Harvey Milk Festival Combines Art, Music and Equality

Sarasota County’s annual LGBTQ-friendly festival is a safe-haven for expression through life and art.

Sarasota's Harvey Milk Festival is a coalescence of visual and performance art, dance, and music that uplifts the LGBTQ community and honors the legacy of festival namesake Harvey Milk - the United States' first openly-gay elected official.

Following a series of performing arts and dance exhibitions, Harvey Milk Festival culminates in a free and family-friendly outdoor indie music concert and art festival, bringing Sarasota's LGBTQ community and allies together in a celebration of love, inclusion, remembrance and self-expression.

Harvey Milk Fest 101: All About the Arts

"If you've never been to Harvey Milk Festival, the first thing to know about us is that we are an organization that looks at the arts as a catalyst for change," says festival founder, Shannon Fortner.

Harvey Milk Festival takes place each May during the heart of Pride season in Southwest Florida. Sandwiched between regional Pride celebrations in March and June, Harvey Milk Festival stands out with its arts focus, drawing headlining bands from across the globe.

The Harvey Milk Festival and its partnering Fabulous Independent Film Festival in September aim to provide room for a multitude of self-expression says Fortner.

"There are a lot of people I've met, here in Sarasota, who knew Harvey personally, and have told me over the years about his passion for the arts,” says Fortner.

How it Began: Harvey Milk Fest History

Fortner attended the National Equality March in Washington D.C. in October, 2009, where she found inspiration in the words of activist, Cleve Jones. Known for his work establishing the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, Jones placed a call to action during the Equality March for grassroots organizing.

"I've always liked that I share a birthday with Harvey Milk," Fortner notes, "so when I went to the Equality March in D.C., I fell into this serendipitous mentality.”

Fortner worked with local LGBTQ organizations to host a civil rights rally at the Sarasota Bayfront — the turnout of which inspired her to expand her vision of a civil rights-focused art and music festival.

"It was successful and it was empowering because a lot of organizations worked together, and a lot of people showed up for it,” Fortner says. “The community provided the passion that fueled me.”

The inaugural Harvey Milk Festival in 2010 took place in the Rosemary District, drawing around 1,500, which grew to around 2,300 in year two. In 2012, it moved to Five Points Park, where attendance nearly doubled. HMF would grow to include film, as well as dance and performance art components, by 2015. Following steady growth, HMF relocated to J.D. Hamel Park in 2018.

"Harvey Milk Festival is unique and special in that takes place in a beautiful beach town, and offers events that allow a spectrum of opportunity to explore our diverse and inclusive arts community,” Fortner says.

“It's an incredible way to meet all the people who are passionate about making Sarasota a more vibrant place."