Hillsborough County Commissioners approve placing rainbow flag above County Center for the rest of June


Eleven years to the day after the Hillsborough County Commission stunningly voted to ban all “gay pride” events, that same government body on Wednesday approved hanging the rainbow gay pride flag from the top of County Center for the rest of the month, in a tribute to those who were massacred at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday morning.

The measure was one of three related to the Orlando tragedy proposed by Commissioner Kevin Beckner. The board approved a separate motion to hold a hearing next month on whether to honor each June as Gay Pride Month. Both measures passed on 5-1 votes, with only Commissioner Ken Hagan dissenting. Commissioner Stacy White did not attend the meeting.

The board did reject a third motion brought forward by Beckner. That called for submitting a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, calling on him to echo the county and raise the rainbow flag at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

Beckner, the first openly elected gay official in the history of Hillsborough County government, began the discussion by rebroadcasting the actual vote against gay pride events from 2005, a motion brought forth by Commissioner Ronda Storms that passed on a 5-1 vote, with only Kathy Castor dissenting. Hagan was part of that board, though Hagan was out of the room at the time of that actual vote in 2005.

It should be noted Beckner’s proposal was added to the agenda late, and commissioners could have refused to even entertain the motion — but Hagan and Commissioner Victor Crist spoke up in favor of waiving the rule, allowing the proposals to be brought forward.

Beckner said there was a direct link between that 2005 vote, and the events that transpired in the early morning hours in Orlando on Sunday morning.

“Both actions were inspired and are rooted in the ideology of bigotry, intolerance and hate towards the LGBT community,” Beckner said. “We will never know and realize the impact by the action that the BOCC took 11 years ago; the number of youth who were bullied; the number of incidents of community and self-inflicted violence. Not to mention the negative economic impact that resulted when this governmental body elected to represent all of the citizens of Hillsborough County, sanctioned hate, bigotry and discrimination of the LGBT community.”

Beckner added the county government’s previously dismal record on LGBT rights has improved dramatically in recent years, citing how the board ultimately repealed that ban on gay pride, reintroduced the LGBT community into the county’s human rights ordinance, and now offers domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples.

The board discussion was relatively muted, with only Higginbotham objecting to the measure’s second provision — that being the letter sent to Gov. Scott. After a back-and-forth exchange between the two, Beckner agreed to separate his single motion into three separate motions. The motion that would call on Scott to raise the gay pride flag at the Capitol did not receive a second vote, and died immediately.

Before the vote, a handful of members of the public weighed in on Beckner’s proposal regarding raising the LGBT pride flag.

Referring to how the board voted to remove the Confederate flag from the county center lobby a year ago after a gun shooting massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Christian conservative activist Terry Kemple said if the board chose to raise the rainbow flag, it would offend people.

“The people who were killed were Americans,” Kemple said. “They weren’t LGBT. They weren’t Asians. They weren’t white, They were Americans. And the way to honor those people  is to do exactly what we’re doing, which is to fly the American flag at half-mast. My personal feeling is that trying to use a mass murder in Orlando and the pain and suffering of survivors to further a political agenda is despicable.”

John Desmond with the activist group PFLAG Tampa said leaders need to “step up” in times like these. “I’m asking for leadership that has a crystal clear vision of what our future is, that gets it,” he said. “We have a population that very often doesn’t get it. ”

Terrence Wolfe with the Hillsborough County Human Relations Board also supported the Beckner proposal. He said it was “important to demonstrate solidarity with both our local area residents who were victims of Sunday’s tragedy, and with our fellow Americans in the Orlando area who lost their lives or suffered significant harm as a result of terror.”

Jeanne Webb urged the board not to exploit the Orlando tragedy to push “a political agenda.” “Taking emotional advantage of a tragedy for political expedience, gain and personal preference. This shouldn’t be about people’s sexual preference. It should be about innocent American citizens who lost their lives or were injured, or lost loved ones at the hands of a radical Islamic terrorist.” Using the deceased as “political pawns,” she said they deserved better.

At the end of the vote, Beckner watched with supporters as the rainbow flag went over the County Center, something Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn hoisted over City Hall earlier this week.

(An earlier version of this story reported Commissioner Higginbotham was on the board in 2005. He was not elected until 2006).

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected].


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