... One Step Back

The history of the gay rights struggle in Tampa Bay

Fourteen years ago, Rudy Fernandez was at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, studying the history of civil rights, when he rushed back to Tampa to cast his first big vote as a fledgling Tampa City Council member.

Last week, vacationing with his family in Massachusetts, he took a moment to recall that night in May 1991 when he voted to approve Tampa's human rights ordinance, a watershed moment in the struggle for gay and lesbian equality in this area.

"I cut my trip short to come back for that vote," Fernandez said. He drove straight from the airport to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, whose Festival Hall was pressed into duty as government meeting chambers for a rare, joint session of the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission.

The meeting, attended by 2,595 people, lasted for hours before the two government bodies voted. Police confiscated enough knives, mace canisters and screwdrivers to fill two small bags from people entering the center for the public hearing. They ejected 26 from the crowd for disrupting the proceedings.

"That was the most emotionally charged event during my eight years" in office, said Fernandez, who is a vice president with the Robert W. Baird brokerage firm in Tampa. "In the weeks prior to that, I would come home from work and my home phone was maxed out with messages on both sides of the issue."

The public hearing and votes in 1991 were the high point for those who fought to include legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation, led by a human rights coalition that included former Tampa Tribune reporters Todd Simmons and Nadine Smith and Tampa lawyer Keith Roberts. The effort to install a human rights ordinance had begun several years before, falling short in 1989 to garner enough support.

But by 1991, conditions were ripe. The County Commission had a fairly progressive board, including now-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio along with fellow Democrats Phyllis Busansky, Ed Turanchik, Jan Platt and Sylvia Kimbell.

Tampa City Council members voted 4-3 to create legal protections in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations for gay and lesbian residents. Hillsborough County Commissioners voted by the same bare margin to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, county contracts and public accommodations but not employment matters.

For the losing side in that fight, the defeat became a rallying cry. Within a few years, voters repealed those protections through a referendum initiated by Christian activist David Caton. Subsequent court rulings reinstated the ordinance after finding irregularities in the way that ballots were gathered for the election. It remains on Tampa's books today.

Hillsborough County's human rights ordinance, however, was repealed by a 4-3 vote in 1995 as the county commission began its swing to the right.

Passion was reignited on both sides of the issue earlier this month when County Commissioner Ronda Storms led the now notorious 5-1 vote to prohibit county government from doing anything to recognize gay and lesbian pride. Storms was critical of a library gay pride display, which had already been downsized and moved to the back of the library after a handful of complaints.

Although the commissioners' current actions make it easy for some to shake their head and wonder if this community has made any progress toward diversity and tolerance, the fact is that legal gains are in place in Tampa and St. Petersburg that were not there 15 years ago. Progress has been made.

"It is worth noting that Commissioner Storms did not propose something more radical," said Scott Paine, a University of Tampa political science professor and former Tampa City Council member who voted for the human rights ordinance in 1991. "Some things have changed; in 14 years, we're at a point now where there are at least some laws in place here and elsewhere. They have withstood" the test of time and changing politics.

It was easier in St. Petersburg, where a 2001 effort to include protections for gays and lesbians in city ordinances went much more smoothly, without thousands of people lined up for hearings.

Brian Longstreth was one of the organizers of that effort. Advocates knew they already had a majority of the St. Petersburg City Council favoring protections. Delegations in favor of the ordinance met with council members to make sure they were comfortable with the vote and the specifics being proposed. The council voted 6-2 in favor, enough votes to make Mayor Rick Baker back off a threatened veto.

"It did actually go much smoother than I thought it would," Longstreth said. "Shortly after that, we started the St. Pete Pride Festival."

Longstreth said there are fundamental differences that make Pinellas different than Hillsborough, especially Hillsborough's more rural eastern county that skews heavily Christian conservative.

But that doesn't mean Pinellas County has fully embraced human rights for gays and lesbians. Largo defeated a proposal for protections based on sexual orientation in 2003. And Pinellas County Commissioners have never seriously considered adding such provisions to their own ordinances, staying under the radar screen on this issue.

Standing in a recent rally of more than 700 gay, lesbian and straight supporters at the Metropolitan Community Church in Old Seminole Heights brought to mind the 1991 public hearings, which I covered as a young(er) reporter for the Tampa Tribune. When I got back to the Planet office, I pulled up the story from that night 14 years ago, reading with irony a quote from Human Rights Task Force spokeswoman Lori-Lynn Heidemann that "we are finally going to be an aggressive society in that we are not going to tolerate hatred and bigotry any more."

The 2005 rally had even more electricity and power than the 1991 hearings. Clerk of the Court Pat Frank and City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena attended, as did a handful of Democratic Executive Committee members.

There is no doubt that Storms' actions have galvanized Tampa gays and lesbians, who some say had become complacent in recent years and needed a clarion call. Storms has reveled in the publicity, which is re-establishing a solid core of Christian supporters around her. That has led to speculation that she orchestrated the controversy in advance of a run for the Florida Senate in the seat that Tom Lee must give up in 2006, much as she led a fight against nudity on public access television during her 2002 campaign.

For gays and lesbians, the real challenge will be what to do with their outrage. Campaigning for a recall of Storms is not a viable option; neither is fighting to get commissioners to reinstall the county's human rights ordinance. The current board is too vulnerable to Republican primary politics to allow any votes perceived as pro-gay.

But the lessons from the last big gay-rights fight might be of help here. After their 1989 defeat, gays and lesbians targeted races, taking credit for helping elect two county commissioners who later voted for the ordinance. In 2006, they could campaign for gay-friendly candidates in the seats being vacated by Commissioner Thomas Scott (who voted with Storms on the gay pride issue) and Kathy Castor (who cast the lone vote against Storms.) It is hard to imagine them mustering enough votes to sway a countywide election like the one for Jim Norman's District 5 seat. Likewise, Storms' own eastern and southern Hillsborough district is inhospitable to gay rights.

One or two commission votes won't be enough to make the kind of change gays and lesbians and their supporters are looking for. But it would be a start.

Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at (813) 739-4805.

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