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Politics

Gay rights decisions reverberate in the Tampa Bay area

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Published:   |   Updated: June 27, 2013 at 07:35 AM

ST. PETERSBURG - News of the U.S. Supreme Court's sweeping decisions on gay marriage quickly rippled throughout the Tampa Bay area Wednesday.

The timing of the decisions likely will boost attendance at Saturday's St. Pete Pride festival - the largest in Florida - even though most local same-sex couples will not be directly affected.

The local LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender - community is still trying to figure out what the ruling means in Florida, where the state constitution prohibits same-sex couples from marrying, said Eric Skains,executive director of St. Pete Pride.

"The decision will be up to the Obama administration or Congress if they are going to extend benefits to couples in states where gay marriage is not recognized," Skains said. "That's the question everyone will be following."

Hillsborough County's openly gay commissioner, Kevin Beckner, called the Supreme Court decision historic and a "large step forward for America."

"The court didn't go all the way and expand those rights to all people," Beckner said. "For me, it's a mixed reaction. It's a day to celebrate, but it reminds me we still have a lot of work to do to make sure everyone has the freedom to marry."

Beckner said he and his longtime partner will be evaluating whether the court decision is reason to get married in a state that allows same-sex nuptials.

"It's in our plans to get married," Beckner said. "I'd love to get married in the state of Florida, but we're going to evaluate what this will mean to us if we get married in one of the 12 legal states. I'm not sure how [the court decision] will impact our rights."

A rally at North Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg drew about 100 gay and straight supporters Wednesday evening. Although the mood was celebratory, the rally also was meant to draw attention to the political fight activists are preparing to wage in Florida.

Cathy James, the finance manager at the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, said Wednesday marked the second time a court ruling has impacted the lives of her and her partner. In 2010, a state court struck down Florida's prohibition against gay couples adopting, opening the way for James to adopt her partner's biological child.

Now, James said she and her partner can get married and enjoy the rights and responsibilities that come with federal recognition of same-sex marriage in the states that have approved it.

"Now we will be able to file joint tax returns. We will be able to have Social Security benefits," James said. "There's a whole plethora of benefits. It's a huge game change in regard to same-sex, loving couples."

Sally Phillips, president of the Florida LGBT Democratic Caucus, said she and her partner spent Wednesday morning weighing the pros and cons of going to another state to get married.

"It certainly gives us a reason," Phillips said. "It's not just symbolizing our commitment to each other; it's really a valid reason to make that commitment. We will now be afforded the rights and responsibilities of true marriage."

Wednesday's rulings did not spark a flurry of same-sex couples inquiring about marriage licenses locally.

Nevertheless, Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke wouldn't be surprised if those calls start coming.

"It'll be interesting," he said. "Nothing so far."

Same-sex marriage is not an issue that's been on the radar for many Florida court clerks, said Pasco County Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil, the president of the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers.

"I haven't thought about it at all," she said.

In Florida, making gay marriage legal would mean overturning Amendment 2, the state constitutional amendment that says marriage can only be between one man and one woman. The initiative was put on the ballot by petition in 2008 and passed with 61.9 percent of the vote.

"This fight is definitely not over, and in some ways begins anew today," said Brian Winfield, an officer with Equality Florida, a group that is campaigning for an amendment to the state constitution that legalizes gay marriage.

Although Wednesday's decisions won't legalize gay marriage, Skains said they signify that symbolic progress has been made on what he considers a matter of civil rights.

"It's been a couple of decades in the making," he said. "It's a wrong that has been corrected."

As the gay and lesbian community continues to press for full marriage equality, though, many members of the black community likely will sit on the sidelines, said the Rev. Tom Scott, a black former Hillsborough County commissioner and Tampa City Council member.

Some black people "take offense" when homosexuals equate their fight for equality with the often-violent civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s, Scott said.

"The black community sees the issue of being gay or lesbian as a decision," Scott said. "But in the case of African-Americans, it was not a decision, it was their color. You were born black."

Scott said he thinks few black people will be on the front lines of the gay and lesbian fight for equality.

"The flip side of that is we also believe no person should be discriminated against, period," he said.

Steve Kornell, St. Petersburg's first openly gay elected official, applauded the landmark rulings that he said would bring immediate benefits to married gay couples living in Florida. Simple privileges such as hospital visitation should be a fundamental right, he said.

"Gay and lesbian couples married in other places will now get federal benefits no matter where they are," he said. "Unless you're faced with it, I don't think people know what it's like to be turned away from a hospital when your partner is dying."

The rulings' symbolic significance will likely boost attendance at this weekend's Pride festival, much like the 2003 Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas sodomy law did, Skains said.

"We saw Pride events all over the nation explode in attendance," he said. "We're anticipating a 25 percent increase to well over 125,000 people - just a big celebration that is going to go all weekend long."

Nationally, conservatives have decried the Supreme Court rulings, but organizers are not expecting a larger number of protestors this weekend. A handful of protestors usually attends shouting at parade participants from the sidelines.

"Historically speaking, protestors have shown up," said Mike Puetz, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department. "I don't think they're much of a force."

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

Twitter: @kbradshawTBO

Tribune reporters Christopher O'Donnell and Laura Kinsler and correspondent Sara Drumm contributed to this report.

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