It's hard to imagine a gayer place than MC Film Fest. From floor to ceiling, the Ybor City storefront is stocked with rainbow tchotchkes and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) novelty items: greeting cards emblazoned with images of muscle-bound hunks; feather boas; framed Judy Garland collectibles; pride flags for specialized niches within the gay community (bears, leathermen); an assortment of lubricants and a collection of gay, foreign and independent films on VHS and DVD.
Still, every once in a while a couple visiting from Oklahoma or Kansas wanders obliviously past the shelves of rainbow stickers and the gay-themed pet accessories before it dawns on them, says co-owner Carrie West. The reaction is abrupt, he says: the woman tightens her grip on her purse; then she grabs the arm of her male companion, and they make a beeline for the exit.
"But most people are glad to find something a little different," West deadpans.
The quirky store is the brainchild of West and his partner of nearly 30 years, Mark Bias. On a typical day, both men sport ponytails (West is the blonde; Bias the brunette) and polo shirts embroidered with the store logo as they work behind the MC Film Fest counter, offering a friendly greeting to customers who come through the door. Once a week, they update the store's colorful website (mcfilmfest.com; click "gossip") with the latest news about GLBT events and businesses around the Bay area — a tradition known as "Dishing with Mark & Carrie" that has a loyal following both within and beyond the local gay community.
Since moving their business to Ybor last June, the pair has made waves in the historic district by founding an alternative chamber of commerce dubbed the GaYbor District Coalition, and local business owners say membership has already boosted their bottom line. In 10 months, the coalition has amassed 91 members — many of which are straight-owned businesses eager to work with anyone who can bring customers to the area and help clean up the district's tarnished image — and a reputation for offering neighbors a smile and a helping hand. According to Bias, GaYbor's goal has been nothing less than to change the way Ybor business owners relate to each other.
"Before it was, 'I'm gonna cut your throat and put you out of business,'" Bias says. "Our thinking is, 'I want you to be more successful than I am so that I will be [even] more successful.'"
Their approach has sparked the interest of local leaders, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who has openly sought to counter the rift with the GLBT community caused by the Hillsborough County Commission's 2005 ban on expressions of gay pride on county property. Both Tom Keating, the president and CEO of Ybor's official Chamber of Commerce, and Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation, have attended GaYbor meetings and maintain ties with the group.
"There's no more positive duo than Mark and Carrie, and they set the tone," says Keating, who adds that he feels a personal affinity with West and Bias because they've been together as long as he and his wife.
Both those within the gay community and officials like Keating and Pardo say there's something about the GLBT community in particular that enables its members to effect change rapidly — and that something is the gay word-of-mouth network. (These days, MySpace pages and online newsletters like "Dishing" play a key role in such networks, as do shared spaces where conversations can take place.) Economists like Richard Florida have suggested that the power of gay residents to help turn struggling communities around stems from the likelihood that both partners in a same-sex relationship (especially men) make good money but have no children to support, leaving them with an abundance of disposable income. Florida's generalization may be a little off point these days with so many male and female couples finding ways to parent (even in a state like our own where same-sex couples are not permitted to adopt). But more than financial resources or family size, it may be GLBT social capital that spells good news when a gay couple moves in down the block or a queer-friendly business opens up next door. West likens the network to a whirlpool in which a tiny point of suction at the bottom whisks in a much broader area from the top.
With positive word-of-mouth hard to come by in a historic district as well-known for late-night shootings as hand-rolled cigars, that whirlpool just might be Ybor's best hope yet.
As members and potential members of the GaYbor District Coalition shuffle into Spurs Bar, the Tampa skies release a sudden summer downpour. Among the roughly 40 people in attendance there are a disproportionate number of clean-cut men with taut biceps, but otherwise the group is fairly heterogeneous. A round of introductions yields a handyman, a woman with a baby who owns a bar, a realtor, a restaurant owner, a Web designer, a florist, an air-conditioning repairman, several nightclub owners, a photographer who calls himself "the electric fat man," representatives from Reax and Watermark magazines, and a 20something guy named Miss Nina St. Clair who will later urge the coalition to support a local qualifying round for the statewide Miss Florida pageant for female impersonators.