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Gay rights effort rose from defeat

Two years ago, they had momentum, organization and evidence. But they still lost. So when gay men and lesbians in Tampa made another try last week to secure laws that would protect them from discrimination, they seemed, on the surface, to have even less going for them.

A throng of 2,000 fervent opponents packed a hearing, promising political damnation to anyone who favored the legislation. A county commissioner who was expected to vote for the laws decided at the last minute to abstain. Organized mail campaigns deluged elected officials with thousands of postcards from gay rights foes.

This time, though, supporters had something to combat all that. They had the votes.

Early Wednesday, after rejecting similar measures in 1989, the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission passed amendments to laws that will ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Behind the turnaround is a story of how the gay community in Tampa and Hillsborough County got politically energized. As is happening in cities across the country, local gays and lesbians worked to put gay issues on the public agenda and helped elect candidates who had publicly promised to help them.

A defeat by "the people'

Lawyer Keith Roberts, director of the Bay Area Human Rights Coalition and one of the leaders of the gay rights effort, said he wasn't surprised that the proposals failed when they were first introduced in 1989.

"In most communities where this kind of legislation is adopted, it fails on the first try. I think there is an important public education process that takes place in any community just as a result of introducing the issue," Roberts said. "I think that happened here."

Although there were plenty of people in 1989 who worked against the ordinance, the opposition wasn't particularly well organized.

And gay activists were helped by a flap over some controversial remarks by County Commissioner Jim Selvey, who said passing the amendment could help encourage the spread of AIDS.

Still, after about five hours of testimony at a hearing in the County Commission chambers, commissioners voted against the proposal. A short while later, the City Council did the same.

Bill Cagle, one of the primary backers of the gay rights proposals, said the defeat taught some valuable lessons.

"When we lost the first time, we realized it was not the issue that was at fault. It was the people who were voting on it," Cagle said.

And so, in the county elections last fall and in city elections this spring, the gay community registered voters, worked on campaigns and sponsored political forums where candidates were always asked the same question: What is your stance on gay rights?

Power through politics

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who voted for the proposal both times, said she thinks the gay community learned from the success of residents who ultimately got Buffalo Avenue renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"What the black community did was (get) very organized," Saul-Sena said. "There was an election, and they used it as an opportunity to ask the candidates whether they would support that."

The gay community did the same thing during the last two elections, she said. "That let the members of the gay community know what the candidates' stands on the issue were."

Even opponents who fought feverishly to defeat the proposals credit gays with strong political action.

"I think the gay community did a far more effective job in terms of electing people who were going to be supportive of their cause," said the Rev. Joseph McAuliffe of the Tampa Covenant Church. He said gays also had "semantics" on their side, allowing them to evoke public sympathy by claiming the proposals would fight discrimination.

Roberts said opponents underestimated the determination of local gay men and lesbians after their first defeat.

"There's no doubt in my mind that most of the people who oppose the ordinance have no concept of the depth and breadth of the gay community or of gay culture and gay life," Roberts said. "So they just figured probably that they had defeated some extremist fringe movement. They didn't understand that these issues simply do not and cannot go away. Gay people are . . . too determined to be a part of the community to ever let that happen."

When election season rolled around, gay voters were ready. In the county, Roberts said, gays campaigned and voted heavily for Ed Turanchik and Sylvia Kimbell, who beat incumbents Haven Poe and Rubin Padgett last September.

Both Poe and Padgett had voted against amending the county's human rights ordinance to include gays, and gays believed Turanchik and Kimbell to be solid yes votes, Roberts said. With incumbent Commissioners Pam Iorio and Jan Platt, the community thought it had the four votes needed to win.

Kimbell won a narrow victory, with only 300 votes making the difference. But Turanchik handily defeated Poe in a race that focused almost entirely on growth-related issues.

Turanchik acknowledges that gays voted and worked for him, but he differs with activists about their effect on the campaign. "Members of the gay community have tried to portray this as their support won the election for me. That's not true," he said.

In the March city elections, gay rights supporters were seeking at least two yes votes to join incumbents Saul-Sena and Perry Harvey. Not all of their candidates succeeded, but in two districts, all of the candidates who made it to run-off elections favored the human rights amendments.

"Never . . . assume anything'

Confident of victory _ and saying so _ gays reintroduced the legislation in March and asked for a joint hearing with the city and the county.

But their confidence also sparked opposition from churches and conservative groups to a far greater degree than before. David Caton, state director of the American Family Association, led the way, joining forces with Commissioner Joe Chillura, who took on Selvey's role as the measure's most visible opponent.

Still, supporters' confidence remained high, until a news conference in which Caton dropped a bomb.

Caton said that as a labor lawyer, Turanchik would have a conflict of interest if he voted for the ordinance, because employment discrimination complaints stemming from the law would generate business for his law firm. Caton called on Turanchik to abstain.

After getting an opinion from the county attorney, Turanchik said he wouldn't vote, seemingly killing the measure in the county with the remaining commissioners deadlocked 3-3.

While the media, elected officials and most everyone else thought the issue was over, supporters didn't give up.

Happy to accept the public perception that their effort was dead, they talked quietly with Turanchik behind the scenes and asked him to consider separating the provisions of the ordinance. That way, they said, Turanchik could abstain on the section that banned discrimination in employment _ where his conflict arose _ but still vote on those sections involving housing, public accommodations and county contracts.

After again seeking legal advice, that's just what Turanchik did, providing the deciding vote for most of the amendments.

"If Ed Turanchik taught us anything, he taught us never to assume anything," said Lori-Lynn Heidemann, spokeswoman for the Human Rights Task Force. "Even when things like that happen, you've got to roll with the punches. You've got to keep going," she said. "It was hard to get people in the community motivated again, because they were saying it's going to be dead."

Instead, supporters wound up with almost all they were seeking. The city passed the full amendment, and the county excluded only employment as an area that will be protected. National activists say that what happened in Tampa is happening across the country.

"What it reflects is the maturation of the lesbian and gay movement in our country. People realize that they must play a role in American politics," said Gregory King, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a national gay and lesbian lobbying group that says it has 60,000 members.

But political clout isn't limited to gays and lesbians. Those who oppose the gay rights legislation say they will be using a similar strategy in the 1992 elections and electing candidates who will reverse the recent decision.

"Jesus said that Christians are the salt of the earth," Caton said. "But if the salt loses its saltiness, it is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled by men. We were not the salt on every meal in the last two years."

But, he said, they will be now.