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Storms is a villain to gay pride parade

To many in the crowd of 35,000, the Hillsborough County commissioner is the face of intolerance.

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published June 26, 2005


RELATED LINKS
County Commission website
Transcript of June 15 meeting
Hillsborough bans county from recognizing gay pride
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Library display's organizer wants the books to be found
Ban brings new energy, group says

ST. PETERSBURG - The most conspicuous presence at the St. Pete Pride street festival on Saturday was not drag queens wearing rhinestone tiaras and sequined gowns, or thousands waving rainbow flags and beads, but the smiling face of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms.

She was not there, of course. But her photograph floated above the crowd on poster board signs, and her name repeatedly was invoked in both private conversations and public demonstrations.

"Ronda," was all anyone needed to say, and then eyes would roll and people would boo, and conversations would begin about how far Tampa Bay still had to go.

For many of the estimated 35,000 people who attended the third annual festival celebrating the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities, Storms is the freshest local face of intolerance. She introduced a measure two weeks ago that forbids Hillsborough County government from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride events. It passed 5-1.

The measure brought a renewed sense of urgency and activism to the festivities on Saturday. Several groups collected thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the policy. Dozens wore T-shirts that said, "Banned in Hillsborough."

"It's a tragedy that we're going to turn into a blessing," said Phyllis E. Hunt, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa.

One performer, 27-year-old Eddie Innuendo, made Storms the focus of her entertainment act before a crowd of hundreds at the main stage on Central Avenue. She wore a white T-shirt with Storms' picture on it and danced around, pointing to Storms' face as music blared: "I want to take you to a gay bar."

The crowd went wild.

Innuendo then danced over to a piece of poster board that told of Storms' proposal and featured photographs of each commissioner who supported it.

Innuendo pulled out a can of red spray paint. The crowd cheered as she painted red X's over their faces.

When the lyrics said, "You're a superstar," Innuendo pointed to a different face on the poster board, Kathy Castor, the only commissioner who opposed the policy.

Innuendo turned the spray can on herself, painting over Storm's photograph on her shirt. Then she took a baseball bat and crushed the poster board.

"She's despicable!" someone shouted from the crowd, referring to Storms.

The festivities began about 10 a.m. Saturday with a parade that snaked through the historic Kenwood neighborhood then traveled along Central Avenue to 27th Street. Thousands lined the route, scooping up beads, watching floats and listening to a marching band.

Then people crowded Central Avenue, browsing booths staffed by churches, community groups, real estate agents and personal injury lawyers. Starbucks sold $4 lattes and frappuccinos. More than 200 vendors offered everything from paintings and jewelry to beer and lemonade.

The crowd was a mixture of young and old, straight and gay. One 13-year-old girl, Amanda Bly, wore a white tank top that read: "I support my mom."

"I wanted to be here for my mom, but I didn't want people to think I was gay," Bly said, laughing.

A few feet away, 67-year-old Eddie Bates stopped to sign a petition before joining a booth for her Tampa church.

"People who are more tolerant tend to be more laid back. They're not crusaders," Bates said. "But it's time. We all need to stand up and be counted."

The religious right tends to drown out other people of faith, because it's more organized, Bates said. Her church and others had a significant presence at the event on Saturday, with numerous booths and participants in the parade.

Overcast skies and hot, muggy weather did not keep people away. Organizers believe about 35,000 attended, up from 10,000 the first year and 20,000 the second year. Saturday was the crowning event of St. Pete Pride Month, which also included a fashion show in Gulfport last weekend, a sunset cruise on the gulf and gay skate and movie nights.

If gays don't feel comfortable in Hillsborough County, they're welcome in St. Petersburg, said Jay Lasita, vice chairman of the St. Petersburg City Council.

"I am personally appreciative of what they have done for my council district," Lasita told the crowd, noting gays have been instrumental in revitalizing the historic Kenwood neighborhood.

The keynote speaker was Candace Gingrich, the lesbian half-sister of Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives.

"Obviously, what's happening in Hillsborough County is the reason we need to have pride celebrations," she told the crowd. She urged listeners to donate their money and time, and to "make the political personal" so people will understand how antigay policies affect their lives.

"When people know us, they move toward equality, not away from it," she said.

Event organizers were pleased with the turnout and believe the festival will continue to grow. They say the city has been nothing but supportive.

Mayor Rick Baker did not attend. He previously has said he does not support the general agenda of the event.

"Many people in our community respect the mayor, and he is entitled of course to his beliefs," said event co-chair Greg Stemm.

"It's what the mayor does not do that is supportive, as opposed to what he does do. Across the board - the fire department, parks and recreation, the police department - everybody provides us with whatever we need. The mayor could make that very difficult if he wanted to. And he doesn't."

Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455 or jthompson@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 26, 2005, 00:33:18]


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