Jason DeShazo performing as Momma Ashley Rose. | Courtesy of the Rose Dynasty Foundation

Although events for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community have been canceled in several Florida cities – including Tampa, St. Cloud and Port St. Lucie – amid uncertainty over new state laws, Lakeland is forging ahead with its annual Pride Month proclamation and Pride in the Park event on June 17.

Just as the city has done annually since at least 2015, June was declared Pride Month in Lakeland at Monday’s City Commission meeting at the request of the advocacy group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Mayor Bill Mutz was not on hand to read it this year, as he was out of the country, but the proclamation that he wrote and signed reads in part:

  • “Lakeland, Florida, is representative of the global community consisting of diverse cultures, races, creeds, genders, and sexual identities which work towards peace and understanding.”
  • “Lakeland LGBTQ+ residents, students, city employees, and business owners contribute to the vibrant, innovative, culturally inclusive, world-class community and its diversity.”
  • “Members of the LGBTQ+ communities sometimes face discrimination based on their status.”

Polk County Commissioners rejected a similar proclamation on Tuesday, ending a five-year tradition of declaring June to be LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the county. Three of the five commissioners — Neil Combee, Bill Braswell and Rick Wilson — declared their opposition to the proclamation, which died without a motion to adopt it.

Last year, after Mutz read the proclamation, a handful of residents spoke against it. Within a few weeks, Mutz found himself leaving the board of Lakeland Christian School, where he sent 11 of his 12 children and had served for decades.

However, Mutz was steadfast in saying he represents everyone in Lakeland, not just those who agree with him.

“We have a responsibility to recognize the civil rights of all Lakeland citizens without discrimination,” he said. “This has been consistently read by mayors prior to my two terms, as well.”

Mutz explained that anyone can ask the city to issue a proclamation.  If it is a topic that adheres to the law, the city will move forward.

We have a responsibility to recognize the civil rights of all Lakeland citizens without discrimination.”

mayor bill mutz

Jon Friedt, pastor of Believers Fellowship Lakeland, told Mutz and the commissioners last year that “the LGBTQ plus agenda is being pushed all over the nation, saturating television, internet, advertising, and more … I want to urge our city leadership and the residents to avoid the promotion of such unhealthy lifestyles, but rather to promote monogamous, healthy relationships within the confines of marriage.”

New laws create uncertainty, unease

Municipalities and LGBTQ groups around Florida have been weighing the impact of a host of new state laws passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis over the past 18 months.

One law may be construed to restrict children from attending drag performances. Others limit the use of preferred pronouns in schools, ban certain types of gender-affirming care for minors, and prohibit transgender people from using public bathrooms that differ from their assigned sex at birth.

HB 1557, passed in 2022, forbids any public school teacher from discussing sexual orientation or gender identification with any student in kindergarten through 3rd grade. The law was expanded to all grades this year.  

Senate Bill 1438 allows the state to revoke the food and beverage licenses of businesses “if the establishment admits a child to an adult live performance.”

Although the law does not explicitly mention drag shows, the DeSantis administration has moved to pull the liquor licenses of the Hyatt Regency Miami, alleging children were present for “sexually explicit” displays during “A Drag Queen Christmas,” held on Dec. 27.

“Sexually explicit drag show performances constitute public nuisances, lewd activity, and disorderly conduct when minors are present,” the state’s complaint against the hotel reads.

Governor DeSantist prepares to address legislature
Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to address legislators on the opening day of the 2023 legislative session. | Governor's Office via Twitter

The Legislature also passed a bill that bans people from entering bathrooms that do not correspond with their gender assigned at birth. It is limited to people using restrooms and changing facilities in state and local government buildings, schools, colleges and detention centers.  It requires bathrooms in public places to be labeled as “men, women or unisex” and authorizes the state attorney general “to bring enforcement actions.”

In addition, the state enacted a prohibition on Medicaid paying for gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers and hormone treatments. Senate Bill 254 also allows the courts “to take physical custody of a child … present in this state if the child has been subjected to or is threatened with being subjected to sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures.”

Democratic President Joe Biden has called the collection of legislation “hateful.”

Kerri McCoy, president of Polk PFLAG, vice-president of Polk Pride and president of Lakeland Youth Alliance, requested the proclamation, saying it is an important part of their annual Pride celebration.

