1. Florida Politics

Hillsborough gets a chance to undo its gay pride ban

Published Jun. 5, 2013

Eight years ago this month, the orderly world of the Hillsborough County public library got caught up in a firestorm over a gay pride display.

And took library director Joe Stines along for the ride.

No, it wasn't about a book burning or even a book banning, though you might have thought so once Hillsborough's backward ways started getting national attention yet again. What happened was that three people complained about the display at the West Gate Regional library. It was taken down, and later restored in a less prominent spot.

Naturally you could count on Ronda Storms, then a Hillsborough commissioner not shy about making her socially conservative causes known, to seize the moment. The force that was Storms got the commission to vote 5-1 to ban any county government participation, promotion or even acknowledgment of anything to do with gay pride. It sounded like county employees must avert their eyes or risk firing.

Oh, but today. Today, the commission has a chance to fix this embarrassment, to turn a page, to take a shot at being a welcoming place. More on that in a minute.

Back then I called Stines, who was taking his hits on this. He runs the county library system. He also happens to be gay. I asked him about it and he thought a minute and answered me. Seeing it in the newspaper changed his life, he said when I called this week. Some people treated him "a little differently," he says. And some people, strangers even, pleasantly surprised him.

How did the ban change things for the library? We got more "global," he says, taking care to mix in gay authors on all subjects.

He will tell you he only has one issue: libraries. But when I specifically ask, he says over the years he has come to think of the ban as "just a plain mean thing to do," a political vote-getter of the moment. "I guess I see it as an unnecessary rule," he says. "I don't know what is accomplished by it."

And yes, since I ask, it would be nice to see it undone.

You might think spots do not change, particularly in Hillsborough County government, but you might be wrong. Storms is long gone, having lost her most recent bid for office, and so is her ability to sweep up everyone around her in her fiery non-causes.

And who would have thought: Chairman Ken Hagan recently signed a proclamation for the GaYBOR Days event, as did the entire commission, right down to its most conservative members.

And here is Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who voted for the ban back when: "We shouldn't have done it. I wish we hadn't."

Stines started his career reading to kids at an inner-city library and plans to retire soon, to move to Mexico with his decades-long partner and use his Spanish to read to children there. I ask if he will be at today's big meeting.

You can expect lots of voices to be heard there, particularly given one rallying email making the rounds this week implying that roads will go unpaved and children hungry should the board rescind this ban. No, I did not make that up.

But no, Joe Stines will likely be busy with books, unless commissioners decide there's something about the library he has been a part of all these years they need to talk to him about.