By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
What began as a ban on library displays grows into a broad county policy.
TAMPA - Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms promised last week to seek a county policy banning public library displays that promote Gay Pride and Lesbian Pride Month.
Storms went a step further Wednesday, getting most of her fellow commissioners to ban the county government from so much as acknowledging gay pride.
And she made it tough for the policy to be rescinded.
After scant discussion that contrasted with many impassioned pleas from gay rights advocates during the morning public comment period, the board passed the proposal 5-1.
Commissioner Kathy Castor voted no, and Commissioner Ken Hagan was out of the room during the vote.
The discussion went like this:
Storms: "I move that we adopt a policy that Hillsborough County government abstain from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride recognition and events, little g, little p."
Castor: "I think it's inappropriate for government to promote discrimination."
Commissioner Brian Blair double-checked Storms' wording.
Then they voted.
Storms followed up with a second proposal, that commissioners can only repeal the policy on a 5-2 super majority vote that follows a public hearing. This time, Hagan was in the room and joined the majority in a 6-1 vote, with Castor again dissenting.
An attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights immediately pledged to file a lawsuit contending the policy violates free speech and equal protection rights for gays and lesbians.
"You don't hide the discrimination by making it broader," said Karen M. Doering of St. Petersburg, who serves as regional counsel to the group. "She found a mole hill she didn't like and blew up the mountain saying, "I don't like the mole hill.' "
Others cast blame on all of the commissioners who stood with her.
"I think that Hillsborough County commissioners sent a very clear message that not everyone is welcome here," said Vonn New, Central Florida director for the gay, lesbian and transgender rights advocacy group Equality Florida. "I think it's shameful what the commission has done."
By Wednesday, Equality Florida had already scheduled a town hall meeting on the topic at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Metropolitan Community Church, 408 E Cayuga St. in Seminole Heights. The church pastor, the Rev. Phyllis E. Hunt, attended Wednesday's meeting and left with her eyes welling, admitting her un-pastorly anger.
"I'm stunned, disappointed and shocked that there was zero conversation about the vote," she said.
The vote comes about a week after a story in the St. Petersburg Times noted that a book display recognizing Gay and Lesbian Pride Month was taken down at West Gate Regional Library after some library patrons complained. The story mentioned a similar exhibit at John F. Germany Library in downtown Tampa.
Library officials have said the exhibit at West Gate was removed due to a misunderstanding and was later moved to a less prominent area in the fiction part of the library.
In the public comment portion of Wednesday's meeting, several speakers protested the library actions and any effort to squelch such displays, thinking that was all Storms had in mind.
With Storms' "little g, little p" footnote, the vote appears to ban any recognition of gay pride, even outside of June.
However, county officials were still trying to figure out the ramifications of the new policy.
Does it necessarily ban any display about gay issues at libraries? Storms would only say afterward that she feels the language is clear.
How about a display of books written by gay and lesbian authors, or that explore gay themes? Again, the language is clear, Storms said.
What if a gay student group wants to meet at a county library or any other meeting space?
Only on that point would Storms elaborate. "We're not saying that because of your sexual orientation you can't come into the library," she said.