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Rally for tolerance brings out intolerant

Chants, cheers, speeches and some angry taunts broke the Sunday morning stillness of downtown Tampa as more than 1,000 people joined the Suncoast Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual Pride Rally.

A band played in the sweltering heat in front of City Hall while vibrant, rainbow-striped flags waved overhead and the enthusiastic crowd chanted and cheered while awaiting speakers including Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman.

As the participants waited, many holding signs and banners touting unity, tolerance and empowerment, five men in the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan countered with chants, signs and banners that condemned the rally's participants.

Police said the Klan's presence did not spark any arrests, although crude and loud insults were traded.

Rally organizers and speakers urged the crowd to ignore the Klan members and a handful of other protesters.

"Things are going to get worse," local gay and lesbian rights activist Nadine Smith said at one point, gesturing toward the protesters.

"They're going to get worse than a couple of fools in sheets chanting at us. We need every one of us to win this fight."

After an hour of speeches in front of City Hall, the marchers slowly made their way down Kennedy Boulevard to Plant Park, where vendors and merchants were set up for a daylong celebration and picnic.

The event was sponsored by the Suncoast Pride Coalition, a collection of individuals and organizations from the Tampa Bay area.

"I would like nothing better than to say we're here only to have a picnic in Plant Park and to have fun," said Lillian Lewis, chairwoman of the coalition.

"But we're here because of something extremely important. We're here to educate because of ignorance, hatred and bigotry. I don't want to have to do that anymore. We want to be treated like the people we are. Human beings who are American."

Lewis and others spoke of a renewed feeling of hope and optimism within the gay and lesbian communities, some of which they attributed to a tolerant President Clinton.

More important, gays and lesbians would like to see increased tolerance and acceptance right here at home, Lewis said.

"It means a lot when the mayor of your city comes to an event like this," she said. "It's just a very different thing when that happens in your own back yard."

In the past, Freedman has always sent a representative from her office to the rallies, Lewis said.

In her remarks in front of City Hall, Freedman read a proclamation designating June as Gay and Lesbian Rights Month in Tampa.

"This community can't tolerate any discrimination of any kind, toward any individual or group," Freedman said.

"We want to send a very loud and clear message today. This is 1993. Things have got to change."