A proclamation in support of this year's GaYbor Days went unsigned by five Hillsborough County Commissioners.
But that wasn't unusual. In recent years, proclamations recognizing the five-day festival of events in Ybor City have been signed by only two or three commissioners on the seven-member board.
What some found unusual, disturbing even, was a separate letter that came this year from Commissioner Mark Sharpe.
Sharpe did not sign the proclamation — only Kevin Beckner and Les Miller did. Instead, he congratulated organizers on Board of County Commissioners letterhead. It was read as festivities wrapped up May 28. Official proclamations signed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn and another signed by all seven members of Tampa City Council were also read aloud.
"I wish you future success and will do all I can to help all our citizens enjoy a prosperous quality of life in Hillsborough County," Sharpe wrote.
What's so wrong with that?
Some are accusing Sharpe, a Republican, of having political motives, of dodging the official proclamation to avoid raising hackles among conservatives while crafting his own letter to curry quiet favor from gays and lesbians.
"I find it ironic," said Carrie West, president of the GaYbor District Coalition, which organized the celebration. "Then why wouldn't he sign the proclamation?"
Louis Rosario, who attended the Monday night event and listened to the letter, was suspicious: "Gays need to realize that Mark Sharpe is not our friend," he said. "He's anti-gay unless it's convenient."
When asked later about the proclamation and the letter, Sharpe told the Tampa Bay Times, he had no political motives at all.
"A person's sexual orientation is not the government's business," he said. "But at the same time, I wanted to send an all-inclusive letter recognizing them. I support anybody and all who want to support the local economy."
Sharpe has not signed a similar proclamation for GaYbor Days in past years and said he also doesn't sign proclamations that involve, for instance, a specific religion or Southern pride.
He said he decided not to sign such proclamations in 2008 after a request to acknowledge Southern heritage ended with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans unfurling a 30- by 50-foot Confederate battle flag at the junction of Interstate 4 and Interstate 75. Sharpe did not sign that proclamation either.
West said he was surprised that some other commissioners did not support the proclamation for GaYbor Days after the flak raised when they didn't last year. Aside from Sharpe, signatures were also missing from Victor D. Crist, Al Higginbotham, Sandra Murman and Ken Hagan.
West said Hagan had recently complimented him, telling West he was doing a great job with the coalition, which formed in 2007 to promote gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses in Ybor.
Reached late last week, an aide for Hagan said the commissioner had not gotten a chance to sign the proclamation because of an oversight by his office staff.
Crist, Higginbotham and Murman could not be reached before press time.
West said the coalition boasts nearly 250 members, two-thirds of them straight. The group created the GaYbor Days celebration in 2008. The five-day event started May 24 this year and included a dog party, a Sunday gospel brunch, and a traveling drag show. DJs came from Chicago and New York City to preside over nighttime parties. Festivities ended Monday night with the world premiere of the docu-dramedy Frances: A Mother Divine.
"This is not a gay pride event," West said. "This is a showcase of businesses in this great landmark historic district.''
The festival brings in vacationing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, he said.
But Hillsborough commissioners, he said, have long pulled back the reins of progress.
In 2005, then Commissioner Ronda Storms proposed a ban, which passed, on public library displays that promote Gay Pride and Lesbian Pride Month. Storms is no longer on the County Commission and most recently serves as a state senator.
However, support from county elected officials continues to wane, if the GaYbor Days proclamation is any indication.
"It's a statement," West said, "that there's no equal rights in the county."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.