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  • Tara Crutchfield

Polk Pride Together We Rise

Pride Month is a time to celebrate our LGBT+ friends, family, and neighbors, and love in all its forms. Founder of Polk Pride, Scott Guira, held the first Polk Pride event in 2015. The annual celebration of community diversity and love has grown year over year. In 2020, like many gatherings, Polk Pride was canceled. This year, the festivities will move from June to October.


Lakeland resident Scott Guira started working with the Lakeland Youth Alliance (LYA) in 2011. This organization serves LGBT+ youth ages 13 to 20. “The organization sets up a safe space environment where LGBT+ kids can come and meet other kids like themselves, build relationships with mentors, and it also gives them an opportunity to ask questions that maybe they don’t have anywhere to ask those questions in a safe environment. They’re able to come and be themselves,” said Guira.


Though the mission of LYA was to create that safe space for LGBT+ young people, Guira said, “I never really felt like we were providing a safe community.” They could come to LYA and be themselves, but outside of that? “A lot of them didn’t feel like they were able to be themselves and live in the community that we’re in,” he said.


Pride was an effort to create a community in Polk County that not only LGBT+ youth but LGBT+ of all ages could feel welcome. Guira is assisted in his efforts by the Polk Pride Board, including Kerri McCoy, Kristine Lally, Patrick Patterson, Dustin Shay, Nick Sotolongo, Gina Bullock, Megan Hawkes, Ed Torres, and Austin Briggs.


Guira believes Pride sets Polk County in line with some of the larger communities that surround us. He says that being open and welcoming changes the perception of what people think of when they think of a smaller city like Lakeland.


“I know this community has grown. I know that it is an outstanding place to live, to work, to play. I grew up here, and I’ve seen the community change. I want to make sure that the next generation of young people coming up and people moving to the area see that this is a place for them, this is a place for everybody,” said Guira.


“There is value to these organizations [Polk Pride, LYA, and PFLAG] because we offer support to young people. We offer support to parents and family members, and friends who are having trouble accepting or understanding the situation that their family member might be going through with the coming out process. What makes Pride so important is it shows the diversity out in the center of town. We do this in Munn Park so that everybody, whatever their background, can come and be part of Polk Pride. You don’t have to be any of the letters in the acronym. You can be any member of the community that wants to be part of celebrating everybody and their differences and their similarities.”



A CHALLENGING YEAR

When Kerri McCoy’s eldest son came out in high school, she began advocating that he and other members of the LGBT+ community be treated equally to everyone else. Three years after joining the PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) of Polk County, she became the chapter’s president.


“I feel like everyone should be treated equally. Having a gay son and knowing that the laws don’t treat him like everybody else because he doesn’t fit in that box, that’s what keeps me going,” she said. “I absolutely love the youth. I know they struggle, and I don’t want them to. I want them to know that there are people out there that are just like them, and there are people out there that they can talk to. There are people who have struggled before them. I feel like that’s so important that they know they are not alone, [...] that there is somebody always willing to stand beside and stand up for them, and I just happen to be one of those people.”


McCoy expressed that the last year has been challenging for the LGBT+ community. “I think for a while there, some people may have felt very alone,” she said. She received quite a few phone calls from folks eager to know when they could finally meet again for their usual activities and meetings. PFLAG began socially distant outdoor meetings around six months ago and began meeting indoors with masks in the last two months.


LYA has yet to resume meeting in person, according to McCoy. Their first gathering will be an outdoor downtown scavenger hunt scheduled for August. “They are ready to get back together. I think the kids really need this group,” she said.


To stay connected and maintain a sense of togetherness, they did hold remote meetings online. “I think they like meeting in-person better,” McCoy said. “I think it’s easier for some of them to come out of their shells and be themselves rather than on a computer screen.”


