Hillsborough's sad record on gay rights

Unlike many Florida counties, it's stuck in the past when it comes to LGBT equality.

click to enlarge FACE TO FACE: Hillsborough Commissioners Beckner (left) and Sharpe confer before a budget meeting earlier this month. - Nick Cardello
Nick Cardello
FACE TO FACE: Hillsborough Commissioners Beckner (left) and Sharpe confer before a budget meeting earlier this month.

Last month in Volusia County — home to Daytona Beach and NASCAR's Daytona 500 — the county government passed a measure that makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing or places of public accommodation like restaurants or bars.

Volusia was the third county in Florida to pass such an ordinance within the last year, joining Leon County (Tallahassee), which did so in May of 2010, and Orange County (Orlando), whose predominantly Republican County Commission followed suit in November.

But curiously, there is one major county smack dab in the middle of the state that is devoid of policies protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination.

That county would be Hillsborough.

It wasn't always like this. Twenty years ago, back when Ed Turanchik, Pam Iorio, Jan Platt and Sylvia Kimbell served on Hillsborough's Board of County Commissioners, they were out in front of nearly every other county in the state when they cast a 4-3 vote in support of including gays in a human rights ordinance. The vote came after hours of testimony in front of over 2,500 people at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz). But a year later, after Iorio left and was succeeded by Jim Norman, the sentiment on the board changed. That shift made the difference when the board voted to bar gays from the ordinance in 1995.

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner calls the lack of such a measure unfortunate. He says it's "not only important for our current residents here to make sure that everybody is treated equally and fairly, but it's also important when we look at economic development for attracting Fortune 500 companies that have adopted such inclusive policies for their employees."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn agrees, calling the ordinance an issue of fairness and economic competitiveness. "I can't recruit companies if we're perceived as a community in any way, shape or form as bigoted or prejudiced."

Sarah Warbelow is state legislative director with the D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. She says that cities and counties are looking to attract vibrant, creative individuals, and "we know particularly with young people... they're not just looking at the job itself, but other factors that affect quality of life."

Warbelow says young people of all persuasions value inclusivity and nondiscrimination. "So even if you're looking at a straight 22-year-old woman who is thinking about where to accept a job, she cares that gays and lesbians are included in a non-discriminatory ordinance."

But that doesn't seem to be a factor for the current Board of County Commissioners. Then again, we're just guessing, since the majority of board members contacted for this story failed to return CL's calls or emails for comment.

Of course, not only does Hillsborough County stand out in excluding gays from its human rights ordinance; the board went above and beyond with its notorious vote in June of 2005, led by Ronda Storms, to ban any observations of "gay pride" in the county. Storms, now in the state Senate, said she was motivated by a display at a county library that was promoting gay pride. Her motion passed 5-1; among those who voted for that ban were current board members Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe. Ken Hagan missed the vote, but has said he supported it.

To add insult to injury, Storms then proposed that the policy could only be rescinded with a super-majority vote and a public hearing. The board endorsed that measure by the same count.

The one Republican who did respond to CL's questions about Hillsborough and gay rights was Sharpe, who says he believes sexual orientation is a private affair that the government has no business being involved in. Despite his vote against gay pride, he emphasizes that he wants a diverse workplace. "I want a creative class to come here and feel comfortable."

But Sharpe further alienated LGBT members of the community in December when he and his four fellow Republicans on the BOCC voted to place noted anti-gay activist Terry Kemple on the Hillsborough Human Relations Board. Equality Florida, the biggest LGBT advocacy group in the state, wrote to commissioners, "You have selected someone who stands in direct opposition to everything this board is supposed to represent."

Among their objections: Kemple's active opposition to gay-straight alliances in Hillsborough public schools, and the statement on his campaign contribution form that he would not accept contributions from any organization that "works to promote the normalization of homosexual activity."

Speaking to CL last week, Kemple said that he has a different "world view" on the subject of gay rights. "I think there should be equal rights for everybody. But I don't think there should be special rights for some people based on who they choose for their sexual partners."

