Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth column: A moment of pride for commission

There was a time not long ago when the mere mention of anything — pause here for a hearty harrumph — involving gay residents caused the Hillsborough County Commission to go into a full DEFCON 1 spasm of the vapors, great wailing and no small amount of Good Book thumping.

But what a difference an absence of Ronda Storms makes, as the commission voted unanimously this week to overturn its ban on recognizing gay pride events.

And not one of the commissioners turned into a pillar of salt.

It was Storms, R-I Am The Goddess of Hellfire, who as a commissioner led the effort in 2005 to institute a ban prohibiting the county from officially recognizing any form of gay pride events such as parades.

What particularly irked Storms was a gay pride display in a county library. The notion that a public library dedicated to free expression and the pursuit of intellectual curiosity might have materials on display relating to gay literature totally discombobulated her.

Perhaps fearing the wrath of Ronda, a cowed commission voted 5-1 to impose the ban and 6-1 to require a supermajority of the board to overturn it. Only then-Commissioner Kathy Castor, now a member of Congress, voted no.

At the time, given that the commission was considered to be more dysfunctional than the Sopranos and so far to the right it made the tea party look like the Weather Underground, it appeared the gay pride ban would remain forever in place and cement Hillsborough County's reputation as a place where tolerance goes to die.

But things do change, albeit sometimes slowly. In 2008, Hillsborough voters countywide elected an openly gay man, Kevin Beckner, to the commission, a victory all the more notable since Beckner defeated the ultra-ham-handed, ultraconservative Brian Blair for the seat.

Perhaps it took time for his fellow commissioners to realize that Beckner wouldn't attempt to change the county flag to a rainbow, or replace the county seal with a feathery boa and introduce YMCA as the county anthem.

So it was noteworthy that the vote to repeal the ban was unanimous, with Commissioners Al Higginbotham, Mark Sharpe, Sandra Murman, Ken Hagan and Victor Crist, all Republicans and all very conservative, siding with Beckner and Les Miller to rejoin the 21st century with not a locust in sight.

To be sure, the usual suspects, including Terry Kemple, showed up to decry any attempt to lift the gay pride recognition ban as an affront to God.

Kemple was aggrieved that lifting the gay pride ban would put the county on the hook for promoting people based on "their choice of sexual partners." But unless Kemple is in an arranged marriage, don't all of us choose our sexual partners?

Perhaps the best moment came when Crist fretted about gay pride parade events involving people strutting "around in lingerie, pasties, G-strings and outfits that promote your sexual organs." That prompted an audience member to quip that it sounded like Crist was describing Gasparilla season.

And isn't that sort of the whole point?

We're not Salt Lake City, or Grover's Corners, or Bedford Falls.

We're Tampa. We're Hillsborough County, home to the yearly drunken bacchanalia celebrating a rapacious fake pirate in a community known for its strip clubs and other assorted coo-coo-ca-choo.

Yet people fret over frogs falling from the heavens simply because the County Commission voted to recognize the right of Larry and Steve, or Mary and Sue, to hold hands — and yes, perhaps even steal a smooch — in a gay pride parade, or perhaps honor the work of James Baldwin in a public library?

This wasn't quite a profile in courage on the part of the quintet of GOP yes votes. But it was not without political risk since the five commissioners, as they run for re-election or perhaps pursue some future office, will have to deal with the ignorant homophobic fulminations.

Beckner said it best when he held up his Bible and noted he is both a gay man and a Christian who is ultimately accountable to the judgment of God and nobody else.

In that moment, you couldn't help but be proud of the commissioner.

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