Years ago, Shannon Fortner, who is gay, liked to write songs about social change. But even when she was singing lyrics like, “We will be the change/When you open your eyes,” she wasn’t confident that change would come any time soon. Social acceptance of the gay community—let alone marriage equality—seemed like a distant dream.
Fortner, now 40, had been hoping for justice and tolerance for the LGBTQ community since she was in high school in Venice. In 2009, she attended the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., where LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones urged everyone to go home and organize. On the spot, Fortner decided to start a Sarasota festival as a political platform for LGBTQ issues.
The next year she organized the first Harvey Milk Festival at Five Points Park, bringing the LGBTQ community together in a public place. (Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, was killed by a disgruntled city official in 1978.)
Fortner’s first festival featured speakers and bands and attracted hundreds of people. Its success encouraged her to create the nonprofit Harvey Milk Festival Inc.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the festival has expanded to include dance and other performances by artists who support diversity and promote equality for LGBTQ people. It also includes a keynote speaker to awaken people’s “inner activist,” says Fortner. And every year, the festival focuses on legislation that supporters of equality are working to pass. Since 2015, the festival has also provided scholarships in music, art, film, dance and the performing arts through the Our Sarasota Fund via the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
This year’s festival, which runs May 9-11, is expected to attract more than 6,500 people and will include a 5K race on May 4.
There have been civic successes to celebrate, especially the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. But along with working to change laws, Shannon believes the festival has changed hearts, minds—and lives, including her own.