“It formally recognizes the value of all people and makes a statement that Lakeland is a place for everyone,” McCoy said. “The legislation made by our state government that has created this atmosphere of intolerance is a very important reason to have Pride. Pride began because someone stood up and refused to be ‘othered.’ We are working with the city and Lakeland Police Department to be sure we have a safe, fun and welcoming event for all.”

For local drag queen, the show goes on

Jason DeShazo is president of the Rose Dynasty Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to “provide a safe and family-friendly atmosphere for all people no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, and/or religion, through mentoring, fundraising, fostering community, and promoting awareness of resources.”

DeShazo is a drag queen, performing as a woman under the stage name Momma Ashley Rose.  He hosts and performs in “family-friendly” drag shows that utilize songs with positive, uplifting messages in an effort to let those in the LGBTQ community know they are “loved, accepted, and wanted,” particularly the teenagers. His shows raise money for local charities, including CampOut, a summer camp for LGBTQ youth.

But a December “Celebration of the Arts” at the ART/ifact venue on Massachusetts Avenue was targeted by a dozen Neo-Nazis, who gathered outside to harass attendees because some of the performers were drag queens. DeShazo said the masked men were calling attendees pedophiles and groomers, and screaming, “Heil Hitler!”

He said the people attending the event were bothered by the Neo-Nazis and one of the children was crying “because they were scared.”

Jason DeShazo performed as Momma Ashley Rose in December at a Drag Queen BINGO event. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

It’s not about shoving our orientation in anyone’s face, it’s about feeling loved and embracing who we are.”

Jason DeShazo, A.k.a. ‘momma ashley rose’

The website healthline.com states that LGBTQ youth are at higher risk for “bullying, teasing, and physical violence than their heterosexual peers …  In 2019, around 23% of LGBTQ youth attempted suicide versus 6 percent of heterosexual youth.”

“LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society,” states The Trevor Project, a website that provides information and support to LGBTQ young people.

DeShazo said he wants to thank the city commission for recognizing Pride month and that he wanted to “tell the people of Lakeland that the LGTBQ+ community just wants to know that they are safe and welcomed. Pride month is about celebrating humans and the accomplishments that they have made throughout history. It’s not about shoving our orientation in anyone’s face, it’s about feeling loved and embracing who we are.”

He said since the Neo-Nazis protested and the anti-LGBTQ laws have been passed, safety has been a high priority at their events.

“Because of the hatred and misunderstanding of these laws, we have had to hire extra security at our events to ensure the safety of our patrons,” DeShazo said. “Along with this we have received a large amount of hate mail, threats and false information about who we are and what we do.”

The Mexican Consulate in Orlando has invited DeShazo to hold a storytime at a Pride event this month. He said he gets asked a lot “Why read to children?”

“I say why not? Cinderella reads to kids, as well as other characters,” DeShazo said. “It’s about representation. Kids can connect and relate to people like them. It promotes literacy, education, kindness, love, and acceptance.”

As for inviting families to their drag shows, he also says “Why not?”

“It provides a safe space for the whole family, along with representation of queer people and culture,” he said. “At our events we provide a safe space for all ages, raising money and awareness for local charities while spreading the message that you are loved, accepted and wanted no matter who you are. Why not have a safe, entertaining space that spreads the message of love and acceptance of all people?”

He said he fights hatred with love.

“First and foremost, kindness will always outshine any hatred,” he said. “We talk to the kids about how to handle bullies and it’s the same for us adults. When people spew hate, it’s usually best to not acknowledge them, move forward and remain kind, leaving room for education; sometimes hate comes from ignorance.”

Despite threats of protests and online hate, he said he feels safe having events in Lakeland.

“We have been very lucky that the Lakeland Police Department has been kind and done a very good job at protecting us and being present,” he said.

DeShazo will be at Pride in the Park on June 17 for the annual event, which begins at 10 a.m. in Munn Park. It is part of a weeklong series of events hosted by Polk Pride.

There are several more Pride events on the Rose Dynasty Foundation website, including:

  • June 8 – Momma and Friends Drag Charity Bingo for CampOut
  • June 10 -Drag Story Time at the Mexican Consulate in Orlando. Registration is required.
  • June 11 – Momma And Friends Pride Show!
  • June 15  – Momma and Friends Drag Charity Bingo for Spread Spencers Sparkles
  • June 22 & 29  – Momma and Friends Drag Charity Bingo for The Fitzlane Project

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: newstips@lkldnow.com

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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