It’s a hot and humid summer night in St. Petersburg, Florida and flood lights are streaming down hard upon Tropicana Field where the Tampa Bay Rays are about to face the San Francisco Giants. Every last ticket has been sold for this home game (a first for the Rays), and thousands are slipping into black T-shirts bearing the team’s signature burst. It’s a night of excitement here in sunny St. Pete, but also one of somber reflection. This is no ordinary baseball game.
Less than one week prior, a 29-year-old gunman rushed into Pulse Nightclub in Orlando (just 105 miles away) and massacred 49 people while wounding 53 others. As a nation grieved, the Rays sprung into action by creating an impromptu Pride Night to benefit the victims and families of the shooting. It included a tribute to the victims, the singing of the national anthem by LGBT choral group Una Voce, a showcasing of the Pride flag on the field, and tens of thousands of fans donning free shirts that read “We Are Orlando” in rainbow colors. It was incredible.
But this is only one reason to love St. Pete, a quirky sun-drenched metropolis whose cultural attractions, stately downtown and LGBT friendliness are often overshadowed by other Florida cities. Some facts about Pinellas County: It is Florida’s second smallest county, but home to nearly one million people and by far the densest in the state. It boasts 35 miles of sandy beaches and a total of 588 miles of coast- line. It is the birthplace of both Wikipedia and Hooters and its mid-June Pride celebration is the largest in the Sunshine State. In short, it’s an interesting place.
I begin my weekend by cruising the Pinellas Byway away from the city and toward my hotel in sunny St. Pete Beach. The tollbooth attendant greets me with a fist bump (an auspicious beginning), and soon I am checking in at the Kimpton Hotel Zamora (3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach Tel: 888-809-1588. www.thehotelzamora.com), a Gulf-facing Mediterranean-style resort adorned with dramatic white archways, curvy balcony rails, and gangly palm trees standing guard on all sides. I am checked in by a slender young man and his senior counterpart. I believe both are gay and were handpicked just for my arrival. I enjoy their banter as they check me in (and check me out, if you know what I mean).