TAMPA — For years, Hillsborough County stood firm, refusing to protect gays from discrimination as other governments approved domestic partnerships and even gay marriage.
But Hillsborough County commissioners reversed course Wednesday, overturning a local policy many gay rights activists saw as the ultimate insult. They voted 7-0 to repeal a ban on county government recognition of gay pride, a movement the ban's instigator once dismissed with a "little g, little p."
"And repealed should be capitalized," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who led the reversal. "Capital 'R.' "
While the vote was unanimous, the debate and public testimony were hardly harmonious.
One pastor warned Hillsborough risked losing the "favor of God" if commissioners overturned the ban. Another expressed offense that gay rights activists would equate themselves with African-Americans who faced discrimination based on the color of their skin rather than sexual preference.
"Good government is to remain neutral to the cultural wars and should not endorse or promote any sexual preference," Pastor Tony Smart said.
Speaker Cathy James reminded commissioners that they placed their hand on the Bible and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the other way around.
"Please stop discriminating against my family," she said. "It really hurts."
One commissioner welled up with regret over his 2005 vote in favor of the initial ban. Another, Victor Crist, unsuccessfully sought formal assurances that the vote would not result in Hillsborough County supporting obscene, prurient events not appropriate for families.
"The festivals, the activities and things need to have a little different tone to them," said Crist, a Republican. "Parading around in lingerie, pasties, g-strings and outfits that promote your sexual organs is not necessarily an appropriate thing to do in Hillsborough County."
"That's Gasparilla," a member of the audience replied, bringing laughter.
Beckner waved his Bible and expounded on his belief in Jesus Christ: "Yes, I'm a gay man and I'm holding the holy Bible in my hand. Is that why our savior, Jesus Christ, hung on that cross, so that he could divide our community. He didn't die for some of us. He died for all who believe."
Most members of the Republican-dominated commission veered away from the spiritual and toward an argument about discrimination, while Democrat Les Miller offered a bit of both. As the board's chaplain and lone African-American, he said he is the only commissioner to have confronted true discrimination eyeball to eyeball.
"It's is time to repeal this ugly ordinance that hangs over the head of this county," he said.
Socially conservative former Commissioner Ronda Storms pushed for the ban in 2005 after learning about what she considered an inappropriate gay pride informational display in a county library. Beckner replayed a recording of the meeting during which Storms made the motion and the board voted 5-1 in support, then 6-1 to impose the added burden of a supermajority vote and public hearing to overturn it.
It took one minute and 44 seconds with only then-Commissioner Kathy Castor, now a member of Congress, voting no.
Castor issued a statement Wednesday commending the board's decision. Attempts to reach Storms by phone and text were unsuccessful.
Commissioners said at the time they didn't think government should single out select groups for special recognition. But they acknowledged Wednesday that in taking the vote, they had created a policy that has singled out one group for special and discriminatory treatment.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe was late to Wednesday's meeting while picking up his son, who had won an American Legion award in the morning. Sharpe, a Republican, was on the prevailing side of the 2005 vote and he choked up as he reversed himself Wednesday.
"I teach my kids that when you make a mistake, you correct it yourself," he said, "to not be afraid when you make a mistake and to fight like hell to stick up for the weak and the people who are different than you and people looking for help."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.