TAMPA, FLA.—If you’ve been to a gay-pride parade, you’ve seen the kind of street preachers who gather on Friday evenings in Ybor City, a neighborhood in eastern Tampa. The street corner they choose is deliberate: It’s in the center of the neighborhood’s LGBTQ district, known locally as GaYBOR. The group—five this evening, though the size varies weekly—launches into shouts of Bible verses through megaphones at around 10 ᴘᴍ, just when the lines are starting to form at the many LGBTQ bars on the street. Some hold signs with message like “Homos will burn.” One preacher points at a man waiting in line and yells, “You’re going to hell.”
They’ve been showing up in front of the same 7-Eleven every Friday for at least the past year and a half, condemning club-goers and demanding they repent.
Sixty-one-year-old Carl Junstron said he came out to preach God’s requirements for heaven and hell, and said the preachers just want a civil conversation and that their signs—riddled with homophobic slurs—speak to God’s wrath. “They need to repent from their sins,” he told me, “and turn to God.”
But after Trump’s election, Tampa’s LGBTQ community had enough. Days after the voting, a small group of local LGBTQ activists posted up across the street to shout their own messages through bullhorns and signs: “Trans is beautiful,” they chanted over the club music, “We’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us.”
Aaron Muñoz, co-founder of the LGBTQ activist group Out and Loud FL, said the counter-protest started as a group of about six or eight people with rainbow flags who wanted to voice opposition. Over the next few months, it grew to 20, then 50, and now sometimes over 100 come out each Friday to what they’re calling the “Wall of Love.” Though Tampa’s LGBTQ population is sizable—slightly above the national average—it’s not necessarily the long-term residents who brought the spike in numbers. Muñoz says it’s the students.
The Tampa Bay area is one of Florida’s higher-education hot spots, home to two universities and several colleges and community colleges. But because the campuses mirror the area’s urban sprawl, stretched across many miles and cities, student movements find it difficult to gain traction. The University of South Florida, for example, has four campuses that are hours away from each other. Its main campus is known as a commuter school, with few staying on campus the full day and only 21 percent of students living there.
University of South Florida student Sarah Zaharako, 20, heard about the Wall of Love through Facebook. She said the weekly protest provides an opportunity for LGBTQ activism that she struggled to find on the USF campus. “It’s taken me a lot longer to find things that I can be involved in on campus through activism than it has been finding things throughout Tampa,” Zaharako said.