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Careful talk belies views of a growing constituency

 
Published July 2, 2004|Updated Aug. 28, 2005

Now that I am done with my research on the career of Bob Devin Jones, I should gather it up, stick it in an envelope and mail it to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, to remind him of something he already knows.

Jones' business card describes him as a theater worker, a phrase that covers much territory. He is a writer, an actor, a director. The business card doesn't mention this, but he is also, and quite openly, gay.

Last Saturday, thousands of gays marched in downtown during the St. Pete Pride parade and festival. A few days before, Baker tried to put as much distance between himself and the event as he could without falling off the Earth. He said it was "a Pride event, not a city event." He also said he did not support the event's "general agenda."

When a man talks that vaguely, you know he's struggling with something. In Baker's case, he's trying to avoid the conflicts of being a Baptist mayor who opposes gay rights in a city where gays like Jones are taking on an increasingly prominent role.

Jones has written, directed or performed in his hometown of Los Angeles, as well as Sacramento, Memphis, Dallas, Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta, Detroit _ even New Mexico and Ireland _ and in St. Petersburg, at American Stage.

He is black and has performed in shows that retell the life stories of important African-Americans, including actor Paul Robeson, murdered Florida civil rights activist Harry T. Moore, poet Langston Hughes and novelist James Baldwin.

Jones has written a play about the glory days of the Manhattan Casino, the black nightclub that thrived in St. Petersburg during the era of Jim Crow.

He has also had important roles in the last two plays of St. Petersburg's Shakespeare in the Park, Much Ado about Nothing this year, Romeo and Juliet last year.

And he recently opened a performance space called Studio 620 in downtown St. Petersburg.

Jones is, in short, very much a part of the cultural boom that has strangers paying attention to St. Petersburg in ways they never have before.

The boom doesn't stop with culture. The redevelopment of Central Avenue's business district is spreading west from downtown. Older neighborhoods, other than the well-established Old Northeast, are being rehabilitated. Gays have played a significant role on both fronts. "People who are gay," the mayor himself says, "have made significant contributions to all parts of our city."

Baker can only go so far. His beliefs won't let him go farther. And it's not far enough for men like Jones, who considered the mayor's remarks about St. Pete Pride bigoted.

Now, bigoted is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Most of the time, it's a conversation stopper.

When I mentioned it to Baker, an apparently unflappable man, I could tell it had some effect.

"The question is, by not embracing somebody else's views, am I shutting them out? I'm not shutting anybody out. It would be nice for them to respect my views as well without calling me a bigot."

He sounds so reasonable. But there's a problem. All too often, gays are forced to deny who they are. Baker is asking for only a slightly more polite form of that. He's asking them to be invisible. Or, as Jones puts it, "Somehow, it" _ being gay _ "is okay as long as I don't make an issue of it."

That won't work.

Last week's St. Pete Pride event drew an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people, perhaps as much as double last year's event. There's a message in those numbers. As St. Petersburg's public life grows more sophisticated, it will become more and more a place where gays feel comfortable to live and work. The message, in fact, is probably already out.

And Baker, in the meantime, will have to struggle with the clash between his private beliefs and his public responsibilities to represent everyone in St. Petersburg, even the people who make him squirm.

_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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