Eric Skains attended his first Pride parade 10 years ago in Houston.
He remembers it vividly, he says, in part because of what had happened three months before. That was when his best friend since childhood, Derek — who came to live with Skains and his family at age 15 after his own parents threw him out of the house for being gay — committed suicide. Skains was in college at the time in Austin, and Derek was in Houston running the landscaping business the two had begun together. He shot himself as Skains listened on the phone.
“The last words I hear from him are, ‘I thought you would understand,’” he remembers. “And then I hear the gunshots that took his life.”
The loss was understandably traumatizing for Skains, leading to “a very tough time” in his life. His friends, in an effort to break him out of his funk, convinced him to attend Houston’s 2003 Pride.
The experience of being part of a huge crowd of LGBT people and their allies for the first time (he had only come out himself the previous year) had a profound effect on him.
“I start crying, and I start wondering what would have happened if Derek were standing right here next to me, if he were able to witness the same thing.”
He can never be sure whether his friend’s suicide was connected to his sexuality, but he does know that Derek’s parents, committed Pentecostals, never accepted him. (They didn’t even attend his funeral.) And he now knows that for gay men and women who suffer similar rejection, attending Pride can be a pivotal moment: “For the first time you feel welcomed into a community.”
Following Skains’ own initiation into the world of Pride, he went on to become head of operations and then executive director of Houston Pride, and moved to his present leadership position at St. Pete Pride just last year.
This year’s festival and promenade could be the biggest yet, especially since the Supreme Court provided new reasons to celebrate. And Skains, 31, seems to be applying the same financial knowhow to St. Pete Pride that he learned from his landscaping business, which grew from two teenagers in a golf cart to over 100 employees. “I’m a stickler for budgets,” he says, and this year, through vendor fees and sponsorships, the organization paid off its projected expenses months ahead of schedule.
Still, Pride comes in for criticisms from both ends of the political spectrum.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, like other conservative politicians, has voiced objections that the parades are too “adult-themed” (though he did agree for the first time this year to sign a city proclamation declaring June to be LGBT Pride Month). And some within the LGBT community consider the whole notion of such parades to be passé.
To the question of whether St. Pete Pride is “family-oriented” enough, Skains responds, “Is that Sean Hannity’s version of ‘family’?’ If that’s the case, then probably not.” As for the notion that the parades are no longer necessary, he points to his encounter with a 52-year-old man he met recently at Georgie’s Alibi. This year will be his first time attending a Pride celebration.
“What gets me going,” says Skains, “is ensuring that that same experience, that same feeling of belonging that I felt, he can feel as well.”