LGBTQ South Florida

Miami’s LGBTQ community thrives in Wynwood. Why is its first Pride fest controversial?

Dollar bills littered the dance floor at a Wynwood bar. It was a typical Thursday night.

Local drag queens and a drag king gave the people what they wanted: splits, kicks, dips and a tasteful strip tease. Despite the humidity, slight drizzle and modest pay for the gig, the drag artists sent a clear message. Queer culture thrives in Wynwood.

The artists at last Thursday’s “Double Stubble,” a weekly drag show at Northwest 24th Street bar Gramps, said they had plenty to be excited for. The performance was one of several drag shows and activities leading up to a type of event the city of Miami hasn’t experienced in years. The first Wynwood Pride begins Friday.

Within the past decade, Wynwood’s drag scene and creative LGBTQ community have found a hub to dance, work and organize. So when local events company SWARM Events and the Wynwood Business Improvement District announced the first annual Wynwood Pride — the city’s only pride festival scheduled in June — some community members thought it was about time.

But there has been push-back from some in South Florida’s queer community. One drag performer withdrew from co-hosting the festival’s closing party and a local activist group is now planning an alternative party the same weekend. They ask: Can a for-profit company put on a legitimate Pride event? Is this festival an actual “Pride”?

The debate in Miami’s LGBTQ community is taking place in other cities as well. How much profit should be made from pride?

In one corner are the Wynwood Pride co-founders, two Latino gay men and one Cuban American lesbian, who want Miami to celebrate during Pride Month. Pride events around the world typically take place in June, but Miami’s perpetual humidity and unforgiving thunderstorms make hosting outdoor events a challenge. Miami Beach hosts its pride in April to count on better weather.

In the other corner are several local LGBTQ organizations. They want “pride” dropped from the name.

And then there are the local drag performers Wynwood Pride has hired, like FKA Twink, a drag queen with more than 16,300 Instagram followers, a passion for makeup and a love for Lady Gaga. (A love so deep, she once bought $75 worth of meat from Publix to recreate Gaga’s meat dress.)

Wynwood Pride is a large-scale opportunity few Miami drag artists have ever gotten. FKA Twink, whose legal name is Eddy Salgado, said artists are receiving better pay and promotion for one weekend than they would get on any given day in Wynwood.

“We’re being treated like the artists we are,” she said.

Persephone von Lips looks at herself (Henry Honest, holds mirror) at Gramps in Wynwood, where popular drag shows draw big crowds. Alexia Fodere for The Miami Herald

In a June 12 press release, leaders from Pride Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride, Aqua Foundation, Arianna Center, SAVE, Unity Coalition and 4Ward Miami raised concerns about SWARM, a for-profit business that is not an LGBTQ organization, producing a festival and labeling it as a “Pride” event to turn a profit.

“There was really nothing to show that it had any significance to what the meaning of pride was,” said Pride Fort Lauderdale president Miik Martorell.

Wynwood Pride is set to occupy Wynwood Marketplace, on Northwest 2nd Avenue, this weekend, starting with a ribbon cutting ceremony Friday morning. Its line-up features prominent LGBTQ artists who are known nationally and internationally like Brazilian pop singer Pabllo Vittar, Rupaul’s Drag Race star AJA and Cuban salsa singer Albita. The majority of the line-up consists of South Florida performers, including FKA Twink, Miss Toto, Karla Croqueta, King Femme and Persephone Von Lips.

The origins of Wynwood Pride’s nonprofit and how it will benefit local service organizations had sparked conversation within the LGBTQ community.

Weeks before she was set to perform at the festival and affiliated events, drag queen Florida Man bowed out. Florida, whose legal name is Walter Latimer and once went viral for lip-syncing Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” while dressed as Voldemort, posted a video on Facebook about the decision the same day the organizations released their statement.

While Florida Man believes SWARM and the event’s organizers have good intentions, she said tying Pride, an idea rooted in activism, to a for-profit company could be damaging in the long run.

“What happens moving forward? What happens if working in the best interest of our community doesn’t align with the bottom line of SWARM, the company that they work for?” she said in the video. “We as a community should be scared.”

Miss Toto, who was named “Miami’s best drag queen” in the four years she lived in South Florida, is still co-hosting the closing party “Daddy Issues” without Florida Man by her side. Toto, also known as 26-year-old William “Rock” Evans, is the face of the festival’s

“Miss Toto’s Fun House,” a carnival-themed section that will include a boxing ring that drag performers will battle in.

Toto said while she understands Pride Month’s history as a protest, she feels included in the festival’s programming, which is diverse and inclusive compared to other Pride events in South Florida. Some critics are just bitter, she said.

“They’re acting like corporate sponsors have not been paying LGBT people or drag queens for the last how many prides,” Toto said.

Wynwood is a creative home to bearded drag queens, drag kings and other drag artists who aren’t “mainstream” enough to be recognized in other parts of Miami. She said Wynwood Pride puts those artists on a pedestal.

“There’s going to be a lot of eyes on Wynwood or Miami that haven’t seen or noticed what Miami drag does,” she said.

Traditionally, Pride Month parades and festivals are organized by 501(c)3 nonprofits. For example, Pride Fort Lauderdale is the nonprofit that puts on Fort Lauderdale’s annual Pride event.

