TAMPA - An 8-year-old policy that barred Hillsborough County from promoting gay pride events or displays was unanimously repealed by county commissioners Wednesday, signaling a fundamental shift in community attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
The board, with a 5-2 Republican majority, took the vote after vigorous debate and more than an hour of public comment. Twenty-eight speakers took the podium, evenly split between supporters and opponents of the ban.
The repeal, though largely symbolic, set off a raucous celebration in commission chambers. Men and women, many wearing patches of the Equality Florida human rights group, whooped, embraced and shook hands.
For many, the victory shed a stigma of bigotry and intolerance from their home county.
"We're not sending a message now to the rest of the world that we are a whole district of bigots," said JoEllen Carlson, a Tampa resident and professor at the University of South Florida. "We're saying the Tampa Bay area is big tent for all of us with open sides."
The repeal also showcased the political skills of Kevin Beckner, the openly gay commissioner who pushed the board to reconsider a policy it passed in 2005 by a 5-1 vote.
Beckner refused to water down a repeal of the ban with suggested amendments by Republican commissioners Ken Hagan and Victor Crist. Crist wanted to prohibit county support for events that feature obscene, pornographic or prurient behavior. He cited nudity and revealing costumes worn at gay pride events in St. Petersburg.
Beckner responded that there are no rules governing the often-explicit public displays at the Gasparilla Parade.
"Does it turn you on if you're at Gasparilla and a woman flashes her breasts?" Beckner asked.
"Is that a rhetorical question?" Crist shot back.
Hagan, the commission chairman, said he wanted an amendment that required commission approval for county promotions or acclimations of gay pride events.
But Beckner refused to support the amendment, saying Hagan was trying to "muddy the waters."
"You support it or you don't support it," Beckner said. "You want government to continue to discriminate, keep the ban in place. You think that everybody deserves to be treated fairly and equally with human dignity and respect, repeal the ban."
Crist's amendment never got a second. Hagan's motion failed on a 3-4 vote.
"I have to say Commissioner Beckner was amazing in his leadership, especially when others were trying to muddy the waters," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. "The bottom line is this was indefensible; it was discrimination plain and simple,"
Former Commissioner Ronda Storms pushed the ban in 2005 after several parents complained about a display celebrating Gay Pride Month at West Gate Regional Library. The commission passed Storms' motion by a 5-1 vote, with Democrat Kathy Castor the only dissenter. The deliberation and vote in 2005 took just one minute and 44 seconds.
Storms was a religious conservative and many of the speakers who opposed repealing the ban Wednesday did so on religious grounds. Several were pastors or assistant pastors at area churches.
George Thomasson, an assistant pastor at Bell Shoals Baptist Church, read a statement from Steven Rummage, the church's senior pastor. Rummage said the majority of his congregation would take offense at spending their tax dollars to promote a lifestyle choice so contrary to their values in faith.
Then Thomasson added his own comment:
"I think the real cost to our county if we do this is we lose the favor of God," Thomasson said.
Holding a Bible in his hand, Beckner responded that he was raised a Christian and used the Bible to guide his spiritual life.
"Is that why our savior, Jesus Christ, hung on that cross, so that we could divide our community?" Beckner asked, looking at the audience. "He didn't die for some of us; he died for all who believe."
Beckner's fellow Democrat, Commissioner Les Miller, also rejected the biblical argument against lifting the ban. Miller, an African-American who serves as a deacon in a Baptist Church, recalled different instances of discrimination and prejudice he encountered as a young man. The Bible, he said, was used by groups like the Ku Klux Klan to justify discrimination against blacks.
"And as they bombed churches and hung people, they also quoted the Bible," Miller said. "So you can turn it any way you want to turn it, but I turn it the way I want to turn it and say love thy neighbor as thyself."
The crowd exploded in applause.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who along with Hagan voted for the ban in 2005, said at the time he didn't think the county should be promoting one group over another. But Sharpe said he also teaches his kids to own up to mistakes and correct them.
"I'm just glad I'm here to correct that mistake," Sharpe said.
Beckner was able to get the ban overturned even though Storms had been able to pass a motion requiring a super majority of five votes for a repeal. As a final order of business Wednesday, Beckner asked the county attorney's office to report back on Aug. 7 with recommendations to curtail use of super majority votes unless they are required by the county charter, ordinances or state laws.
His motion passed 7-0.