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Ban brings new energy, group says

At a meeting that drew about 700, Equality Florida vows to fight the new Hillsborough County policy.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published June 21, 2005

TAMPA - It was a revival of sorts, but not the kind that most of the Hillsborough County commissioners would likely attend.

More than 700 people crammed into the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa on Monday night, waving rainbow flags and unleashing thunderous applause in opposition of the commission's recent stance against gay pride.

Announcing that "pride is back in Hillsborough County," the group pledged to work to repeal a ban passed by the commission last week that prevents the county government from acknowledging gay pride, or from promoting or participating in gay pride events.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which organized the rally Monday, said she wanted to thank the county commissioners for handing the group an issue that breathed life back into a community that had turned apathetic.

"Thank you for waking us up," she said to a crowd that filled the church so that people lined the walls and stood in rows in the back. Many who were seated fanned themselves with fliers that had been distributed as temperatures climbed. Participants spilled over into the church's chapel and smaller rooms.

Members of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee sent a letter of support saying they opposed the commissioners' action. Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena spoke out in favor of the group and against the county commissioners.

"I want to tell you you are not alone," she said. "I believe a lot of people are tolerant in Hillsborough County."

More than work to repeal the ban, the group leaders also said they would try to resurrect a human rights ordinance that the county killed years ago, Smith said.

The large group then split into smaller groups to brainstorm before the next County Commission meeting in late July on ways to galvanize county residents along the lines of business, faith, the arts and education.

For instance, members of the arts community said they planned to hold public readings of gay and lesbian literature; organize a gay family portrait studio with family pictures; and hold musical concerts and public film screenings.

Smith said group members needed to make their voices heard to all the commissioners, not just Commissioner Ronda Storms, who introduced a measure last week requiring that Hillsborough County government "abstain from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride recognition and events."

After little discussion, commissioners passed Storms' proposal last week 5-1. Commissioner Kathy Castor voted no, and Commissioner Ken Hagan was out of the room during the vote.

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.

The vote came 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.

Storms could not be reached Monday, but previously has said she doesn't want to have to be forced to explain homosexuality to her 6-year-old daughter who might pass a display and start asking questions.

But people at Monday night's rally had a different view of the library exhibit.

"There are so many famous contributors to Western civilization who happen to be gay," said James Bass, 31, of Tampa, a conductor, who began rattling off names of famous gay composers. "This is a black eye for the whole (Tampa Bay) area," he said.

Jesse Rivera, 21, a psychology student at University of South Florida, said people who go to the library aren't forced to read gay and lesbian literature, which might not even be about homosexuality. But if the books are, they help bring awareness of what it's like to go through life being gay.

The commission's actions might alienate some of the county's new residents, predicted Susan Michel, 36, who drove in from Lakeland to attend the meeting.

"I don't think you could have a city or county growing by such leaps and bounds without attracting progressive professionals," she said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has spoken out against the commission's vote.

The city of Tampa since the early 1990s has had a human rights ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Hillsborough County repealed a similar ordinance in the mid-1990s.

Whether or not the County Commission offended many of its constituents, who tend to vote more conservatively than Tampa's city dwellers, remains to be seen.

But to 72-year-old Joseph Bohren of Tampa, the commission's actions makes all residents look bad.

"They should all be thrown off (the board)," he said. "They are all a bunch of yahoos."

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