Fight for equal rights gains ground in Hillsborough County, Tampa Bay

The month of October, now in its 20th year of observation as LGBT History Month, ushered dramatic progress for the LGBT community in the fight for civil rights equality, not only on a national level, but also on the Tampa Bay homefront.

On the national stage, the Supreme Court decided to delegate the resolution of several same-sex marriage cases to the lower courts, which had previously ruled marriage bans unconstitutional. The result? Six states immediately lifted bans, bringing to 30 the number of states that legally recognize same-sex marriage.

Although Florida’s battle for full marriage equality continues, the month of October has seen tremendous triumph for the civil rights movement in Hillsborough County, as two landmark decisions welcome a new era of increased visibility, inclusivity and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents. 

“I think that ultimately, so often what we’ve discovered, is that it really comes down to people being willing to stand up and share their stories. That’s where change begins,” says Brian Winfield, managing director of Florida’s largest organization for LGBT rights, Equality Florida, which is based in St. Petersburg.  

A 20-year uphill battle

On the first day of October, the Hillsborough County commission voted to secure the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to the discrimination protections outlined in the countywide Human Rights Ordinance (HRO), reversing a nearly two decade-old decision that actively excluded protections for the LGBT community. Just two weeks later, on Oct. 15, commissioners met again to approve a countywide domestic partnership registry, ensuring basic civil rights and partner benefits for same-sex and unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners.

Hillsborough’s largest city, Tampa, has embraced diversity historically.

In comparison, Pinellas County expanded its HRO to include sexual orientation in 2008, followed by gender identity in 2013. Sarasota County, which drafted an HRO to include age, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation in 2003, voted unanimously in early October to pursue the addition of gender identity to protected classes. Manatee County, which held its first annual pride festival in June, has a Human Rights Ordinance Committee that is currently pushing to draft an HRO that includes protections for LGBT citizens. 

In the early 1990s, Equality Florida — now a statewide organization — emerged as a modest network of Hillsborough County activists, then known as the Human Rights Task Force, who petitioned the county to establish an Human Rights Ordinance barring discriminatory employment practices. In 1991, Hillsborough County drafted an HRO that extended its anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians. 

In 1995, however, under pressure from conservative groups and the Christian Coalition, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to rescind sexual orientation from the protections outlined in the HRO. 

“In the past, we’d hear from elected officials that ‘It’s just not a problem’ in their district or city. We know anecdotally that it was a problem, but if there’s no law banning discriminatory practices and there’s no place to report it, it becomes a Catch-22,” says Winfield. 

Nineteen years passed before the decision was reversed in 2014 to once again include sexual orientation as well as gender identity in Hillsborough’s anti-discrimination practices. 

In the meantime, Equality Florida (which expanded its reach to the statewide level and updated its name in 1997) sought solutions. In 2005, Equality Florida launched an online Discrimination Report database. Through this service, LGBT individuals have a platform to report discrimination, and in many cases, receive free or discounted legal aid. The database has received “thousands of reports” of discrimination statewide, and several cases have received legal aid from the ACLU, NCLR, Lambda Legal, and the Anti-Defamation League, Winfield says.

In the same year that Equality Florida started its Discrimination Report database (2005), Hillsborough County commissioners issued a countywide ban on government recognition of gay pride. 

“That became a national embarrassment to the whole bay area,” Winfield says, recollecting the spotlight national media placed on the opposing viewpoints of Equality Florida’s CEO Nadine Smith and former Commissioner Ronda Storms, who led the crusade against gay pride, as well as the removal of sexual orientation from the HRO one decade prior. “It became a fireball. It escalated from the removal of [an LGBT-themed] library display to a countywide ban that prohibited any county employee from doing anything that could be associated with any LGBT pride celebrations. It was outrageous,” Winfield says.

Although the ban did not take decades to overturn like the HRO ruling, it was not remedied until June 2013. 

Meanwhile, neighboring Pinellas County hosts the largest gay pride parade in the state, drawing an estimated 120,000 participants each year and contributing approximately $10 million to the local economy. To the south, Sarasota Pride, which took place this past weekend, draws crowds of approximately 5,000 each year. Sarasota County’s annual Harvey Milk Festival, an LGBT-themed art and music festival that celebrates equality, draws crowds of over 1,000.

