Sunday, July 15, 2018

Despite opposition, gay pride flag raised outside Hillsborough County center

TAMPA — An LGBT pride flag now waves above Hillsborough County Center, but it's a decision some in the community aren't happy about, especially given a County Commission vote last year to remove the Confederate flag from the building.

Conservative activist Terry Kemple was one of several individuals who urged the board Wednesday to vote against Commissioner Kevin Beckner's proposal to fly the LGBT pride flag through June 30 in remembrance of the 49 victims who were killed in the Orlando mass shooting at a gay nightclub Sunday.

"I want to say that the people that were killed were Americans," Kemple said. "They weren't LGBT. … They were Americans. The way that we honor those people is by doing exactly what we're doing, which is flying the American flag at half-mast like the rest of the country."

But Beckner and other members of the community pushed back, calling the shooting in Orlando a hate crime that targeted the LGBT community.

"Yes, these individuals that were massacred, they were Americans," said Beckner, the board's first openly gay commissioner. "But a majority of them were LGBT Americans. This was a targeted terrorist attack against an LGBT establishment. This is a hate crime. It is an act of terrorism, but it is also a hate crime."

Kemple and others drew a comparison to the commission's unanimous decision last July to remove the Confederate flag that had hung in the county government center for the past two decades.

"I have to say that it wasn't that long ago that you all voted to take down a plaque that had the Confederate flag on it because it might offend some people," Kemple said. "I can assure you that if you vote to raise the rainbow flag above county center, it will offend some people."

David McCallister, president of the Tampa chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy, supported Beckner's motion to raise the LGBT pride flag, but said the same respect should exist for the Confederate flag.

McCallister noted that the group's large Confederate flag near Interstate 75 was flying at half-staff in recognition of the people murdered in Orlando.

"It's been about one year since a similar attack in Charleston," McCallister said, referring to the murder of nine black churchgoers last June. "The response to that was not to put up a flag, but to take down one. How has that helped in the last year?"

Ultimately, the commission voted 5-1 to fly the LGBT pride flag outside the government center for the remainder of June, and to recognize this month each year as LGBT Pride Month and commemorate June 12 as a day of reflection and remembrance. Commissioner Ken Hagan voted against both measures but did not explain why.

"I know that no matter how they try to spin it, what happened in Orlando was a hate crime," said John Desmond, director of Tampa's Parents, Families, Friends, and Allies United with LGBT. "A hate crime directed not generally at Americans, it was directed at a minority — the LGBTQ minority."

Beckner had also asked the commission to send a letter to Gov. Rick Scott encouraging him to raise the pride flag at the state capital, but this motion did not receive a second and was not voted on.

Beckner and others gathered outside the county center after the meeting to raise the flag. Several in the audience cried as the rainbow flag flapped in the wind at half-staff outside the government building.

"It means more to me than you could ever imagine," Carrie West said after the flag was raised. "This is wonderful. This is for all of Florida. This is for all of us."

In other business, commissioners approved the next step in a proposed pilot program with the city of St. Petersburg that will introduce high-speed ferry service running from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg starting this fall.

The pilot program will run from Nov. 1 to April 30.

A one-way ticket on the ferry will cost $10, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman told commissioners.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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