Hillsborough County Ends Ban On Gay Pride Events

This is an edited version of a posting from the blog World Observations.

One minute and forty-four seconds.

Eight years ago, that is all the time it took for the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners to pass an ordinance that put Tampa in the international spotlight.

Back in 2005, a gay-related display in the children's section of a public library prompted former commissioner Rhonda Storm to champion a ban on Gay Pride-related activities.

Video of that decision was replayed for commissioners and an SRO crowd at the County Center in downtown Tampa on Wednesday.

''Board members, I move that we adopt a policy that Hillsborough County government abstain[s] from acknowledging, promoting and participating in Gay Pride recognition and events,'' said Storm on the video. ''That's little 'g,' little 'p.''

Then-commissioner (now U.S. Rep.) Kathy Castor was the only commissioner staunchly opposed to the ban.

''I think it's inappropriate for government to promote discrimination,'' Castor said then.

After the video showing Castor's remarks ended, the crowd at Wednesday's commission meeting cheered.

When the cheers ceased, Kevin Beckner, Hillsborough County’s first openly gay commissioner and leader of an effort to repeal the ban, spoke.

"One minute and forty-four seconds. That's all it took for this board to pass a policy that put it in the national spotlight, and labeled this county as 'bigoted,' 'backwards' and 'less than inclusive.' No discussion as [to] how this policy would serve public purpose, or the greater good of this community. The only thing that was clear, when this policy was passed, was its intent. It was intended to purposely discriminate against a class of citizens in our community. 'Little g, little p.' How else could that be interpreted?''

Just as President Obama acknowledged in 2011, that his view of gays and lesbians is evolving, today's Hillsborough County commissioners admitted that they too are evolving -- both personally and politically.

Beckner said his intent went beyond granting a Gay Pride parade.

"You don't have to change your current beliefs to believe that government-sanctioned discrimination is wrong,'' Beckner said. "You just need to believe in the principles and the spirit enshrined and interwoven into The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States.''

After Beckner's opening remarks, people (who signed-up to speak beforehand) were allowed to take to the podium, and voice their concerns and opinions.

ACLU Of Florida Supports Repeal

One of the initial speakers was Joyce Hamilton Henry, the director of the Mid-Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida.

"We are an organization that works to promote the civil rights and civil liberties of all people -- including ensuring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have equal opportunity to participate fully in civil society,'' said Henry.

Hillsborough County -- and all of Tampa Bay -- is a place that many LGBT people call home.

"Home,'' Henry said, ''is a place where you feel welcomed.''

While many people spoke about legal aspects of the ban, some spoke from a personal perspective.

"I'm a fifth generation Floridian,'' said Cynthia Agliano. "I am a mother, I am a grandmother, and I'm a lesbian. My family does not cause any danger to your family.''

She ended her remarks by putting the decision in a global context.

"The rest of the world -- they're granting same-sex marriages. Hillsborough County -- we're having a discussion about a parade.''

Opponents Speak Up

Public opinion within the commission chamber was not unanimous to repeal the ban. Many people who contested the idea of repealing the ban said they were doing so on the basis of their religious beliefs. In addition to stating their devout beliefs, some added that the community should be putting its efforts into other projects.

One such person was Ruben Nance, of Valrico, Florida.

"We have many needs in our community,'' said Nance. "Most of them have to do with the education, the direction -- our very society. We believe, as we heard earlier, we are 'one nation under God.' And by being under God, we have to make a commitment, and to make a direction of what our decisions are.''

''We'd like to ask you, today, to do not repeal this policy,'' insisted Nance.

Several opponents of the repeal said that the LGBT communities are not experiencing the civil rights violations of the 20th century. Many, in their speeches, alluded to the experience of Commissioner Lesley ''Les'' Miller, the only African-American who sits on the board.

In response, Miller recalled his experiences during the Civil Rights era, citing being called the 'N word'' while wearing his Air Force uniform after serving in the Vietnam War.

"Someone came up and said, 'The Civil Rights era is no comparison to what [the LGBT community is facing].' You're right. But hatred is hatred. Bigotry is bigotry.''

The audience erupted in applause.

"Someone talks about the Bible -- and how you use the Bible and how I use the Bible,'' said Miller. "There was an organization that took the words of the Bible and twisted it the way they wanted to twist it, and it's called the Klu Klux Klan. … [While] they burned crosses on lawns and bombed churches and hung people, they also quoted the Bible. So, you can turn it any way you want to turn it. I interpret it as 'Love thy neighbor as thy love yourself.' ''

The Final Decision To Repeal

While Beckner's and Miller's passionate words stirred the crowd, what elicited the greatest emotion came from Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who had listened and remained silent during the rest of the hearing.

Sharpe then talked about his children, particularly his young son, who recently received a special recognition at his school. Sharpe spoke of how kids interact with one another, and how they are kind to one another, no matter their differences.

His statement was delivered between long pauses.

Sharpe said that he teaches his children to right the wrongs that happen as a result of mistakes. He said he also tells them ''to fight like hell to stand up for the weak; people who are different than you; and people who are looking for help.''

In the end, the board unanimously passed a repeal to end the ban on Gay Pride events.

For now, those advocating for the repeal are celebrating this achievement as a major victory.

Quincy Walters, a freelance journalist in the Tampa Bay region, writes about local people and culture. Postings from his blog, World Observations, have appeared in Tampa Epoch and Insight Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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