Hillsborough County commissioners consider repeal of gay pride ban

Published June 5, 2013

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners made perhaps their most demonstrative declaration eight years ago that government should not extend rights to some groups.

In doing so, they singled out a part of their citizenry when they banned county government from so much as acknowledging gay pride recognition and events. No other group of residents has its activities similarly deemed unrecognizable by county government.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner will seek to undo the ban today. Comments by his fellow board members, as well as their recent signing of a proclamation acknowledging the value of gay business owners and tourists, suggest they're willing to hear him out.

"There is no policy we have found in this state or in this country that says we will not even recognize you," said Beckner, who is gay. "It's probably one of the most un-American policies you could think of."

Yet Beckner has a challenge on his hands because the policy is unusual in other regards. It requires a public hearing and the approval of at least five of the seven commissioners to undo it.

That threshold is more common for decisions involving structural changes to county government, such as amending the charter or firing the administrator. Then-Commissioner Ronda Storms structured it that way when she won the 5-1 vote to ban county recognition of gay pride – "little g, little p," she said.

Storms did not return messages seeking comment.

The commission's policy book, where the ban resides, more commonly speaks to process and how the commission carries out the public's business, from meeting rules followed to how the board interacts with the administration. Public hearings and supermajority votes are rarely required to make changes.

Beckner will be allied with fellow Democrat Les Miller in voting to strike the gay pride recognition ban from commission policy. They will be joined by Republican Mark Sharpe, who along with Chairman Ken Hagan is one of two remaining board members from the 2005 vote.

Sharpe has repeatedly said that his vote in favor of the ban has been one of his biggest regrets in more than eight years as a commissioner.

"I didn't feel like the county should be in the business of promoting a lifestyle," Sharpe said. "But where the mistake was made is, I don't think we should be picking on any one group and saying, 'You, we're not ever going to support you.' "

With those votes all but declared, an intense lobbying campaign has been waged in recent days to win the support of the four other Republican commissioners by people both for and against Beckner's proposal. The participants include U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who was a commissioner in 2005 and the lone dissenting vote, and anti-gay marriage activist John Stemberger's Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council.

Terry Kemple, head of the Hillsborough-based Community Issues Council, was also rallying opposition to what he called Beckner's "crusade to push for county government recognition of homosexual behavior.

"You and I know this is a step in the process," Kemple said Tuesday night, saying Beckner next will be seeking measures to normalize homosexuality.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, meanwhile, penned his own appeal to commissioners Monday, noting that he rarely weighs in on their decisions. He said he does so now "humbly" to make the case that Hillsborough's diversity makes it stronger, more attractive to business, more welcoming to young entrepreneurs.

"It is not a moral question, but rather an acknowledgement that the contributions of each of us matter," Buckhorn wrote.

Hagan was the fourth commissioner to sign the GaYbor Days proclamation in support of gay tourism and business two weeks ago. It was the first time a majority of the board had signed the annual proclamation in six years, and the remaining holdouts quickly joined him.

Still, he said that's not a forecast of how he will vote today. He was out of the room during the gay pride recognition vote in 2005, but returned in time to support the supermajority threshhold for its repeal.

"I don't think that signing the proclamation is signaling or not signaling anything," Hagan said. "That being said, I do not believe the county is going to start promoting and funding gay pride events any time soon."

The other three undecided commissioners, Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham and Sandy Murman, are similarly keeping their cards close.

"This board has never really had a discussion of that particular issue," Higginbotham said, noting there are five new commissioners since the 2005 vote. "But I have always been troubled with any policy that denied the citizens the opportunity to assemble and express their feelings."

He declined to say whether he thinks the gay pride policy does so.

Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.