Neither city code nor direct hurricane hit stopped this determined color guard from performing at Pride

DAVID TAFFET |  Senior Staff Writer

Most people weren’t expecting to see the St. Petersburg Twirling Project open the 2017 Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade — twice. Even after their local member overcame obstacles to get them into the parade — sort of — he wasn’t sure Hurricane Irma wouldn’t derail all their plans.

The parade got off to a late start — late by almost an hour — because the company that set up the barricades along the route forgot to interlock them. Police kept the parade from starting until the fencing issue was fixed.

The twirlers were not technically part of the parade. By the time Jose Perez, who moved to Dallas from St. Pete several years ago and is a founder of the group, looked into entering the parade, all the slots were filled, and he told the other members that maybe they could enter next year.

Perez said he was surprised when he got a copy of a letter that St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman sent to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings recommending STP, as they’re known for short, be allowed “to represent the city of St. Petersburg as goodwill ambassadors from our city to yours.”

But the parade lineup was full as far as what the city permit would allow. So STP wasn’t IN the parade; they performed BEFORE the parade.

After a delay, a parade official gave the group the signal to step off. They did — until police came running at them telling them to stop because the barricade issue wasn’t resolved. They returned to their starting position and about 30 minutes later, police gave the green light for STP to begin again.

But STP’s appearance almost didn’t happen for another reason — Hurricane Irma.

Once STP’s appearance was okayed by parade officials, 16 members of the group bought their airline tickets to Dallas, and Perez made hotel arrangements for them at the new Lorenzo Hotel in The Cedars.

As travel time approached, original weather forecasts showed Florida taking a direct hit by Irma, but the brunt of the storm would be felt along South Florida’s east coast. St. Petersburg is on the Gulf Coast, about 70 miles west of Orlando.

But as Irma tore through the Caribbean, the storm changed course and headed for the Tampa area. St. Pete would take a direct hit.

Perez said he thought the group would never be able to get to Dallas for Pride.

One member of STP lives in the evacuation zone with his husband and their dogs. Although Irma blew their roof off, they were safe. So his husband told him, “You’re going.”

“They lost everything except their Barbie collection,” Perez said.

The group started a GoFundMe account to help the couple. They reached their goal quickly, and that twirler made it to Dallas safely.

“If he can make it,” Perez said he thought at the time, “that’s a good sign.”

Another member, a local St. Petersburg TV reporter, had 11 evacuees staying in his home. They took care of his home while he flew to Dallas to perform. The last two of those evacuees just left his house.

One couple that flew to Dallas lives in nearby Sarasota. They left with no electricity in their home. Friends took care of their dogs. One is a performer with the group, and his partner carried the banner that read, “Hurricane Irma could not stop us from Dallas Pride.”

And one STP member who lives in Orlando evacuated to Birmingham before the storm. To get his uniform and rifle, he had to return to Florida. When he got home, he found minor damage — some missing shingles, a broken window and downed trees. So he secured his house to protect it from further damage, cleared the brush and flew to Dallas to perform.

Perez started STP 10 years ago with Chuck, the St. Pete reporter who left with 11 evacuees in his house, and David, the performer from Sarasota. He said this is one of only two all-male, all-gay community color guards in the U.S.

“Most groups are co-ed,” Perez said.

And in what may seem anathema to LGBT people in Dallas, they’re not even a formal group. They exist without a board, without fundraising, with no bylaws or written membership rules. Each member pays for his own uniform, rifle and travel expenses.

In addition to performing in their own local Prides, they’ve traveled to L.A. and Atlanta Prides. They’ve also performed in Philadelphia’s Fourth of July celebration.

Perez said they average three performances a year and don’t repeat routines year after year. Since the members are spread out, they don’t get together to practice until the day before their performance. Instead, the music and routine are sent via video. Each member practices at home for weeks before a presentation, and the day before at rehearsal, they put the routine together.

“We decide on music collectively,” Perez said, adding that they try to keep the music relevant to the time.

In Dallas they needed a place to rehearse. Mayor Rawlings did more than just help get them into the parade. He provided them with rehearsal space — Dallas City Hall Plaza. They rehearsed for six hours.

Perez called the Dallas crowd “unbelievable.” He thanked everyone for the warm welcome at a time when a number of members of the group just needed to get away from the destruction that hit their city and, in some cases, hit their homes.              

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 22, 2017.