Venice is typically a sleepy Florida town that retirees flock to during the winter months.
But on November 12, the Saturday farmers’ market in a downtown park was replaced by the city’s first Pride Community Festival.
Some in the community were outraged by the behavior they saw, telling The Epoch Times that it was indecent and inappropriate for children.
And they were also upset that the principal, considered the best public school in the area, was affiliated with the event.
The festival was heralded as a way for LGBT residents to say “we are here” to others in the community and there were several booths aimed at children.
One featured a ring toss game with battery-powered sex toys as targets, a detail confirmed by photos and video by The Epoch Times.
And while kids watched, drag performers cavorted throughout the area, according to videos reviewed by The Epoch Times.
A man, dressed only in tiny fluorescent green briefs and silver high heels, performed pole dancing maneuvers on a lamppost.
He also performed a provocative high contact lap dance on a woman while children stood nearby.
Buxom drag performer Georgia Moore strutted through the park, lip-synching and dancing in a tight rainbow-colored dress and a voluminous blonde wig.
Local parents told The Epoch Times they were concerned to read on festival flyers that the performer spends weekdays as a high school history teacher in classrooms that insist on “a safe space for her students” and “respect for it thinks to say gay when she can”.
As families sat on the grass and watched Georgia Moore perform, another man danced nearby, wearing only tiny underwear covered by a flowing piece of tulle.
Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board, said she was shocked to see them “circling and twerking” against each other.
“I can’t imagine taking my kids to something like that,” Ziegler told The Epoch Times.
She was particularly dismayed by the ring toss game, saying she was “terrified of knowing what the prizes consisted of”.
“It’s inappropriate…I can’t even say the word,” she said, fumbling to describe the targets for the thrown rings. “I don’t feel comfortable saying what was involved in this ring toss game.”
It’s particularly worrying, she said, “at a one-day festival aimed at children. It’s just so bizarre.”
As a mother, she was stunned that parents were bringing their children to the event, she said.
Melissa Bakondy’s husband passed the park and, seeing drag performers and rainbow flags, urged her to see the spectacle for herself.
“I left my kids with a babysitter just to see what was going on,” Bakondy told The Epoch Times.
The entertainment lineup was not properly verified, she said.
When she saw the drag performers fondling guests and each other, she went to the Venice police to file a complaint.
They told her “there was nothing they could do,” she said.
“I thought there were certainly obscenity laws that were broken,” Bakondy said. “But I was told they had no actual sacrifice and that they were behind.”
When the event was highlighted on Twitter by LibsofTikTok, It caught the attention of General Michael Flynn, who served as national security adviser under former President Donald Trump. He wrote on Telegram that he viewed photos and videos from the event.
“If you can’t get your way in our public schools, it seems you take to the streets,” he wrote. “Unacceptable.”
Venice City Council approved the festival in June. Still, it took many residents by surprise, said Tanya Parus, president of the Sarasota County chapter of Moms for America.
The city also approved Venice Pride’s participation in that city’s upcoming annual Christmas parade, she said. As a result, your family may not be able to attend this year.
“I drove by Centennial Park and had to do a double take,” Parus told The Epoch Times. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the drag queens fondling each other and the guests in the audience. This is not my idea of family friendly as advertised.”
She has nothing against homosexuality, she said. But exposing children to “things that are sexually explicit” is unacceptable, she said.
“My only problem with this is that it shouldn’t be visible to children,” she said. “You should never see that. It is not age appropriate and should not be seen by children.”
After witnessing the event, Parus said she went online to find out more about what was going on. She was surprised to see that Stephen Covert, the district’s Principal of the Year, has been associated with the event.
Covert runs the public Pine View School, a magnet program for gifted students. He also serves as Associate Treasurer of CAN Community Health, a 30-year-old national non-profit organization based in Sarasota dedicated to serving “the HIV community.”
The organization’s booth attracted festival-goers with the controversial ring toss game.
“This is the same man,” Parus ranted, “who motivated students to hold a ‘pride strike day’ in protest of” the Parents’ Rights in Education Act.
As a CAN board member, Covert should have known that the ring toss game would be wrong for an event described as “family-friendly,” Bakondy said. He should have publicly condemned it as inappropriate, she added.
“If he can’t make a public statement, that tells you he thinks he can sweep it under the rug,” Bakondy said.
She shared her feelings about the festival and the principal’s connection at the November 15 Sarasota County School Board meeting.
She said it “was shut down because I said something about how they need to conduct an investigation and get a statement from him,” she said. “They cut off my mic and apologized because it wasn’t an agenda item.”
Covert “needs to be investigated and possibly fired,” Bakondy said.
The Epoch Times reached out to Covert and the superintendent of Sarasota County Public Schools for comment. Nobody answered.
“I could say no problem and look the other way, but that’s not what we’re meant to do,” said resident Michelle Pozzie.
She was angry, she said, because people “can go to a park with their families on Saturdays and don’t have to put their hands over their children’s eyes.”
After the event, Pozzie saw video clips and pictures and was “appalled,” she said. She wonders if the event violated local obscenity laws. If so, she said, the Venice Pride Board of Directors should be held accountable.
Under Covert’s leadership, Pine View School is recognized as one of the best in the region, state and even the country, Ziegler said. It teaches children in grades 2-12.
The passion ignited when people spoke out against and for the Pride Community Festival on Venice’s official Facebook page after the event.
“The city was very disappointed to learn that some actual event activity did not match the approved event description,” officials wrote in a post. “The City of Venice has not been informed of these activities and has not approved the details of these activities.”
“And the city seems surprised like you can’t see it from a mile away,” commented one Facebook user.
Another urged: “Do not re-approve this event.”
Venice Councilwoman Rachel Frank issued a statement in response to angry emails and phone calls from concerned citizens.
“I am also alarmed and appalled by some of the footage I have seen of this event next to the children’s fountain,” Frank said in a statement on the city’s website, promising to respond to voters’ concerns.
“I’m working on understanding more details.”
The city is reconsidering its event guidelines and plans to update them, she wrote.
Neither Venice Pride nor CAN responded to media requests for comment.