DeLand Pride, a nonprofit community organization centered in Downtown DeLand, was born of tragedy.
In 2016, the world watched in horror as news rolled in of 49 people killed in a massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The shooting immediately drew swift condemnation and unprecedented expressions of support for the LGBTQ+ community worldwide.
“It was just after Pulse had happened, and I saw how the rest of the world was responding to it. I started to look for ways to show support in DeLand, and I was Googling things and trying to find things and couldn’t find anything,” founder Dagny Robertson explained. “Watching the whole rest of the world respond to Pulse, I felt like DeLand should, too.”
Robertson had a personal connection too — her son Isaac is gay, and lost five friends that night.
“What started the landslide was Pulse. Pulse was something that opened up the rest of the world’s eyes to — oh, my God, this is not just denying rights, or looking at somebody crooked or denying them entry to my bakery or anything. Someone went in and murdered these people,” DeLand Pride member Helen Sylvester explained.
At first, Robertson and others were apprehensive about the reaction of the local community.
But DeLand surprised them.
“This was the first time there’d been any kind of Pride anything in DeLand, and we didn’t know how it’s going to be received,” Robertson said. “We had no problems; there was nothing negative in any way. It went beautifully.”
Since 2016, DeLand Pride has become the largest group of its kind in West Volusia. The organization hosts annual Pride celebrations and monthly social events, and participates in community service.
The group also holds a Pulse remembrance on the four corners at New York Avenue and Woodland Boulevard in the heart of Downtown each year on the anniversary of the massacre.
Perhaps most noticeably, the organization coordinates a monthlong celebration of Pride Month with the Downtown DeLand merchants. For years, the majority of merchants in Downtown have agreed to fly Pride flags for the entirety of June. This year, more than 100 business owners put up Pride stickers that feature a silhouette of the Historic Volusia County Courthouse, an icon in DeLand.
Business owner Ann-Marie Willacker took over the role of leader for DeLand Pride in 2017, and her support was integral, members said.
“She’s so entrenched in the community that it was easy to step in and kind of enjoy the benefits of having a businessperson Downtown who is out there and bullish in her support of everybody,” Sylvester said.
“Within being a business owner, there’s this kind of unwritten rule that you have to be neutral. You can’t take a stance on something, and you can’t have an opinion because you might offend a customer, right? This is a rule that I’ve never, ever been good at following,” Willacker said.
Pride isn’t just about the LGBTQ+ community, members said.
“Everybody should be seen, everybody should be able to, you know, to be themselves and to be who they are,” Robertson said. “[The sticker] letting people know that you don’t have to worry when you come in here — that you can be you. Whoever you are, you’re welcome. If you have a difference of opinion, that’s fine. Obviously, you can feel however you want to feel, as long as you aren’t negatively affecting somebody else.”
“What Pride means and what it represents in our society today is inclusion and diversity and acceptance,” DeLand Pride Outreach Coordinator PJ Peck said. “Whether they’re Black, gay, bisexual, or straight — lt doesn’t really matter, to me personally, what your preferences are. I think the community is seeing that, you know, we pretty much exist to serve the community.”
“I think we’ve always started out with an unspoken strategy of showing the world that we don’t have horns and a tail — that we’re good people,” Helen Sylvester’s spouse and DeLand Pride Volunteer of the Year Desiree Sylvester said. “We also do the Stuff the Bus School Supply Drive, we collected and distributed food during the pandemic, we’re working on a Black business directory. We’re doing a lot of things that are good for the community in general, not just for the queer community.”
DeLand Pride’s outreach to other parts of the community, including Rising Against All Odds and its mobile HIV-testing unit that targets low-income neighborhoods, and the Dr. Joyce M. Cusack Spring Hill Resource Center in southwest DeLand, is borne from their own experiences, members said.
“The reason the queer community can identify with other people who have had their civil rights infringed upon or maybe never fully granted — people of color, for example — is the fact that once you start to recognize that you are privileged, all of a sudden the world changes,” Desiree Sylvester said. “Your vision of the world changes. It’s not standing from the same spot. You can more readily see the world through a different lens, a lens closer to what the other person experiences.”
“I think in many ways, we can understand the fight, maybe not this specific fight or this specific battle, but we understand what it’s like to be singled out and to be persecuted for something that’s out of our control,” Willacker said.
“The LGBTQ community is a diverse community within itself. You have people of all economic levels, you have people of all colors and creeds, you really even have people of all religions,” Willacker added. “When we go out, and we champion for racial equality, and racial inclusivity, it’s not like we’re championing for another group. We have people within our own group that we’re championing for, as well.”
Visibility is key to acceptance, and a symbol that anyone can be who they want, members said. Even if you disagree.
“What does it matter to you what I do? I’m not breaking the law. In some people’s eyes, maybe it’s going against society, but it’s my society, as well. And I’m not harming anyone,” Peck said. “I think that’s what people are really just asking for. Just let us be.”
“The more people’s stories that are known, the more accepting people are,” Helen Sylvester said. “The more visible people are, and the more open they are to conversation, the more easily you’re open to all people’s rights.”
“Nobody’s excluding you from anything. We just want everybody to be included, including you,” Robertson said of displaying “all are welcome” signs.
“We’re just living life as an example of good people. We’re married, we have a family, we’re out there, we do things in the community and for the community. We don’t, other than being recognized as people with rights, we don’t push for anything else,” Helen Sylvester added. “We’re your neighbors, we own a house, we bring up children that go to school, we have grandchildren, just like everybody else, and we deserve the right to be able to do that.”
The Pulse remembrance is one way the community comes together.
“We have to create something good out of this tragedy. And so, there were still those sad moments. But I saw a lot more people coming together. You know, having good conversation, smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves at what in the past has been an intentionally somber event,” Willacker said.
“Just to see the amount of people that showed up on Saturday from every walk of life was wonderful,” Peck said. “We had people there that was their first time ever being involved with something with DeLand Pride, which was very touching.”
For its size, DeLand is a bit extraordinary, Robertson said.
“DeLand always surprises me, because it’s such a little town,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s perfect … . But in general, the fact that the Downtown supported the flags, and the support that we seem to have gotten, was really surprising to me, and really awesome.”
— Editor’s note: Witek has been a member of DeLand Pride since January 2021.