YBOR CITY — The walls are covered in autographed photos of drag queens and models. The aisles, cluttered with rainbow boas, Wizard of Oz collectibles, gay videos and men's Speedos.
MC Film Festival doesn't look like much more than a gift shop, chock-full of kitschy stocking stuffers. But for almost a year, this store on N 15th Street has served as a hub, the epicenter of Ybor's ongoing renaissance as a gay district.
Its owners, two middle-aged partners with matching ponytails and polo shirts, started it all. In fact, the couple of more than 30 years has spent decades at the forefront of Florida's gay rights movement.
Meet Mark Bias and Carrie West.
They were in their 20s, living in Minneapolis, when a friend introduced them in 1978. Bias owned a sandwich shop, where he fed gay teenage runaways. He was flamboyant, and loved to party. West manufactured boats, and got home before midnight.
"Love at first sight," West said, turning toward Bias. "Wasn't it?"
They were different, but shared a love for movies. They always looked for hard-to-find foreign or independent films. They built such a large video library, they kept a written record of which films their friends borrowed.
By 1980, the marine industry faced a recession, and West wanted a change. They decided to move, together, and wrote the names of different cities on slips of paper: Los Angeles, Sacramento, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa. They shook the papers in a hat and blindly chose one.
Soon, they loaded their belongings into a U-Haul and drove more than 1,500 miles to Tampa, a place they had never visited. They decided to study at the University of South Florida, West in political science and communications, Bias in business.
They asked a North Tampa apartment manager for a one- or two-bedroom apartment. They'll never forget her answer: "We don't rent to homosexuals."
Not long after that, Bias and West were held up at gunpoint outside a South Tampa gay club.
Turned out, they said, Tampa was the least gay-friendly city of the choices in their hat that day.
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But the couple refused to leave, hoping to bring about change through activism. To pay the bills, they turned their film hobby into a business, and took their collection on the road, selling videos and music at conferences.
In 1992, they opened their first MC Film Festival near the University of Tampa. West said it was the first display of a rainbow flag on a major Tampa road. Gay rights groups would gather in the store's theater.
Bias' realm was bartending, and real estate. West belonged to an organization called Digital Queers, which launched Gay Days at Disney World. The couple also helped start the annual St. Pete Pride celebration.
As his involvement increased, West couldn't help but compare himself to gay icon Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors before his assassination in 1978.
In 1998, West became the first openly gay man to run for a Tampa City Council seat, but lost.
Still, as Milk was hailed the "Mayor of Castro Street," West would one day earn the moniker "Mayor of GaYbor."
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West and Bias moved their shop to St. Petersburg's Suncoast Resort in 1998, but had to move it again when the gay hotel closed. They set their sights on a corner shop in Ybor City. They opened last year on the Fourth of July.
Ybor wasn't a gay tourist destination yet, but they resolved to make it one.
They started the GaYbor Coalition that fall, a union of about 90 businesses that pledged to promote Ybor's entertainment district, surrounding a stretch of Seventh Avenue, as gay-friendly. Now, gay businesses open in Ybor City every month — a restaurant, an art gallery, a variety of clubs.
West was elected to the Ybor City Development Corp.'s board, and got officials to string garlands and red bows around street lights during the holidays.
"They've actually done a lot to spruce up the district," Brenda Thrower, economic development specialist for the YCDC, said of the coalition.
West wants Ybor to be free of its three "p" problems: parking, punks and panhandlers. He has met with Mayor Pam Iorio to discuss that vision, and wants to take his ambitions citywide.
Who knows, he said, "I could see myself running for office again."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.