Hillsborough's sad record on gay rights

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

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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.

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