Kevin Beckner and Darden Rice: 'Yeah, we're gay. So what?'

click to enlarge COUNTY COMMISSION HOPEFULS: Kevin Beckner and Darden Rice have pro-environment, smart growth and mass transit agendas in their campaigns against two established Republican politicians. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
COUNTY COMMISSION HOPEFULS: Kevin Beckner and Darden Rice have pro-environment, smart growth and mass transit agendas in their campaigns against two established Republican politicians.

Who? Kevin Beckner and Darden Rice, candidates for, respectively, the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions.

Spheres of influence: Public policy on the environment and smart growth; Democratic politics and county government.

How they make a difference: By offering a progressive and pro-environmental alternative to their Republican opponents, Beckner and Rice have helped set the agenda for the Democratic Party on both sides of the bay, one that puts smart growth at the forefront of the political discussion. As candidates who made conscious decisions to be open about being gay, they are also inspiring the LGBT community and underscoring — while not exactly campaigning on — a message of diversity and tolerance in Tampa Bay.

CL: Tell us about the decision to be open about your sexual orientation in this campaign.

Beckner: For [our campaign], we talked about it very early on. We know that from the previous history of our opponent [incumbent Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair] and what he's done in the past, and also given the makeup of Hillsborough County, we have found that it's important just to talk about it now and get it out in the open. You know there was a lot of buzz, a lot of chatter, and actually to be honest with you, there's probably been more interest by the media than there was from our actual constituents.

Do you expect your opponents to try to use your sexual orientation as a wedge issue against you?

Rice: We'll be prepared if that happens.

It hasn't happened yet?

Rice: It has not happened yet. But I would say, in a scenario where you have an opponent who is affiliated with the Christian conservative right, I expect some kind of attack. Not directly from my opponent, but from some type of surrogate.

You were attacked in that fashion during your 2007 St. Petersburg City Council race. Was that a big distraction for your campaign?

Rice: It really wasn't. It was a turning point in our campaign, because I think we responded to it so well, and we got a great deal of credit from the larger community in how we dealt with something that was unfortunate. And we went right back to talking about the issues that are really what's mostly on people's minds right now.

What does the media get wrong about covering matters regarding sexuality in politics?

Rice: I think there are two things they get wrong, right off the bat. Number one is referring to it as sexuality. It's sexual orientation. It is two different words, and orientation is what we're discussing. Secondly, a misperception I see is that our life is referred to as a lifestyle. And it's not a "gay lifestyle." Lifestyle is what kind of sofa I pick out to go with my living room. Being gay is life.

I'm a part of our community. I think what the Tampa Bay community misunderstands or underestimates about the gay community is that we're not a community that's just focused on a narrow set of issues. We're part of the community and we care about the big, larger issues facing us — the environment, mass transit, thoughtful growth management.

Beckner: I think there are a lot of stereotypes that run in people's minds. A lot of times, the way the media treats it — and this also has to do with the individual — it seems to be a front-page story. It seems to be headline news when somebody is gay or somebody is lesbian. I still struggle to understand why it's a breaking story when you talk about somebody being gay or being lesbian. As Darden mentioned, this isn't a lifestyle. This isn't something we haven't chosen to be; it's who we are.

If you were already on the Pinellas board, would you have voted to add transgendered people to the county human rights ordinance?

Rice: If I were on the Pinellas County Commission, there wouldn't have been a tie vote. We would've seen a fully inclusive human rights ordinance passed in my county.

Were you disappointed in Calvin Harris, who said he didn't know what a transgendered person was?

Rice: The transgendered people are probably the least understood and the most vulnerable in our community, and we need a human rights ordinance that protects them. It's just the right thing to do. I would encourage Commissioner Harris to look at the success the city of Gulfport has had with the fully inclusive model.

Beckner: I ask anybody to show me what banning gay pride in 2005 [as the Hillsborough County Commission did] has done to better our community. I would argue that it has not only affected the LGBT community, it has affected our whole entire community. Because Hillsborough County is well-known across the world and across the nation, and unfortunately it's not for the right reasons.

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