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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Henderson: Moment of truth near for gay rights in Hillsborough

Hillsborough County is about to learn something about itself. On Wednesday, County Commissioner Kevin Beckner will introduce a measure to repeal Hillsborough’s ban on promoting gay pride events. It will take affirmative votes from five of the seven commissioners to adopt Beckner’s motion, and it probably will be close. We already know the arguments, pro and con. We can recite them by heart. Does Hillsborough promote tolerance or exclusion?
Do we want our government essentially telling one group they aren’t wanted here, or is Hillsborough a big tent where all peaceful citizens are welcome? We are about to find out. There will be a religious element, because the debate on gay rights often seems to be entangled with that. It’s not something to be trifled with, and Beckner is the first to agree. In addition to being Hillsborough’s first openly gay commissioner, he also is a Christian — not that anyone should ever have assumed otherwise. “Our God is a loving God,” he said. “Our savior didn’t die on the cross for some of us. He died for all of us.” I bring that point up because a proposal in January to establish a domestic registry in the county failed by a 4-3 vote. Commissioner Al Higginbotham, a good and sincere man, voted against it and said it was because of his religious beliefs. Religion also appeared to be a driving force behind the ban in 2005, when then-Commissioner Ronda Storms proposed the ban. It passed 6-1, with only Kathy Castor — now in the U.S. House of Representatives — voting no. Beckner recently watched a tape of the commission’s discussion. “Everything lasted one minute and 44 seconds,” he said. “It’s blatantly discriminatory, meant to bully one segment of the population. She (Storms) was using the bully pulpit to discriminate against the gay community. “As we look to rebrand our community as inclusive and accepting, that policy is obstructive.” It does seem silly. It is the civil rights issue of this era, and public sentiment has shifted strongly and favorably toward gay rights. But that doesn’t mean Beckner’s motion will be approved. There will be a public hearing before Wednesday’s vote and the only safe prediction is that it will last longer than one minute and 44 seconds. But this issue needs to be discussed in places beyond the commission chambers. This is a conversation all segments of this community need to have. I just wonder if the will is there communitywide to do that. It’s uncomfortable to tackle Beckner’s strongest point — that the current law is nothing but an official act of bullying. “What does this policy say to someone who might be LGBT, but is afraid to say it because the county says it’s OK to discriminate against them?” Beckner said. And what would it say if the commissioners decide it’s OK to keep on discriminating? It would say that Hillsborough County doesn’t accept people as they are. Commissioners have done it before. We are about to find out if anything has changed.


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