JENNIFER LIBERTO and JUSTIN GEORGE
In fighting his case against a gay pride ban, lawyers said the strip-club owner didn't have a personal stake in the issue. Not so, he says.
TAMPA - It may be the quietest public statement he has ever made.
Joe Redner, king of the strip clubs, says he's gay.
The disclosure came in his federal lawsuit against Hillsborough County commissioners, who recently banned the county from acknowledging or participating in gay pride events.
The longtime activist who has made millions from strip clubs said he included his sexual orientation to bolster his argument that the policy directly affects him.
His original suit, filed in October, didn't mention he was gay. Concerned that he needed to show a personal connection, he added the language to papers filed last week in the case.
Asked about that new information, Redner's voice shook a bit as he said he was frustrated that his sexual orientation would merit such attention. He confirmed that he is gay and denied that he would say he's gay simply as a legal strategy.
"Why is everybody so afraid to be a homosexual?" said Redner, 65, who has been married twice and has children and grandchildren. "They don't even have a right to ask the question whether I'm a homosexual or not. They don't have that right. They think you choose to be a homosexual."
Redner said his attorney advised him against acknowledging his sexuality in his suit, which alleges the county and its commissioners - except Kathy Castor, who voted against the ban - violated his constitutional rights.
But the county tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, saying Redner did not prove that he was "injured" by the policy.
"In fact, there is no allegation that Plaintiff has any "concrete' or "particularized' interest at all in "gay pride recognition and events,"' wrote county attorneys Robert Brazel and Stephen Todd.
Redner said he then ordered his in-house attorney Ann Allison "to put it in there."
The words did not come easily, said Redner, who is not in a relationship.
"Even I was apprehensive about saying I was a homosexual, and I'm just as out-front as you get," Redner said.
Hillsborough County attorneys noticed Redner's disclosure, and Brazel said he still thinks that Redner has remaining legal hurdles to prove he can go forward with the lawsuit. He also wondered about Redner's delayed admission.
"Why that allegation is in the second complaint, we really don't know, since it's not originally in the first complaint," Brazel said. "That would seem to be a relevant fact."
Brazel would not explain what he believed were Redner's other "standing" issues, but Stetson University College of Law adjunct professor Michael Allen said Redner has to prove an actual injury - for example, that he was planning to do something the county wouldn't let him do.
"Just saying "I'm gay, and I don't like this policy,' is probably not going to be enough," said Allen, who teaches constitutional law.
Longtime friends and colleagues would not talk about Redner's private life. But they said the admission is hardly surprising.
"Mr. Redner's personal life has been an enigma to me ever since I met him. He's a student of all areas of human sexuality," said Luke Lirot, a longtime attorney for Redner who has not worked on this case.
Redner friend and gay rights activist Mauricio Rosas, who also volunteers on Redner's public access television program, said Redner tells the truth. He called Redner the "most honest person I know."
"If he's chosen to discuss his personal life, that's his decision, and I couldn't thank him more," said Rosas, who noted he has walked alongside Redner publicly at gay rights events since the early 1990s. "He has more courage than a lot of other people."
Outside Redner's Mons Venus in Tampa - one of the nation's most renowned nude clubs - employees said they were mildly surprised by Redner's disclosure, but most shrugged it off as no big deal. To them, Redner is an honest boss and a brilliant businessman.
"He's not a liar. He doesn't lie," said Lorry Kasner, 40, a 19-year manager. "I don't think he's making it up. If that's what he says, that's what he means. It doesn't matter."
Kasner said some employees may have suspected that Redner was gay. Now that they know, many understand his deep-rooted opposition to the county's gay pride policy.
Any irony of Redner's being homosexual and reigning king of Tampa's nude industry, which caters mostly to heterosexuals, was lost on employees, customers and even Redner himself.
Redner said that his strip club was not exclusively for heterosexual men. Yet, he also acknowledged there's more money and a "bigger market" appealing to heterosexual men.
"It's just entertainment, and it's not for gay men," Redner said.
Most of Redner's dancers seemed indifferent to Redner's sexual orientation.
"I don't understand what his sexual preference has to do with it," said Autumn Mullens, 25, a dancer for six years. "If anything, it would mean he would be more open-minded about sexuality in general on a stereotypical level."
Some surmised Redner could be using the revelation to his advantage, leaving room for mystery.
Gay, after all, is just a word, they said.
"Joe reads the dictionary," said Peggy Justus, 43, who has been stripping since she was 16 and has a 22-year-old daughter who also strips. "And whatever it says in the dictionary might be what he goes by."
Customer Chris Matthews, who is from Chile and works on a ship that was docked in Tampa on Monday, said Redner's sexual orientation could be an asset in the strip-club industry.
"I don't think it's ironic at all," Matthews said. "I think it'd be easier for him."
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.