Twenty years ago, ProSuzy (recently re-branded as ProSisters) existed as an email newsletter that alerted an audience of mainly lesbians of the definitely safe, absolutely gay events in Tampa Bay.
Two decades later, gay marriage is legal and the web is cluttered with dating apps and meet-up groups, many of them gay-centric or gay-friendly. Still, ProSisters exists with more than 10,000 members as a nostalgic, still-useful concept for the queer community.
Originally the organization got its name from creator Suzanne Noe, a lesbian who was a professional handywoman in St. Petersburg – hence the “pro.”
Noe started ProSuzy with the intent on meeting and connecting with other gay women. She’s since retired, but her legacy lives on.
It wasn’t until 2015 that longtime members and Gulfportians Amy Oatley and Lynn DiVenuti bought the site and made some changes in a changing world – including the name.
“Suzanne Noe was married to a man and had children, but she wanted to figure out a way to meet women without going to bars,” said DiVenuti, who did advertising for ProSuzy 20 years ago. “It all started with the email list. There were mingles, meets in restaurants, that sort of thing.”
DiVenuti remembers when the website and email list was just a word-of-mouth operation and when some dances were held with view-blocking pieces of paper taped to the windows.
“I was like, ‘Wow, look at all of us out here,” DiVenuti said. “I was wild and crazy at the time, in my 20s…You could be put in the psychiatric ward for being gay. People were closeted.”
Though things have improved for the LGBTQ community, discrimination is far from over. ProSisters aims to continuously provide a safe space, even in the digital world.
“When you go into rural communities, we still get looks,” Oatley said. “Especially with the last administration.”
I was like, ‘Wow, look at all of us out here”…You could be put in the psychiatric world for being gay. People were closeted.
Today, the ProSisters still operates an email newsletter, but the website has a classified section, LGBTQ news and lists female artists and musicians. Even amongst many modern apps and other ways of communication, the site breaks through to keep the original strings of the lesbian community alive.
Oatley and DiVenuti also started an internet radio station, ProSisters Radio, with a steady stream of music from female musicians.
A quick visit to the site and Aretha Franklin is playing; next up, local St. Petersburg band Elysian Sex Drive.
Now and Then
Both Oatley and DiVenuti remember the Tampa Bay area pre-LGBTQ sites.
“There wasn’t anything constant and local at the time,” Oatley said.
“Everything was word of mouth. People were tired of going to the bars and relying on ‘gaydar,’” DiVenuti said. “It’s just like any heterosexual bar – you can’t hear people, can’t meet people, make friends.”
The groups met for kayaking, drum circles, dances at the Gulfport Casino Ballroom – mostly with gay women in attendance, but the events were open to everyone. That was before COVID-19.
Since March of 2020, the meet-up portion of ProSisters has been inactive, forcing the group to push back their 20-year anniversary celebration from this October to March of 2022.
Oatley, DiVenuti and their 10,000 members are hoping to start up events again once the community’s health isn’t on the line – and get back to making connections.
“So many people have had marriages and lifelong friendships because of this group,” DiVenuti said.
Check it out for yourself at prosuzy.com.