Last year would have marked the sixth Polk Pride. Since its inception in 2015, the series of events that make up Polk Pride has expanded annually. Guira said to put a pause on such a meaningful gathering was disappointing. “But we also knew it was the right thing to do for our community and for everybody that was involved. It was a challenging year, but we’re excited to move forward,” he said. Typically Pride is held in June in honor of Pride Month. This year, the series of events, including Pride for Youth, Pride in Faith, Pride in the Park, and Pride After Dark, have been moved to late September and early October. Though the events are moving to the Fall this year, proclamations are still being sought for June. The LGBT+ community has received two proclamations recognizing June as Pride Month with more on the way from cities around the county. The first proclamation this year was from Haines City on May 20 and the second from The City of Lakeland scheduled for June 7.


TOGETHER WE RISE

“With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the concerns that everybody has, we wanted to allow enough time to put the world in a better situation where we can start having these large gatherings,” said Guira. “It looks like with increased vaccination and things getting a little more back to normal – hopefully, in October, we will be in a much better position than we are in June.”


In addition to their caution surrounding the pandemic, the Polk Pride board chose October as it is National Coming Out Month, according to McCoy. National Coming Out Day is celebrated on October 11.


“Our goal this year is to bring people back together. To rise up from a difficult year that we’ve all experienced worldwide and to bring people together from all different backgrounds to celebrate Pride and to celebrate one another and the differences that we all have,” said Guira.


Kicking off the festivities is Pride for Youth on September 29 at 6:30 pm. The location is to be determined. McCoy described this Lakeland Youth Alliance Pride party as an occasion for youth ages 13 to 20 to gather and celebrate Pride while participating in fun activities.


The next evening, September 30 at 7 pm, will be Pride in Faith – an interfaith celebration of Pride at Beacon Hill Fellowship Church in Lakeland. “Several churches participate from around the Polk County area, and they are all open and affirming churches who welcome the LGBT.” During the service, McCoy said, “We get together and let people know who might be struggling that they don’t belong in a church – that they actually do – and there is a place for them in one of the churches that come and celebrate Pride in Faith.”


Pride in the Park is Polk Pride’s largest event, drawing several thousand annually to Munn Park in downtown Lakeland. This year, Pride in the Park will be on Saturday, October 2, from 10 am to 3 pm. The event is family-friendly, appropriate for all ages, and open to the public. That Saturday, Munn Park will be packed with vendors, food offerings, live entertainment, and folks of all ages and backgrounds. Headlining Pride in the Park this year is Ginger Minj of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame.


Pride After Dark will conclude Polk Pride 2021 that evening at The Parrot at 9 pm. “It is basically a big party to end our whole Pride celebration,” said McCoy of the 21 and up, indoor/outdoor gathering.


“I’m looking forward to hugs. I think we’re all looking forward to hugs,” said Guira of the upcoming Pride celebration. “I think everybody has lacked that physical connection with other people. Celebrating Pride, if you’ve ever been to a Pride before, there is just love everywhere. Everyone is hugging and friendly and taking care of one another and happy to see one another and engaged. This is an opportunity to bring our Polk County LGBT+ family back together, and I foresee there being lots and lots of hugs.”


The first year throwing Pride was perhaps most impactful on Guira. He remembers stepping on stage and looking out at a sea of tents and people. “This started as such a small idea to show young people that this is a community that welcomes them. To see thousands of people show up as evidence of that was absolutely the most memorable moment I’ve ever had. And it hits me every single year,” he said.


BE AN ALLY

McCoy encourages anyone looking to make a positive difference for others or themselves to get involved. She and her husband have met many people they now consider family working with PFLAG, LYA, and Polk Pride. “At the end of the day, making a difference feels so good,” she said.


To support Polk Pride, PFLAG, or the Lakeland Youth Alliance, folks can become a sponsor, volunteer, donate, or join their initiatives. Guira noted they are always looking for volunteers to work with youth, at Pride events, and in other ways. Those interested in volunteering or joining their boards can contact the organizations on their website or through social media.


“Outside of specifically helping the organizations, it’s being an ally,” said Guira. “It’s speaking up when somebody says something that’s not right. It’s reaching out to somebody in need. It’s taking care of one another. That’s probably the most important way everybody in the community can get involved.”


Polk Pride

FB @PolkPrideFL

IG @polkpridefl


Lakeland Youth Alliance

FB @LakelandYouthAlliance


PFLAG of Polk County

FB @PFLAGofPolkCounty

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