And then there's this: Those same five Republicans on the board neglected to sign a proclamation to recognize the GaYBOR District Coalition, the alliance of GLBT-owned businesses and their straight associates, which is set to be presented at the beginning of "GaYBOR Days," a week-long celebration in Ybor City taking place June 30-July 4.

Kemple had members of his Community Issues Council write to county commissioners telling them not to sign the proclamation, saying it would violate the ban on gay pride. The policy does say the board cannot acknowledge a gay pride event with a resolution or proclamation. Despite repeated calls, the county attorney's office failed to clarify with CL whether signing the proclamation would violate that resolution.

But Carrie West, who heads the GaYBOR Coalition, says that the proclamation isn't honoring gay pride, but a business district in Tampa nearly two-thirds of which is operated by straight individuals.

In any event, at press time, only Commissioners Les Miller and Beckner had signed the proclamation. Mayor Buckhorn has signed a similar proclamation from the city of Tampa, and so has none other than President Obama, says West. As for Sharpe, he said he generally eschews signing any such proclamations, but he cheers "that entire community for what they're doing to make Ybor City thrive."

The incident shows a clash of cultures between the county and its largest city, Tampa, where there is a healthy gay population and businesses like those in GaYBOR that celebrate (and profit from) that diversity.

West, the openly gay co-owner of the MC Film store in the heart of Ybor City who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Tampa City Council earlier this year, calls it "disgraceful" that gays aren't included in the county's human rights ordinance. "Forty-two years after Stonewall," he says, "Hillsborough County has to wake up."

Twenty-six city and/or county governments in Florida now include gays and/or transgender people in their human rights ordinances.

Brian Winfield, a spokesman for Equality Florida, says that many people don't realize that people in any part of Hillsborough County outside of Tampa could be fired because they are gay or transgender, and "there is nothing that can be done about it. Most people don't realize that's a reality, but it is." He says that his organization hears nearly every day from people who have been fired from jobs, denied promotions, or refused employment because they were LGBT, "or at least they had a strong feeling from their employer that that was why."

In 2008, the Pinellas County Commission expanded its human rights ordinance to protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals — but not transgender people, which Equality Florida hopes to persuade commissioners to add in the immediate future.

Hillsborough's retro stance on gay rights is a notable contrast not only to other counties in Florida, but to the overall tenor of the country. Last month, a Gallup poll showed 53 percent of Americans support legalization of same-sex marriage, in line with two earlier national polls.

And right before Christmas, President Obama signed a bill repealing the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy — a repeal supported by 77 percent of the public (according to a Washington Post/ABC News survey).

No one on the BOCC who's voted against gay rights has apparently experienced retribution at the polls. The only elected official who was ever really grilled about the vote on gay pride, for example, was Thomas Scott, when he ran for mayor of Tampa earlier this year.

Conversely, Jan Platt, who voted to include gays in the county's human rights ordinance in 1991, says she never paid the price at the polls either. True, she did lose to Dick Greco in the race for mayor of Tampa in 1995, but that issue was never considered significant in that decision.

Jim Pease is a member of the Tampa Bay Log Cabin Republicans. He says the reason Orange County passed such an ordinance and Hillsborough hasn't is twofold.

One reason, he says, is that Orange County Republicans are socially liberal, whereas Hillsborough is predominantly controlled by a more "Christian, socially conservative" electorate. But more importantly, he says, gay activists in Orlando have successfully gotten the business community to back their efforts, and cites Disney World, SeaWorld and a huge hotel industry that all support such inclusion.

Ed Turanchik thinks the measure is more symbolic than anything, reflecting community values if nothing else. But he also says "we should be well beyond this controversy."

Then what should be made of Hillsborough County — that the people are ahead of the politicians? In 2008, Beckner, an openly gay Democrat running for the first time, defeated Republican Brian Blair to win a County Commission seat, and he should be formidable in his re-election bid next year.

Beckner says his sexual orientation during both his campaign and time in office has always been a "non-issue," as people just want their elected officials to "look after the interests of everybody in the county."

Unfortunately, his fellow elected officials seem to have a much narrower version of "everybody" than he does.

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