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Project Pride offers new gathering place for LGBTQ+ community

The organization recently established a new headquarters and hired its first executive director.

Paul Lotierzo and Jason Champion
Paul Lotierzo and Jason Champion
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Project Pride SRQ's headquarters opened in the Rosemary District in January, but it already feels lived-in. 

An extensive collection of memorabilia, books and plush toys adorns the wall facing the entrance, and that feeling of a home is exactly the impression the nonprofit hopes to create for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as for all who visit. 

“They feel love and comfort, because everyone's welcome here,” said Jason Champion, president of Project Pride. “You don't have to be gay, straight, black, white, green, purple, yellow, whatever. Anybody that comes in that door is going to feel all of our energy that we've put into making this a comfortable space.”   

That space also represents a community milestone, as the first physical LGBTQ+ Pride center in Sarasota County.

Memorabilia and Pride-themed items are displayed on a shelf at Project Pride's headquarters.
Photo by Ian Swaby

It was Project Pride's foray into initiatives that increasingly encompassed more of the community, that made the headquarters a welcome addition, as it did the hiring of the organization’s first executive director and first paid staff member, Paul Lotierzo. 

With a background in development and fundraising, Lotierzo has spent his career with organizations that advance LGBTQ+ rights and equality, a cause he calls “near and dear to my heart as a queer person,” as well as other social justice issues.

“I'm excited. I was immediately drawn to the community here," Lotierzo said. "Not because, 'Oh, the weather's beautiful. Sure, but it’s so much more than that. The people really is what drew me in, and the way Project Pride leads with such joy, which really spoke to me as a person.”

Lotierzo's experience includes executive roles with organizations like Immigration Equality, Civic Influencers and Athlete Ally in New York. He is now celebrating one full month with Project Pride. 

He said his work has helped to raise different organizations' operational budgets into the multimillion dollar range.

“LGBTQ nonprofits, nationally, receive a very small slice of the philanthropic pie, if you will, but also have to do so much with such limited resources,” Lotierzo said. “Being able to grow those organizations’ budgets, so they can serve more clients or people in the community, for me has just been the way that I've felt that I can have the greatest impact for the community.”

However, he began to find himself drawn to places where the issues were most prevalent. 

“Coming from the northeast, we're having different conversations up there, than what's happening down here in Florida and other states across the south,” he said. “It's really where we need to be organizing and showing up for each other. That's needed everywhere, but I wanted to be somewhere here where we can really have the greatest impact, and where I could help in any way that I can.”

With Project Pride, Lotierzo has been helping operationalize goals, implement new systems and processes and also serving as another facilitator and face for the community, including the one that will greet visitors to the new headquarters. 

Visiting hours for the space are soon to be announced. 

“We are a working board, and Paul is helping grow the board and our organization even stronger and better when us as a working board of volunteers can't be there,” Champion said. “He is the one that will be the light of what carries it on.”

Incorporated in 2019, Project Pride works with local organizations, businesses, and governments to promote understanding of, and to provide social opportunities for, the LGBTQ+ community.

Its major programs include LGBTQ+ grief counseling, support counseling for parents of transgender children, sober social events and Sarasota Pride, the latter of which includes a wide array of community events. 

The new headquarters is also key in facilitating those community interactions. Currently, it's being used by local LGBTQ+ organizations like SRQ Kickball, a group of transgender individuals and even a local Toastmasters International club. 

“I think that having a physical space, a safe place where people can come, use it safely, feel included, is important, because although Sarasota Pride has been around for decades, this is the first physical space for the community to come and to utilize and feel safe doing so,” Lotierzo said.

Month of celebrations

With Pride Month now underway, one of the organization's initiatives is its series of events continuing throughout the month of June. 

The celebrations kicked off with the Grand Carnival 2024 on June 1.

Chris Covelli, Don Daly and his husband Eddy Zappacosta, and Davi Elder attend Silver Pride in 2023.
Photo by Ian Swaby

This weekend, in partnership with Senior Friendship Centers and Golden Girls Solutions, Project Pride will be hosting the second annual Silver Pride event. 

A celebration for LGBTQ+ seniors ages 50 and up (although all ages are invited) the event doubles as a way to connect older adults with important resources in the community.

“We all know what our demographic is,” Champion said. “And especially in our elder LGBTQ community, it's scary, because not necessarily do LGBTQ community members feel safe going to assisted living or know how they're going to be treated and what there is, and there are a lot of great organizations in town. And our partnership with the Senior Friendship Centers is really what makes this lovely, because while it is a Pride festival, it's also an informational resource bank for the elder groups.”

Hollee Stamper and Gretchen Love cheer on a performer at Sarasota Pride Festival in October 2023.
Photo by Ian Swaby

June 29 will see Project Pride hosting the Grand Flag March across the Ringling Bridge, with participants carrying what Champion said is one of the country's largest progressive LGBTQ+ flags. 

“Because of the divisive politics and things that we have going on right now, and now that we have a Freedom Summer happening with not being able to have the visibility of lighting the Ringling Bridge, we're marching our Grand Flag all 700 feet over the bridge on June 29,” Champion said. 

As Project Pride moves forward, Lotierzo and Champion are looking ahead with optimism. 

"I do feel the tide of politics is turning … and I think we're back on that precipice of getting back to a normality within society of being nice to people and loving one another," Champion said. "And when you have that conversation, you understand that everybody just wants a little peace in their life, and if we can share some of that peace and love, that's what we need to do.”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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