a sense of the finished product, he said.
And fundraising efforts for the project are ongoing, he added.
For more information on how to donate, visit www.metrotampabay.org/donate-to-metro/make-house-home.
• Metro Wellness and Community Centers, with locations in St. Pete and Tampa, is behind the planned LGBT Welcome Center, but offers so much more to the community. It’s committed to offering premier HIV services, as well as social networking in the form of classes, support groups and events. metrotampabay.org
• The AIDS Service Association of Pinellas (ASAP) offers comprehensive support services and referrals for the HIV/AIDS community. The group is also behind some of Tampa Bay’s most well-known service-oriented events: Santa Speedo Run, AIDS Walk Tampa Bay, the Red Ribbon Dance and Dining Out for Life. asapservices.org
• Suncoast Squares square dancing club meets Tuesdays, Thursdays and the second Sundays at King of Peace MCC in St. Pete. A free fun night, an introduction to square dancing, will be held Tuesday, July 8, 7:30-10 p.m. suncoastsquares.com
• Front Runners Tampa Bay is a fitness-focused club comprised of mostly gay men and women. All levels of runners, walkers, cyclists and in-line skaters are welcome at the regularly scheduled workouts. Visit frontrunnerstampabay.org or https://sites.google.com/site/frontrunnerstpete
• The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Tampa Bay chapter offers support to LGBT youth in the region and works to create safe school environments. To get involved, visit www.glsen.org/chapters/tampabay
• The Harvey Milk Festival, held each year in May in Sarasota, honors the life of the first openly gay politician in our country with a weekend of art, music and film. The festival plans to host events throughout the year. www.harveymilkfestival.com
• Silver Threads is an annual event for lesbians 50 and older held in St. Pete Beach. The experience offers older women a safe space for emotional, educational and spiritual enrichment. www.silverthreadscelebration.org