Hillsborough could end ban on gay publicity
Eight years ago, Hillsborough County commissioners voted to ban any county promotion of gay pride events or displays.
To many residents, the vote was like planting a flag of intolerance atop the Frederick B. Karl County Center.
Much has changed since June 2005, including election of the county's first openly gay commissioner, Kevin Beckner. On Wednesday, Beckner will try to persuade the other board members to end the ban, removing what he calls a discriminatory policy.
“As a government we need to ensure that all our citizens are treated equally,” Beckner said. “This policy does not do that.”
Recent events and statements by other commissioners suggest Beckner might be successful. A couple of weeks ago, all seven commissioners signed a proclamation recognizing GaYBOR Days, an event sponsored by Ybor City merchants designed to attract gay tourists and visitors.
It was the first time more than a few commissioners had endorsed the event.
Also arguing for repeal of the ban is the changing political landscape regarding acceptance of homosexuality. In 2008, by a vote of 62 percent, Floridians adopted an amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage.
More recent polls show a majority of state residents now favor gay marriage.
Even among Republicans, the party most associated with opposition to gay rights, majorities now favor either marriages or civil unions between same-sex partners.
And as the GaYBOR Days proclamation showed, there are economic concerns to be considered. By branding the county as anti-gay, commissioners could be alienating potential tourists and investors.
“If you look at the difference between the gay pride impact in Pinellas County and in Hillsborough County, we're talking about thousands and thousands of dollars being spent in Pinellas County because no one is discriminated against in that county by legislation,” said the Rev. Phyllis Hunt, pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa.
But Beckner faces an additional obstacle to passage because he needs a supermajority, or five votes from the seven commissioners. The supermajority requirement was the work of former Commissioner Ronda Storms, a religious conservative who sponsored the ban on promoting gay events.
Storms, who followed her eight years on the commission with a six-year stint in the state Senate, did not return phone calls this week. Last year, Storms was handily defeated by Bob Henriquez in her bid to become county property appraiser.
The event that triggered the ban was a Gay Pride Month display at the West Gate Regional Library. Several parents complained about the display, which was created by a library sciences graduate student at the University of South Florida.
Storms took up the parents' protest, saying tax-supported libraries “shouldn't be used as a bully pulpit to introduce (gay pride) issues” to children. The display, which cited famous gay authors, was removed hours before the commission vote instituting the ban on gay promotions.
Two commissioners, Mark Sharpe and Ken Hagan, remain from the time of the 2005 decision, when the commission voted 6-1 to pass the promotion ban. Both men voted for the ban, but Sharpe said he's ready to change course.
“We made a mistake in singling out one group and saying we're not going to recognize them,” Sharpe said.
Beckner's fellow Democrat on the commission, Les Miller, said he likely will support the motion to repeal the ban. But, like other commissioners who had not seen the proposal in writing Thursday, Miller would not make a commitment.
“If he wants to get rid of that ordinance, I can be supportive,” Miller said. “But there may be other things he will put in there. I can support it if that's all it says.”
Also hedging were Commissioners Sandy Murman and Victor Crist, though the two Republicans suggested they would give Beckner's proposal a fair hearing.
“I think our policies need to include a more diverse population, but I really can't commit at this point because I don't know what the other issues are around it,” Murman said.
Crist said he is opposed to singling out any group for discrimination and does not want to infringe on any group's right to free speech.
“I would have issues with spending tax dollars” on gay events, Crist said, “but if we're talking about First Amendment issues, that's a different ballgame.”
Hagan and Commissioner Al Higginbotham could not be reached for comment.
Both men voted in January against creating a domestic-partner registry, another issue important to gays and lesbians. Sharpe, a Republican, sponsored the proposed ordinance creating the registry but it failed on a 4-3 vote.
It's not clear how much public opposition will materialize against Beckner's proposal. Religious conservative leader Terry Kemple, who opposed the domestic-partner registry, said he hadn't planned to attend Wednesday's meeting because he thought Beckner could only introduce the measure and set it for a future public hearing.
The policy Storms proposed in 2005 required a public hearing before the ban could be repealed, but it did not say the hearing notice had to be published in a newspaper. So the public hearing will be held Wednesday, followed by a commission vote.
“I think it's a bad move,” Kemple said. “It's just another effort by Commissioner Beckner to engage in government promotion of homosexual behavior. I, and a lot of people who agree with me, are opposed to that.”
The issue is scheduled to be discussed at 10:15 a.m.