King Femme., left, and DJ Hottpants (Daniel Blair) prep for the show at Gramps in Wynwood earlier this month. Alexia Fodere for The Miami Herald

To start a non-profit, Martorell said, a person would notice an issue they want to address, find like-minded people, create a board and apply for a nonprofit license. Wynwood Pride Inc was created in the wrong order, Martorell said.

Martorell was excited to see another Pride event until he noticed SWARM’s branding on Wynwood Pride’s press releases and website. He said when he and other community members began asking questions or raising concerns online, they received little to no response.

Wynwood Pride Inc. was filed as a nonprofit in March, months after the festival dates were announced. Anna Albelo, the sister of SWARM CEO Tony Albelo, is listed as the sole registered agent and director, according to public records.

“Transparency is huge in the nonprofit community,” Martorell said. “You live or die by that.”

Although the festival is now officially run by a nonprofit, Martorell said any event that prioritizes making money is not an actual “Pride.” The biggest issue is the name itself, which Martorell suggested should be called by its nickname: Queerchella.

“Nobody wants this to go away,” he said. “We love that there’s an organization that wants to do something cool for the community, and they can do it under any name besides ‘Pride.’”

The Wynwood event is the brainchild of Jose Atencio and Scott Bernardez, both gay men from Miami. Atencio said he moved back to Miami from New York City to help his family’s business. He and Bernardez began planning for Wynwood Pride to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which began the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement, Atencio said.

They began planning in late 2018, had a website up by January and quickly approached SWARM with the idea, Atencio said. In February, Tony Albelo introduced Atencio and Bernardez to his sister Anna, an LGBTQ activist, filmmaker and lesbian. She was immediately on board, and Wynwood Pride grew from a one-day stint to a three-day festival.

“We have a very clear vision of what we want this Pride to be,” Atencio said.

The festival will include a “community village” of local nonprofits and benefit three organizations: Pridelines, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and Survivor’s Pathways, Anna Albelo said.

Each partnered organization has a different agreement for how they will receive donations from money earned at bars or other activities. If an organization receives less than $2,500, Wynwood Pride will donate money to reach that amount.

SWARM agreed to a three-year commitment to sponsor Wynwood Pride until the nonprofit has enough money to sustain itself, Albelo said. The goal this year is for SWARM to break even for the production costs. The rest of the money goes into Wynwood Pride’s nonprofit to put on next year’s event, Albelo said.

Albelo said the Wynwood Pride Inc. drama boils down to one simple fact: She never created a nonprofit before. The team put the cart before the horse, she said.

“It’s sad and unfortunate,” she said. “I wish I had more dialogue with my peers and community and more mentorship.”

She did not expect the backlash, especially over the festival’s name.

“It’s vital to us that it’s a Pride,” Albelo said. “There should be more pride. Everything that a Pride is supposed to do, we are absolutely doing.”

Longtime LGBTQ organizations and Pride nonprofits are not the only groups side-eying Wynwood Pride. Fempower, a Miami-area art and activism collective that recently celebrated its second anniversary, is hosting its own party the same weekend.

Yesenia Rojas, the group’s music program director, said the party is a non-corporate alternative event for Miami’s young queer people of color to enjoy including performances by Sensitive Black Hottie, Posh Spice, Aeon and Bussy Holiday on Saturday. Besides parties, Fempower also opened a community garden in Little Haiti and hosts a book club and DJ classes.

Viola Putx performs during a drag show at Gramps in Wynwood earlier this month. Alexia Fodere for The Miami Herald

Rojas, who is an artist and DJ, said she personally declined to participate in Wynwood Pride.

“I don’t see this as an authentic, genuine effort to really showcase all queer life and art in Miami,” she said. “I think this is a corporate move. Since it is the 50th year since Stonewall, this is a very profitable time to market off of Pride.”

Daniel Blair sees things differently. In the 90’s, the only place for gay people to congregate were parties on South Beach and in AOL chat rooms, he said.

In the clubs and bars of Wynwood, Blair is DJ Hottpants, the “Double Stubble” event coordinator who is notorious for his sweatband and matching short shorts. Hence the name.

Hottpants, 40, who is performing at Wynwood Pride, said LGBTQ visibility should be a priority, even if the situation isn’t ideal. Today, the community has options, especially in Wynwood.

“There were so few options for me to experience life as a gay person born and raised in Miami on the mainland, he said. “I wouldn’t exchange this opportunity or deprive anyone their opportunity to experience this for themselves.”

On any given Thursday night, Persephone Von Lips drives from her home in West Palm Beach to support “Double Stubble,” whether she performs or not.

Miami hasn’t always been kind to her style of drag, she said, especially when she eats a bloody baby doll on stage. But in Wynwood’s LGBTQ-friendly bars and parties, Persephone, known as 26-year-old Poomie Yamsakul out of drag, found an audience excited to see drag queens and kings who aren’t always pretty.

“I’ve been driving down here for years because I really stand by my community because this is my home,” she said. “This is where Persephone started.”

Despite the controversy, she said she’s grateful for the platform and her community in Wynwood. Persephone said the rest of Miami should appreciate local drag artists all year, not just in June.

“Support your local drag scene. Kings, queens, anything in between, support no matter what,” she said. “305 ‘till I die.”