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Gay, lesbian rights issue crosses bay

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The debate over gay and lesbian rights ended in Tampa last week; but then again, it didn't. The debate actually is moving across the bay to Pinellas County.

The Tampa City Council last week voted to ban discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and public accommodations. Hillsborough County commissioners passed a similar measure that applies to housing and public accommodations.

Now, politicians in Pinellas County soon may be forced to decide whether they also should ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"I think for sure it's going to happen," said Kim Costanza, co-owner of the Lighted Tree, a St. Petersburg Beach restaurant that has many gay and lesbian customers.

"I think it definitely will come to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County," said Rand Hall, editor of The Gazette, a 14,000-circulation gay and lesbian magazine that has one third of its readers in Pinellas County.

"I think there is a great deal of interest in this," said Donna Burnell, a Dunedin resident who is president of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Burnell and several representatives of NOW Pinellas County chapters informally discussed the issue last week and considered several points of strategy:

Whether to present the issue to a large city, such as St. Petersburg, or a small one.

Whether to raise the issue before the next round of elections, possibly using it as a "litmus test" for candidates.

Most said the idea is in the talking stages in Pinellas County. There have been no mass meetings or organizational efforts yet. But NOW representatives promise there will be.

Politicians in Pinellas County don't seem eager to discuss the prospect.

"It would stir up a great deal of controversy in the community," said St. Petersburg City Council member Edward L. Cole Jr. "I hope it's not brought up."

When a reporter mentioned that activists intend to bring the issue up, Cole said, "I hope that's after June 12, when we get the baseball franchise. We've got enough controversy in St. Petersburg."

Tarpon Springs Mayor Anita Protos said that she had no comment on the subject and that the issue hasn't yet come up in her city.

Others said they simply haven't sat down and thought about the matter much.

"I really don't understand this issue too well," Clearwater City Commissioner Bill Nunamaker said. "It's not something I'm well-versed on."

St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran said, "I don't know. I'd have to give it a lot of thought. I don't think that we are faced with those problems now."

Pinellas County Commissioner George Greer agreed, saying no one has complained of widespread discrimination against gays or lesbians.

"We haven't had a bunch of folks saying there's a problem," he said. "I'm not at all interested in introducing legislation on the off chance that there might be a problem."

Greer said that it was premature for him to say how he would vote on such a measure and that he would have to see exactly how it is drawn up.

"I have a little problem with certain lifestyles being role models for very impressionable young people," Greer said. "If this is designed to make that happen, then I have got some problems with it."

None of the other four Pinellas commissioners returned phone calls about the issue last week.

One of the few political leaders in Pinellas County who does have a definite stand on the issue is Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey. She said she supports measures to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians.

"I think every person should have the right for equal opportunity to develop their own potential," she said.

However, that doesn't mean she thinks the issue should come before the Clearwater City Commission. She said it probably would be better to take it before the County Commission so any measure that is adopted would cover the entire county.

If the issue does surface somewhere in Pinellas County, homosexual activists hope for a better reception than when the matter came before the St. Petersburg Beach City Commission in 1989.

Costanza and her partner, Rosemary Dempsey, asked the City Commission to approve a non-binding resolution saying:

"Be it resolved that, the city of St. Petersburg Beach shall not discriminate against any citizen or visitor in public services, employment or any other area of operation and influence."

After almost an hour of public comment, the resolution died when none of the three commissioners at the meeting made a motion in favor of it.

Costanza said that when the issue resurfaces in Pinellas, it will be well-planned and well-organized.

If so, Tampa-area gay and lesbian activists are likely to step in and help, just as Pinellas residents did with the effort in Hillsborough.

"We're prepared to move very quickly if the enthusiasm is there," said Keith Roberts, director of the Bay Area Human Rights Coalition.