TAMPA — This same government banned gay pride exhibits on county property seven years ago. Before that, Hillsborough County commissioners voted to rescind protections for gays and lesbians who face workplace discrimination.
So it was no small matter Thursday when commissioners voted to create a citizen diversity panel to serve as its liaison to county minority populations and agreed to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members. The vote was unanimous.
"I think it's a beginning," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, elected four years ago county-wide as an openly gay candidate. "I think we're beginning to understand the importance of diversity in our community."
Some commissioners who voted for the measure acknowledged the value of embracing the county's ethnic and cultural groupings of people. But they stopped short of saying it's a new day in county government.
There's a difference, they say, in government appearing to endorse a sexual orientation by, say, supporting gay pride events or displays. It's another matter to say that the county wants input from the many different sorts of people who make up the county.
"The goal isn't to promote a GLBT agenda," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who supported the gay pride ban. "This wouldn't use taxpayer dollars to support gay-pride events. This action does not conflict with that."
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who opposed restoring workplace protections for gay and lesbian when Beckner proposed it three years ago, says he is not being inconsistent in supporting Thursday's action. During the discussion, he said he has a general concern about forming a group in which membership is determined by race or ethnicity, or based on "silos," but nevertheless supported creating the panel.
"I am concerned that we end up labeling people," Higginbotham said. "I see it as a board having a discussion about bringing people from different walks of life together, and that just happens to include members of the GLBT community."
Beckner said his proposal was an outgrowth of a discussion by board members last year about what to do with the community liaison program. Currently, the county pays a small staff of employees to reach out to African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and disabled residents to help them interact with county government. Commissioners debated ways to expand the outreach without raising costs.
After meeting for months with a small group of residents, Beckner won support to create a volunteer panel that would serve as ambassadors for the county, as well as its eyes and ears to different ethnic and cultural groups.
In addition to the above categories, it would include people from Far East Asia, Indian Asia, Native Americans and residents from the Middle East.
At the suggestion of Commissioner Victor Crist, representatives from the Caribbean and eastern Europe also were added. There also is an "at-large" category.