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Carlton: The county commissioner and the unbearable display of gay pride

The voice mail message came in after regular business hours to the office of Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.

The woman doesn't give her name. She says she's a county employee. She's calling about the flag — the rainbow-colored gay pride flag that had just been raised outside the County Center building in downtown Tampa, where she works.

Commissioners had voted 5-1 to fly that flag through the end of June — a gesture of solidarity following the massacre at a gay night club in Orlando that left 49 people dead and dozens more wounded, a still stunning act of hate.

Take it down, the woman begs on the tape.

"As a Christian," she says, "that flag is so very offensive to me that I cannot bear to go into the office."

So here is what White, the conservative Republican commissioner from the east county suburbs, did not do following the anonymous complaint.

He did not say that, whether he agreed or not, a majority of elected officials voted to fly the flag, and that is how democracy — and, some would say, progress — works.

And he did not talk about putting aside differences after the bloodiest mass shooting in modern American history.

In fact, White was away when they voted, though he tried without success to get the matter delayed. This was a good gambit if you were against it: It would have kept the flag from flying through the end of June — gay pride month, which was the point — since the commission doesn't meet again until July.

Commissioner Ken Hagan cast the lone no vote even as his colleagues, fellow Republicans and also Democrats, said yes. Hagan did not give his reasons, though voters can probably figure it out.

And so armed with that anonymous complaint, White declared the rainbow flag a "divisive symbol" that created "a hostile work environment." (Except it's not, the county attorney later said.) He railed at the county administrator for not warning commissioners this might make "many" employees "uncomfortable." He did not mention what just happened in Orlando that spurred even his conservative colleagues to make the gesture of flying that flag.

One step forward, one step back.

In that same county center 11 years ago this very month raged another gay pride battle: Then-Commissioner Ronda Storms won her infamous ban on county government even acknowledging gay pride. Interestingly, this was also by a 5-1 vote — except back then it was for exclusion, and last week it was for acceptance, or at least empathy.

Greg Colangelo has worked for the county for 30 years. He's a computer graphics designer and is gay. Though he has never felt unwelcome in the department where he works, Storms and the message of that no-pride vote were tough to take. He considered finding another job. And then he thought: "If I quit, they won. They got me to leave."

Years passed. Storms went away, her ban was undone and one day, people could marry whom they wanted. Voters elected the commission's first openly gay member, Kevin Beckner, who last week pushed to raise the pride flag at County Center.

And then someone called the very sight of it unbearable, and a county commissioner backed that up.

Like Storms, White got lots of attention — nearly a thousand comments on tampabay.com and a story in, among other places, the New York Daily News, making us looking like a pinched village yet again. People voiced dissension on White's own Facebook page, posting plenty of colorful flags there for his consideration.

Colangelo hates the idea of going backwards. "We've come so far," he says, and a lot of people hope he's right.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: The county commissioner and the unbearable display of gay pride 06/21/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2016 4:46pm]
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