Sexual orientation doesn’t seem to be a big deal for local voters anymore.
St. Pete City Council has three openly gay members — Amy Foster, Steve Kornell and Darden Rice. In notoriously conservative Hillsborough County, openly gay County Commissioner Kevin Beckner has won a countywide seat not once, but twice.
Sure, these thoughtful progressives have their critics.
Beckner faces an uphill battle getting the commission to listen to him on a clearly superior method of attacking wage theft (monied interests prefer a weaker model, as do his colleagues), and was accused of playing politics by Commissioner Victor Crist.
Kornell has caught grief from the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, which called for his ouster over his cynicism toward the Tampa Bay Rays’ attempts to strike a deal with the city to look at stadiums in Hillsborough County.
But anybody who brings up sexual orientation in criticizing either man rightly risks being called a bigot, and homophobic comments will inevitably invalidate anything else that is said.
“Rewind to just five years ago,” said Nick Janovsky, who consulted on Rice’s and Beckner’s campaigns. “We had Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We had no marriage in any state in the country. Nobody knew what a domestic partnership was. The conversation was, ‘Is she? Isn’t she?’”
It was just a decade ago, in 2005, that Rice caught fire from south St. Pete activist Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter, who walked out of a community forum when Rice, in her first run, confirmed she’s gay — something the Times wrote was widely known but hadn’t been an issue until then.
Back then, even legitimate opponents saw no shame in attacking people for whom they loved.
Beckner said when he first campaigned in 2008, he had a supporter or two suggest he not run as an openly gay candidate, advice he did not heed.
“I felt that if I could not be honest about who I am, there would be issues of trust and people might not trust what I would be honest about in other circumstances,” he said. “So running as who I was and how I was born was really important to me.”
He said even then it was rare that anyone really cared about his sexuality. While the competition brought it up in an attempt to siphon support, most of the voters contacted by Beckner’s campaign were more concerned about the economy and transit.
He won his seat with 55 percent of the vote to incumbent Brian Blair’s 44 percent in a county that had not only banned support of Pride events in 2005, but removed LGBT protections from its human rights ordinance (HRO) 11 years prior.
So there’s obviously been a sea change at the local and national level. Beckner was reelected in 2012, Kornell won his seat in 2009 and was reelected in 2011, and Rice and Foster won their seats in 2013.
“They don’t sit at the dais and lead as gay people,” Janovsky said. “They sit up there and lead as elected officials because 95 percent of everyone’s job is to make sure we have safe and secure neighborhoods, balanced budgets, good zoning and development projects, clean water and funded education, arts programs and everything else that makes our region wonderful.”
But the presence of gay representatives has had an unquestionably positive impact for the LGBT community.
Beckner successfully fought to restore support for Pride events at the county level as well as protections for LGBT individuals under the HRO. The county also adopted a domestic partner registry last year. Since Kornell has been on Council, St. Pete has also created a domestic partner registry, though the city did include LGBT protections in its HRO prior to his election, and has long been a sponsor of St. Pete Pride, the largest such celebration in the region.
But even as being gay becomes a non-issue in electoral politics, elected officials are still see opposition over policies like hoisting the rainbow flag above City Hall, as St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman did in 2014, resulting in a small chorus of complaints from the far right.
“Is [anti-gay sentiment] still there? I think so,” Kornell said. “But I think it’s reached a tipping point where a majority of people look at the person and judge them by their qualifications, and that’s all it takes. A majority of people. And it doesn’t take unanimity to get elected into office.”
A few weeks ago, critics complained about the flag policy during a City Council meeting. One of them was Republican State Rep. Larry Ahern, who said the city ought to post a pro-life flag during a week when anti-abortion activists promote their issue.
LGBT activists say the comparison of gay pride displays with anti-abortion campaigns is completely off-base.
“I think it’s a flawed analogy, to equate respecting equal protection under the law for LGBT people with depriving women of control over their own bodies,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a nonprofit LGBT advocacy group.
But there is a parallel between the gay pride and abortion rights movements, Beckner said: Both are vulnerable to erosion if supporters aren’t vigilant.
“If you look back at Roe v. Wade, women got the right for choice in the ’70s,” he said. “It was the movement of the far right to continue to chip away at those rights. We are certainly seeing that in the LGBT movement. As we are gaining rights, we are going to have think tanks and other groups that are going to look at every opportunity to roll back those rights or chip away at those rights. That’s why we cannot become complacent.”