Building Hillsborough’s house of equality

When Kevin Beckner, the first openly gay politician to sit on the Hillsborough County Commission, was elected in 2008, the conversation about LGBT politics received a powerful voice. 

“My decision to run for office as an openly gay politician came in 2007. To me, if you can’t be honest about who you are when you’re representing people, then how can you build trust with your constituents that you’re going to be honest in other things that may be less material? It was important to me to be honest about who I am. I really believe that for many people who voted for me, that instilled a trust,” Beckner says.

Although his primary focus was on issues outside the spectrum of LGBT politics during his first term — namely, issues of public safety and transportation — Beckner believes that by building working relationships with his colleagues, he succeeded in opening lines of communication and a greater empathy for the LGBT experience that was not present among commissioners in years prior.

“I believe there are two planes, personal evolution and political evolution. I think that when those two planes begin to shift and become parallel, or even close to intersecting, that’s when change occurs,” Beckner says. 

“Even as recently as 2010, when the board was relatively conservative, we began to develop deep working relationships with one another, and that’s when personal evolution began to occur. You get to know individuals, you get to know their families, and you start to become more personally involved some of those issues,” he adds.

Beckner also cites the local business community as an active ally in the effort to achieve LGBT equality in Hillsborough County in recent years. 

“The first step came when, for the first time, we started talking about economic development and welcoming policies. It was the first time in history that the board officially recognized the impact that the LGBT community has in Ybor,” Beckner says, referencing the proclamation of GaYBOR Days in 2013, a celebration of the LGBT-run businesses and commerce that helped revitalize Ybor City.

Shortly after the GaYBOR Days proclamation, Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously to overturn the eight-year ban on gay pride. 

“When you have a policy on the books that bans gay pride, that sends a chilling symbol across the country that ‘people not like you’ are not welcome in our community — and that needed to be reversed,” Beckner says.

The next steps were to tackle Hillsborough County’s outdated Human Rights Ordinance and to expand domestic partner rights to same-sex couples. Neighboring counties, including Pinellas and Sarasota, passed HROs with protections based on sexual orientation, as well as domestic partnership registries, in years prior. 

Beckner says that more than 50 businesses in Hillsborough County, including large corporations as well as small businesses, joined a business coalition that was vocal in its support of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the Hillsborough County HRO. 

“When issues like that were addressed in the past, it was just the LGBT community coming out, but it wasn’t enough. At the time, the Christian Coalition was the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and we needed a 1,500-pound gorilla who could crush that. That gorilla was the business community,” Beckner says. 

During his first term in 2009 and 2010, Beckner and fellow board members made efforts to put policies addressing LGBT partner rights in place, but were initially unsuccessful. However, when the domestic partnership registry was revisited once again on October 15, County Commissioners approved it by a unanimous vote. 

Domestic partners, including same-sex couples, may begin to register to receive partner rights in Hillsborough County beginning in early 2015. These benefits include access to quality, affordable healthcare; authorization to pick up spouse’s children from school or communicate with school officials, and decision-making rights in the event of a partner’s death. Bay area neighbors, Pinellas and Sarasota County, adopted similar domestic partnership registries in 2013. 

“These are things that seem very technical, many of which don’t affect many people — but they’re things that when they do affect you and it’s important, it’s very important,” Winfield says.

Beckner refers to the repeal of the gay pride ban, the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity to the HRO, and the development of a Hillsborough County domestic partner registry as the “completion of the Trifecta for LGBT issues.”

“From political standpoint, there are very few issues we have left to address. The government in Hillsborough County has laid the basic foundations for equality. We have written them into our laws. From that perspective, we’ve completed the foundation for equality in our community. However, there is still much work to do to build the house of equality,” Beckner says. 

To build the “house of equality,” Beckner insists that encouraging LGBT visibility is key, and that members of the LGBT community must continue to make their voices heard.

“In what I call the ‘house of equality,’ individuals are not judged by who they love, or by anything else except the content of their character and their individual actions. That is a house can only be built over time,” he says.

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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