Once upon a time in Hillsborough: A tale of intolerance

Published June 8, 2013

One day down the road, the silver-haired grandmas and grandpas of Hillsborough County may gather the children close to tell the tale of Ronda Storms and all she once wrought.

They will hear how the Queen of East County once held sway over the land as a powerful county commissioner. How she had a heart of fire and brimstone and also the hearts of not a few like-minded voters. And how one day in 2005, in less than two minutes at a Hillsborough County Commission meeting, she used her powers to sway, or maybe in some cases to cow, the board into voting to send a message across the land:

That gay people should not feel particularly welcome here.

Wait, the children gathered 'round might say. Why were elected officials even considering some mean-spirited vote to discriminate? Who cares about their personal views on same-sex marriage or their religious beliefs — didn't these guys have enough to do running a county, dealing with growth, transportation and budgets, and mapping a thoughtful vision for the future?

(Okay, so I have high hopes for the intellect of the children of the future. Work with me here.)

This story, of course, is actually a very real and sad chapter in Hillsborough history: how then-Commissoner Storms used a kerfuffle over a public library display during Gay Pride Month to get the board to ban county government from having anything to do with gay pride.

How the board decreed there would be no participating in, promoting or even acknowledging gay pride — "little g, little p," Storms said.

This was a classic Stormsian twist: It didn't have to be an official Gay Pride event, just anything to do with someone being gay, or being supportive of fellow citizens who are gay, and daring to have any kind of pride about it.

And she locked it up by getting the commission to require a vote of five of seven of them to ever undo her handiwork instead of just a majority.

She did not give a catlike smile of satisfaction from the dais that day at successfully using her position to push her religious and conservative causes, but we can embellish in the retelling if we wish.

When we tell the story of this week's Great Undoing eight years later, of a new board and a new day, mandatory should be the part where Commissioner Les Miller described being called the n-word even as he wore an Air Force uniform and had his little girl beside him. And how he said, "Hatred is hatred, bigotry is bigotry" at the meeting and got applauded.

Every story needs comic relief, so we should also tell the part about how Commissioner Victor Crist suggested another policy against sponsoring events with obscene or offensively sexual content (Hey, dude, lay off Gasparilla!) Seriously, you need a policy for this?

We need to tell the part about how Mark Sharpe, who voted for the big bad ban back then, choked up when he talked about teaching his own kids that when you make a mistake, you fix it. "Yourself," he said.

And how Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who is gay, held up the Bible he says guides him daily, and no one smote him.

When we tell the story of The County That Would Not Move Forward, now we have the happy ending about how finally one day it did.