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LGBTQ advocates have high expectations for Tampa mayor Jane Castor

TAMPA ---- When asked how big of a voice she intends to be on LGBTQ rights, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor talks about an acquaintance.

A lesbian about the same age as the 59-year-old Castor, the friend is a successful business owner. It was only when she heard Castor express her love and gratitude to her partner Ana Cruz at her May 1 oath of office ceremony that the woman realized she'd never had the confidence to be fully public about her sexual orientation.

"She had never felt comfortable in sharing her life. And, you know, her vacations and her kids' stories and everything else. She just never felt that comfort. And so it didn't really occur to her until that point," Castor said in an interview this week in her office.

There have been a lot of role model moments for Castor over the years, but becoming the first lesbian mayor of a major southeastern city comes with expectations. LGBTQ activists are excited to see whether Castor, a former Tampa police chief, can continue to push the needle on equality.

"I would hope that she would put them front and center, especially since she is of our community,'' said Dave Cutler, president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the LGBTA Democratic Caucus. "I know that mayors deal with a lot of issues and everyone is saying we need this number one, but you have to take care of your family first."

Cutler's group joined other major LGBTQ rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida, in endorsing Castor before her landslide win against retired banker David Straz in April. They celebrated her victory and have high hopes for her.

"Jane Castor is a force of nature. She's been in public service for decades," said Joe Saunders, political director for Equality Florida. "That's one of the things about being open and honest her whole life."

Saunders said he hopes Castor can be a force in Tallahassee, especially for expanding civil rights for the LGBTQ community.

But Castor has made it clear since her victory —- which brought her national attention — that she wants to focus on governing, not identity.

"As far as the advocacy, you know, I will be there when that's necessary. But my first and foremost duty is to lead our city for all residents," Castor said.

Advocates think Tampa has a lot more work to do on LGBTQ equality issues.

Though the city scored 103 on a municipal equality index published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, (100 is a perfect score, but you get bonus points for going the extra mile)Tampa has fallen behind neighbor and rival St. Petersburg on several municipal benchmarks.

Castor says many proposals are on the table in Tampa. But she won't commit to anything yet.

Expanding health care to include transgender city employees? Under consideration. Bolstering city outreach to gay seniors and homeless youth? Being studied. How about tracking gay small businesses to make sure they're getting their fair share of city contracts? St. Petersburg just began that push. In Tampa, that's something to look at — for now.

Castor says more important than codified policy is setting the right tone. She returned to the story of her friend watching her oath of office ceremony.

" I use that story, to say to the different corporations, and you know, to our city staff, that you can have the policies and procedures in place. But it's in the actions, ensuring that everyone feels a part of the group. Feels valued, and feels welcome," Castor said.

She told another story that she didn't explicitly link to her sexual identity. She talked about her nerves before throwing out the first pitch at Pride Night for the Tampa Bay Rays on June 14.

She practiced throwing in her side yard beforehand. Once at Tropicana Field, though, she said everyone had an opinion about how and where she should line up for the pitch.

Some people, including Rays owner Stu Sternberg, encouraged her to throw to her son from the grass. Her son is a member of the Rays ground crew and was catching the first pitch.

No way, Castor told him.

She threw from the dirt, a lollipop that had some curve to it as it plopped into the catcher's mitt. No bounce. No throw into the stands to go viral like 50 Cent.

Just her way.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459 . Follow @Charlie Frago .

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