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Prejudice and Pride: A decade of change for Tampa Bay’s LGBTQ community

Gay Pride recognition was once banned in Hillsborough County. Now Tampa has an openly gay mayor.

Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Decade Defined By,” a series that examines how Tampa Bay has changed in the past decade. We will publish one story a day until Dec. 31. Read the whole package here.

The commissioner learned of a display inside a branch public library promoting resources for LGBTQ patrons during Gay Pride month. A week later, she put forward a motion that Hillsborough County henceforth “abstain from acknowledging, promoting or participating in Gay Pride recognition and events.” “Little g, little p,” Ronda Storms memorably ad libbed.

That policy remained in force five years later in 2010, and it colored the region.

But in 2013, something unexpected happened. A group circulated a proclamation among Hillsborough commissioners seeking recognition for GaYBors Days, a celebration of Ybor City’s LGBTQ-owned businesses. Similar appeals garnered one or two signatures in the past. But that year, group leaders emphasized jobs created and tourists drawn.

Storms was gone. One by one, all seven commissioners signed. And a template was created.

Weeks later, Commissioner Kevin Beckner sought to overturn Hillsborough’s gay pride prohibition. He was the county’s first openly gay commissioner, a big deal when he first ran, less so when he won a second term in 2012. The anti-pride policy sent a terrible message to entrepreneurs seeking to invest in the region and put people to work, he said.

The repeal vote was unanimous, “capital R,” Beckner said.

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage prohibitions. The 5-4 vote was celebrated the next day at the state’s largest Pride festival in St. Petersburg. The following June, festival attendees mourned the mass murder of 49 people inside Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, then the nation’s deadliest shooting.

In this June 2019 photo, Pulse survivor Orlando Torres stands near the bathroom where he hid during the June 12, 2016, shooting, at the Pulse Interim Memorial, in Orlando. [MONICA HERNDON | Times | 2019]

Advocates note LGBTQ people can still be fired over whom they love. Also, some charge that St. Pete’s Pride celebration has gone corporate by accepting sponsorship dollars from publicly traded giant Tech Data.

This year, Tampa elected its first openly gay mayor. Jane Castor didn’t shy from the topic with reporters.

On the stump, she said, it never came up.

Evolving attitudes about LGBTQ rights around Tampa Bay and the nation, 2010-1029

Gina Maseratti playing the role of Hillsborough County Commissioner Rhonda Storm gestures while her statements are read during the Pride in Exile celebration on Aug. 13, 2005, in Key West. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2005)]

June 15, 2005: Hillsborough County commissioners were already known for rescinding protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and for blocking gay rights efforts. Still, it came as a surprise on this date when they voted, with little discussion, to "abstain from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride recognition and events.” The lone no vote was Democrat Kathy Castor, now in Congress.

From left to right, Samantha Perkins, a regular in Ybor City, has his photo taken with Kim Retzlaff, vacationing from Papillion, Nebraska, on a sidewalk in Ybor City on May 25, 2013. [Times (2013)]

May 21, 2013: For the first time, every Hillsborough County commissioner signed a proclamation recognizing GaYbor Days, an annual celebration of gay-owned businesses. Organizers emphasized jobs they create and tourists they draw. “I don’t care about who’s gay or straight or who owns a respectable, productive business,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan, a Republican. “What I do care about is job creation and economic development.”

The gallery, many in favor of repealing the ban on promoting gay pride events and displays, is seen during a county commissioners meeting Wednesday, June 5, 2013 in Tampa. The commission voted to repeal the 2005 ban which was initiated by former Commissioner Ronda Storms, a religious conservative. [CHRIS URSO | Times, 2013]

June 5, 2013: The Hillsborough County Commission unanimously voted to rescind a ban on gay Pride recognition at the urging of its first openly gay commissioner, Democrat Kevin Beckner. He spoke of equality, love and the Bible, but also of the contributions of LGBTQ residents to the local economy. “I teach my kids that when you make a mistake, you correct it yourself,” said former Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican.

In this June 26, 2015, photo, a man holds a U.S. and a rainbow flag outside the Supreme Court in Washington after the court legalized gay marriage nationwide. [JACQUELYN MARTIN | (AP | 2015)]

June 26, 2015: By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry, reflecting a dramatic shift in public opinion nationally. “It’s my hope that the term ‘gay marriage’ will soon be a thing of the past, that from this day forward, it will simply be ‘marriage,’” said Jim Obergefell, an Ohio man at the heart of the case. Crowds thronged St. Pete’s annual LGBT Pride Parade the next day.

Then-candidate Jane Castor walks the Tampa Pride Diversity Parade in March 2019. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

April 23, 2019: Former Tampa police Chief Jane Castor was elected the city’s first openly gay mayor. She secured 73 percent of the vote over former banker and philanthropist David Straz Jr. She had acknowledged the possibility carried with it “a significance that’s not lost on me.” She said the topic never came up at campaign events, perhaps the most significant evidence of all of how community attitudes have changed.