You can never go wrong with a drag queen. Even less so with a quartet of queens.
So it was as the Second Annual Flagler Pride Festival was nearing its end at Palm Coast’s Central Park Saturday evening, when the crowd–an unexpectedly large, predictably joyful crowd–went wild at four extravagant drag queen performances. Three of the drag queens were down from Hamburger Mary’s in Jacksonville, an LGBT-friendly restaurant chain that started post-Stonewall in the 1970s and is known for their “Dining with Divas” drag show.
Children of all ages were in awe of the queens, running up to give them dollar bills and dance alongside them. “It’s just so important that we have a sense of community away from our city as well. All of Florida needs to band together with everything going on with the government, it’s so important,” said drag queen Eris Farris. “Growing up we didn’t have events like these,” said co-queen Gizzelle Alexandria Cliche, “I love showing support and the community shows us support, so we’re giving back.”
“It took me several years to finally be able to come back home and finally be able to perform in my hometown for pride,” Kyla G’diva Rogue said. “If it wasn’t for every single youth sitting out here, us drag queens really wouldn’t be having anything to perform for, we perform for the young ones.”
Abbey Cooke, a teacher in the Flagler school district, one of the organizers of the event and its exuberant emcee all evening–her exuberance in numerous appearances before the Flagler County School Board isn’t much diminished from what it was Saturday–focused especially on younger people as she recapped the evening in an interview this morning. She cited one example in particular, though there were many, of one teen who had been reluctant to go to the festival, but who by evening’s end was saying he’d never felt as free to be himself.
“We’ve all been talking until 1 a.m. on the chat and we started talking again at 8, about how amazing it was,” Cooke said of the post-event discussions, “not only about the community at large but the children, especially the teens. For me as a teacher to see the kids at school normally reserved and be in their shell, for them to be able to come out and be themselves, it was all worth it just for those kids.”
That in part was why School Board member Colleen Conklin was there, with her husband and her father (who was among those who got their vaccine shot, at the festival, courtesy of the Flagler Health Department’s nurses, who held a booth there.) “It’s a beautiful event,” Conklin said, “it’s a display of outpouring of love and pride for the LGBT community and I’m here with my family just to support and show we have love for everyone within the community. So it’s exciting to see it grow and it’ll be interesting to see how it continues to grow next year.”
So not only was this year’s festival a way for LGBTQ+ community members to celebrate Pride Month, but it was a vehicle to broaden the community’s perspectives and push for bigger tents. But it remained at heart a festival even if among the flamboyant live performances, food trucks, friendly games and raffles, hosts of the event encouraged the crowd to register to vote and get vaccinated (if they hadn’t already) at one of the many booths surrounding the stage.
It’s no secret that Flagler doesn’t quite have the reputation for being the most LGBTQ-friendly space on the planet, in the past few years especially. Yet Saturday’s event and its crowds, which by 9 p.m. had totaled between 600 and 800 people, put the lie to the county’s presumed homogeneity: Palm Coast, a city started in the late 1960s as an integrated, post-racial subdivision, is still more diverse than perhaps assumed, and if anything growing more so. Flagler’s LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly community, far from being even homogenously conservative, is no fringe phenomenon.
Last year’s Pride Festival, the first, drew no more than 200 people. “We were expecting around 500” this year, Cooke said. The expectation was easily exceeded Saturday as the event drew attendance from as far away as Lake County–Maranda Perez-Zacarias said she and her family of three adults and two children, who sat between their own fluttering rainbow flags, had drive over from Lake just for the occasion–from Jacksonville, Orlando and Volusia.
Pauline, who attended the event with her partner Ann, won the evening’s the $300 cash prize raffle and donated the money back to the LGBTQ+ community. The couple, who wore matching shirts depicting their love story, have been together for 25 years and residents of Flagler County since 2017. “Pride is for everybody, it’s not just the gay people, it’s everybody. And we love to be around support and have a good time and have fun,” they said. “We just want people to be happy. And if we can, of course we’ll do anything we can to help anyone.”
Theirs was a common refrain during the evening.
“I knew we’d have a pretty good turnout based on what we had last year, but it was much bigger than any of us anticipated in any of the planning committees,” Cooke said. “My biggest fear going in was that there’d be some kind of counter-protest just because we did advertise so much this year. And there wasn’t one. So that was amazing.” The organizers contacted the Sheriff’s Office before the event to find out if they had any protests to worry about. There’d been word of none. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t even send deputies, and there was no police visible at any point in the evening.
Not that the event didn’t draw isolated snickers ad jabs from the usual bigots, among them County Commissioner Joe Mullins, who revels in degrading others not in line with his dogmatic claws. “As far as a large population in Flagler supporting this, the small turnout yesterday shows different,” he wrote on his Facebook page (Facebook had banned Mullins for a few weeks some months ago because of hate speech). “Liberals you are waisting [sic.] your un-valued time trying to create change here.” It isn’t clear what change Mullins does not want from the community, since the community is asking for no more than the rights and freedoms Mullins himself allegedly said Flagler stood for when he felt compelled to make a show of reasserting support for the Constitution, if with notable exceptions.
Politics is never absent from large gatherings any time an election is near, and Saturday evening was no different. Cooke herself, never shy, called for “a school board that is made up of people that believe in science. We need a scoreboard of people that care about all the children, not just the straight white kids,” said Abbey Cooke, one of the pride event’s coordinators, during a welcome speech.
The only mayoral candidate who spoke at the Pride festival was Cornelia Manfre. A resident of Flagler county for 21 years and wife of ex-sheriff Jim Manfre, she addressed the rainbow-colored crowd after she was penciled in as part of the list, when candidate David Alfin pulled out. (Manfre is a Democrat. Alfin is a Republican. Six Republicans and two Democrats are running in the special Palm Coast mayoral election scheduled for July 27.) “Each year we celebrate pride, to call attention to the ways that our gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer neighbors helped to make our area brighter, more vibrant, more loving, and more accepting than ever before,” Manfre told the crowd.
