A tale of two counties

Progress in Gulfport and another step backward in Hillsborough

click to enlarge WELCOME IN GULFPORT: Jennifer Edwards helped gather support for the human rights ordinance. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
WELCOME IN GULFPORT: Jennifer Edwards helped gather support for the human rights ordinance.

As Hillsborough County again made international headlines for its gay-hating policies last week, the small and funky city of Gulfport in Pinellas County took a different route.

Gulfport became just the fourth government in Florida — and the first in Tampa Bay — to adopt a human rights ordinance that protects gays, lesbians and the transgendered. It may also be the first in the state to adopt protections based on "physical characteristics," but more on that later.

Its vote demonstrates the growing gulf between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, a politically fueled chasm that has Hillsborough moving onward to the right while Pinellas embraces a more diverse and moderate ground.

Gulfport's unanimous vote on Oct. 4 made no headlines, in stark contrast to Hillsborough County's decision a day later. The St. Petersburg Times (an "out of town" newspaper, as some at the Tampa Tribune prefer to mock it) reported at length on its latest swipe at gays and lesbians. (The Tribune, the "hometown" newspaper, buried mention of it at the bottom of a brief about a study of the regional bus system.) Gay national media didn't miss a minute of the latest exploits of Commissioner Ronda Storms.

"County That Bans Gay Pride Recognition Rejects Anti-Discrimination Move," the headlines in the Toronto-based 365Gay.com blared. Goodasyou.com topped its account with "Storms and Company continue to ruin national reputation."

"Of the two stories [Hillsborough's and Gulfport's], what lingers in people's minds?" said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. "Hillsborough has gone out of its way to tell gay people they are not welcomed."

The Hillsborough vote on Oct. 5 followed a recommendation by county government's own Human Relations Board that it consider adding sexual orientation back into its human rights ordinance. With that recommendation on the agenda, Commissioner Kathy Castor tried to give commissioners a chance to show that they weren't advocating discrimination against gays with their previous vote prohibiting any county recognition of gay pride events.

Not only didn't Castor's colleagues take up her argument and reinstate protections for sexual orientation stripped out of the county ordinance in 1995, they took another step away from treating gays civilly. Falling in step with Storms, who led the anti-gay-pride vote, a majority voted to raise the requirements for amending the anti-discrimination ordinance by requiring the approval of five commissioners, up from a simple majority vote of four. It's a mostly empty change — there is no chance in hell of getting four votes on that county commission to do anything for gays, let alone five, so the issue is nearly moot; even the county attorney questioned the vote's legality. So, like the anti-gay-pride measure, it stands more as a personal insult to gays and lesbians rather than a substantive and pressing policy change.

"Don't be mean-spirited," Castor pleaded with her colleagues.

Fat freaking chance.

Only Thomas Scott agreed with her. Brian Blair, Mark Sharpe, Ken Hagan and Jim Norman voted with Storms.

The night before, across the bay and a world of tolerance away, Gulfport completed an 18-month process of adopting its civil rights protections.

For those not familiar with the racially, sexually and socio-economically diverse little city that sits directly on Boca Ciega Bay, Gulfport is the model of an old Florida seaside village, with unique restaurants, small shops and the landmark Gulfport Casino, home to weddings, concerts and dances.

A human rights ordinance was rejected here by a 3-2 vote a year and a half ago, and voters went looking for new council members who supported the change. Michele King was one of them, elected to the board earlier this year.

"My personal opinion is everyone is entitled to those rights," King said. "It's just an extension of the original civil rights bill that passed the federal government in 1964."

King's election was part of a strategy that grassroots organizers put into place to let the elected officials know that the community strongly wanted human rights for everyone. That coalition included the Gulfport Progressives, led by Jennifer Salmon, and Jennifer Edwards, a transgendered Gulfport small business owner and upcoming co-chairwoman of the St. Pete Pride festival.

"The first time we got shot down," Edwards said from her laser hair removal firm. The difference this year "was the political pressure brought on by the residents against the city. A lot of us got together and we voted in new city councilwomen."

With two new council members on board, and solid support at every meeting about the ordinance, Edwards said, it was easier for the city council to embrace the change. "A lot of the fears of the community have been based on thinking it would be some kind of gay marriage bill," she said. It wasn't.

Edwards also said supporters didn't seek a lot of publicity, keeping the issue from attracting the ire of social conservatives who could organize quickly to oppose it. Equality Florida's Smith added, however, that Gulfport was not a "stealth strategy," and that the Times published several accounts over the past 18 months about efforts in that city. She said polling shows that a vast majority of Floridians, regardless of how they feel about gays or other rights issues, feel that nobody should be discriminated against because of their sexuality.

Gulfport's law makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender characteristics (which covers transgendered residents). The cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa have anti-discrimination ordinances protecting gays and lesbians based on sexual orientation, but neither has protections for transgendered citizens. In Florida, Gulfport joins Miami Beach, Key West and Monroe County in extending those complete civil rights protections, according to the Transgendered Law and Policy Institute.

In the past five years, including transgendered protections has become the norm, and St. Petersburg is the only city in the country to adopt a human rights ordinance and not include those protections during that period, said Karen Doering of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who worked on the Gulfport effort.

What is unique in the Gulfport ordinance are protections based on "physical characteristics," which means nobody can be fired or tossed out of a restaurant because of the way they look, or if they are fat, or have scars, Doering said. Those protections are for everyone, regardless of sexuality.

Doering said the next target could be Pinellas County government, where a majority moderate Republican board (along with two Democrats) could be a much more receptive crowd than its cousin across the bay. Prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered is not the hot-button controversy it used to be nationally, she said.

"Ten to 15 years ago, it was a cutting edge issue, but today it is really the norm," she said. "We're not asking them to be on the cutting edge. We're asking them to catch up with the rest of the country."

Edwards said she wants to ask Dunedin leaders next to adopt what Gulfport did, a notion she finds very achievable.

"The political environment in this county has always been pretty good," she said, "much more liberal than Hillsborough County."

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