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Bay area struggles with diversity

The cluster of incidents began to form in late November when two gay men and their friends were kicked and punched outside a Tarpon Springs restaurant.

In mid December, vandals ripped at least 30 posters in a traveling art show promoting tolerance and spray-painted racial epithets and the word "brainwashing" on the outdoor exhibit in St. Petersburg. Days later and blocks away, Florida Holocaust Museum security guards discovered a message painted on the Fifth Street S building: "Why profit from the deaths of millions of Jews?"

This month in Tampa, a passer-by discovered the body of one of two missing gay men, intensifying fears among some that gays are being targeted. And a little more than a week later, Largo police charged a white man with a hate crime after he placed a hangman's noose around a black teenager's neck at a fast-food restaurant.

"It's frightening," H. Roy Kaplan, executive director of the Tampa Bay chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice, said of the incidents. "There is a climate in this community that we have to acknowledge is not where it needs to be."

Although the incidents are not connected, they have prompted some collective soul-searching and a re-examination of the Tampa Bay area's acceptance of different races and lifestyles.

Kaplan and others suggest that a small minority of residents may be uncomfortable with the area's rapidly growing racial diversity. Some may not appreciate greater visibility of gays and lesbians, particularly in light of recent gay rights legal victories.

"The thing I see is we are becoming less tolerant as we become more diverse," said Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who noted that Pinellas' racial paradigm is no longer black and white.

State statistics indicate there are more reported hate crimes in the Tampa Bay area than in nearly any other place in the state.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties had the second and third highest number of hate crimes in 2002, according to a report by Attorney General Charlie Crist. Broward County had the most crimes among the 34 counties that reported hate crimes to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Figures for 2003 are not yet available.

Forty-two hate crimes _ acts that target a person or property because of the victim's race, sexual orientation, religion or other status _ were reported in Pinellas, an increase from 33 in 2001. In Hillsborough, police investigated 32 hate crimes in 2002, up from 29 in 2001. There was one hate crime in Hernando and four in Pasco in 2002.

"We're in transition," Kaplan said. "We're growing very rapidly. The demographics are changing overnight. That's a source of consternation for people that are used to seeing things a little differently."

Overall, hate crimes in Florida dropped by 8.7 percent in 2002. The decrease is attributed to a decline in hate crimes based on religion and ethnicity after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as well as a change in the way the numbers are reported.

But race- and sexual orientation-related violence each increased in 2002.

Kaplan said numbers in Pinellas and Hillsborough may be higher because the area's police are better trained to recognize and report hate crimes.

Whatever the reason, hate crimes are troubling to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a Tampa-based gay advocacy group.

Smith said there's "a great deal of anxiety, fear and anger" among many in the gay community. Many feel hate crimes aren't investigated and prosecuted as vigorously as other crimes, Smith said.

She said more violence is being committed against gays in daylight and in the open. And antigay rhetoric from some religious and political leaders in the state seems to have climbed a notch. Smith said she recently saw a church marquee with a message she viewed as threatening: Homosexuality is a sin and the wages of sin is death.

"It's created an atmosphere where violence is not only possible but more likely," Smith said.

"When there's progress, there's backlash," she said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's striking down of a Texas antisodomy law and the court ruling in Massachusetts paving the way for same-sex marriage. "People who oppose that progress have become increasingly reckless in the language they use. It appears some people feel emboldened to turn their bigoted attitudes into violence."

Smith said the disappearances of two 26-year-old gay Tampa men _ and the discovery of one of their bodies _ have added fear and anxiety.

The decomposed body of Michael Wachholtz was found in a Jeep Cherokee in a Town 'N Country parking lot. Wachholtz, whose cause of death is pending, was last seen leaving his apartment Dec. 20. Jason Galehouse also was last seen that day leaving a bar early in the morning.

Police say they have no evidence that the disappearances are connected or that gay men are being targeted.

Police have no suspects in vandalism at the museum, or the Co-Existence exhibit in St. Petersburg but have made arrests in the Largo noose incident. Louis John Giannola IV, 19, of Zephyrhills, is free on $10,000 bail. He faces a battery hate crime charge. Police also arrested two minors on charges of aiding a hate crime.

"Racism and discrimination has been around for a long time, and it's not as worse as it used to be, but it still exists," the victim, Dionte Hall, 14, wrote in a letter to President Bush after the incident. Dionte and his parents held a news conference Thursday urging legislation targeting adults who encourage children to commit discrimination-based violence.

Of the 42 hate crimes in Pinellas in 2002, nearly half _ 23 _ stemmed from the victim's race. Sexual orientation provoked 12 of the incidents. In Hillsborough, 12 of the 32 hate crimes that year were race-related and seven were attributed to the victim's sexual orientation.

"It's very sad that in 2004 we're still having to address these kinds of acts," said Bobby Bowden, director of Tampa's community affairs department, which investigates discrimination complaints in housing, employment and public places. "These acts aren't confined to one geographic area. They're happening across the nation. No area is off limits, so to speak."

During the 1990s the percentage of Hispanics of all races increased in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater region by 79 percent, according to the 2000 census. The Asian population grew by 95 percent, American Indian by 50 percent, black by 32 percent and white by 9 percent, according to the census.

"But what's happening is we are not benefiting from that diversity," said Harris, the Pinellas commissioner. "The majority of the people never spend any time learning about the cultures of all the people that make up this community. These people are invisible to a large part of the population. We need to see people as more than guest workers accepting jobs that nobody else wants."

Tampa Bay area residents' opinions about the incidents and what they say about the community are as diverse as the region.

In more than a dozen interviews Monday on both sides of Tampa Bay, views ranged from the belief that bigotry still exists to the feeling it is a thing of the past, and everything in between. Most people said blatant incidents such as the one involving the noose were isolated.

"I don't see it as pervasive at all," Sharon McGee, a white 50-year-old Tampa interior designer, said of discrimination in the area. "There's been no major movements or demonstrations to suggest that."

Chelsea Brubaker, 17, of Tampa, said she doesn't need protests to conclude there are problems. At Jefferson High School, she recalled, students of different races chatted with each other, but not much more. "They wouldn't sit together at lunch or chill together after school," said Brubaker, who is Puerto Rican and German. "But you never saw anything like that noose incident."

She said she rarely hears criticism of couples of different races or ethnicities. The sight of what appears to be a gay couple, however, often prompts derogatory remarks. "A lot of people I know don't feel it's right and they don't understand it," said Brubaker, who added she has no problem with the lifestyle.

Some see opportunity in the wake of the recent events. Linda Lerner, a Pinellas School Board member, said residents need to encourage elected officials to approve or amend human rights ordinances to include sexual orientation and gender identity. She lamented the failure of Largo's proposed human rights ordinance, which included protecting gays and lesbians from harassment and discrimination.

"The community needs to speak up . . . ," she said. "I think this is an opportunity for elected officials, citizens, and community leaders to say we will stand up for respect and tolerance. We can't sit back and not speak up."

_ Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklinsptimes.com or (727) 893-8488.

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