“We celebrate pride to stand up for those living, working and contributing to our community. If you now feel fully part of the community, we celebrate pride to remember how far we have come and to unite. As we remember how far we need to go. There are many right here in Palm Coast, who do not understand why we celebrate pride. Some of them are even in our local governments, you know who they are,” she said, criticizing the current local government. She pledged that the LGBTQ community’s voice would be heard, “cherished, appreciated, and considered just as valid as every other single point of view” if she were mayor.
Alfin pulled out, saying he’d been “double booked” at a graduation event (Alfin is president of the Flagler County Education Foundation). But he did so mere hours after a local reactionary group criticized his planned appearance at the festival, calling him a “RINO” (a Republican in name only). Alfin then posted a picture of himself with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the transgender sport ban on the very first day of Pride Month.
After a performance by the FPC dance team and a quick but joyful dance break from the crowd, Courtney VandeBunte, a new school board candidate, spoke. VandeBunte, already striking cheers from the crowd, said she was “humbled, as well as excited to publicly announce today at Flagler County second annual Pride Day,” that she is running to be on the school board. Born and raised in Flagler County, a teacher for nine years and a mother of three, VandeBunte has the motivation to “welcome any and all support that can foster the growth of my kids and your kids into adulthood, regardless of their personalities, or preferences,” she said. VandeBunte said she’d “ensure that each and every Flagler family, student and staff member is treated with respect and dignity, all school districts should be inclusive to all students and as your school board member I will be an unyielding advocate for inclusion.”
Other serious issues came to light during the festival: Gary Perkins representing the Family Life Center spoke about domestic violence and survivors, claiming the people in attendance “are planting the seed for the city to grow.” Erica Rivera, a sexual health educator in Flagler County, addressed the importance of promoting and providing sex education within the community (days after DeSantis had vetoed a $2 million grant to afford poorer girls and women access to contraceptives).
Between speakers the attendees happily gathered to watch more dancing and singing performances, lined up for refreshments at one of the food trucks, and floated booth to booth to see what each was offering. By the end of the night the Flagler Health Department reported that all the vaccines brought to the event were administered.
Eryn Harris, an Admin of the LGBTQ+ Community of Flagler County Facebook group and coordinator of the Pride event, said the festival was a lot harder to plan compared to the pride walk over the bridge last year. (There’s another Pride walk next Saturday.) Based on this year’s turnout, Harris said she thinks “it means that people in the county need to wake up and realize that we’re here, and that we aren’t homogenous, because a lot of people see Flagler County and they say, that’s the straight white man, Republican county. But we’re a lot more diverse than that.” All the hard work seemed worth the effort as a sea of rainbowed LGBTQ+ members and allies gathered in one spot that afternoon spreading joy into the night. “It’s important to make spaces like this so people feel comfortable, who are LGBT, to come and just be themselves,” Harris said.
One of the more fascinating speakers of the evening, dressed in the most swashbuckling nun’s outfit conceivable, was Sister Bunny Juju with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco non-profit. “We’re queer nuns who do things for the community, basically the same thing you would think a normal nun would do, but we specialize in LGBTQ and that kind of thing,” the Sister, a Ponte Vedra resident who travels around with the order and operates out of St. Augustine’s the House of Prism, said. The sisters have houses in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Sister Bunny Juju was among the most distinctive presences at Pride, with a thickly bearded face painted white with a red stripe sluicing down from each eye, then a green and black bandana that loses itself in the more black and rainbow colors of a somewhat v-shaped cape. It wasn’t just for show. There was history and purpose behind it all, as we’d soon find out. Sister wore a dress that leaves uncovered flashes of tattoos that would require an evening’s worth of deciphering. “How long it takes to turn into this?” she says, anticipating a reporter’s question for having been asked so many times. But the question prompts the story behind the make-up, a story that encapsulates the persecution, the empathy and triumphs of a generation.
Sister Bunny Juju explains: “It takes about an hour. And that’s basically all the face. The reason that we do the face is actually a part of our tradition. The original sisters, which were five gay men, they dressed up as nuns around 1979 in San Francisco. Yes, it was San Francisco. And at the time because of persecution and all, they put on the face, that way to protect themselves. That way they could go out and do this. And then later on, whenever they lived in their normal lives, people wouldn’t come and do anything to them simply because of what they were doing. But now it’s more tradition. We all wear the white face, the makeup. Everybody does a face that makes you recognizable. Also, we do it to stick out. Like for instance if there were protesters here, I can draw their attention to me instead of the kids, so the kids can go on and do what they do, and I know how to handle protesters and things like that. A lot of people think that we just do it like it’s like a clown thing. But no, there’s actually a reason behind the face.”
Sister Bunny Juju grew up in Jacksonville and St. Augustine and has been well familiar with Flagler, “so I know what it’s like.” Speaking of the children running around the festival grounds Saturday evening, she continued: “I was one time their age. And that’s another reason I do what I do, is because when I was growing up, I had nobody to look up to. And now I’ve become the person that these kids can look up to. I strive to be that person. Every year things seem to be getting better. I’m always a positive person. I try to look at the good in everything. I know when I was a kid, it was hard growing up. I feel like I wouldn’t say it’s easier for kids nowadays, the kids just have different struggles. But we’re able to have pride festivals. When I was a kid there were no pride festivals. I wasn’t able to go to anything like this. But now more and more are popping up. Hopefully St. Augustine will also get a Pride festival at some point. But I love seeing everybody coming together. It’s definitely getting better.”