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‘A small stepping stone forward’

 

A unanimous vote, which took place Wednesday morning by the Hillsborough County Commissioner’s Office, repealed a 2005 ban on recognition of gay pride events.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the 7-0 vote was just a small step forward for equality.

“This is a small step forward in rebranding Hillsborough County as a more inclusive community by removing government-imposed discrimination from our policies,” Beckner said.

The ban, originally passed in 2005, was proposed by former Commissioner Ronda Storms and won with a vote of 5-1. For the repeal to be accepted, at least five of the seven commissioners on the board had to vote in favor of it.

Beckner said there is still a lot more work to do to ensure the county is a place where all community members can “work, be respected and play.”

“Hillsborough County had been labeled in 2005 — and actually beyond — as a less inclusive county,” Beckner said. “Certainly I had realized that was not reflective of our community, but it was reflective of the governing body on the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners. Unfortunately, it gave the entire community a bad name.”

Luke Blankenship, a sophomore majoring in advertising and president of USF’s PRIDE Alliance, said he is very happy about the progress that has been made in Hillsborough County, both in the repeal of the ban and the proclamation signed last Thursday by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, which recognizes LGBT Pride Month.

“Locally, it’s definitely a great step in the right direction,” Blankenship said. “I mean, considering the fact that a few years ago, the St. Pete mayor came out and said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with this.’ … And now the fact that the county that banned pride events is overturning it is definitely a step in the right direction for equality.”

Blankenship said students in the PRIDE Alliance have been posting to the organization’s Facebook page throughout the day about the repeal, and PRIDE has been following the county and city’s discussion of the ban on gay pride events. He said everyone in the organization is excited and happy for the steps being taken toward equality.

“It’s just a small step,” Blankenship said. “States legalizing gay marriage, this is another step in the right direction for Florida to eventually reach that point and have marriage quality and workplace equality. The officials are working towards that, and I’m glad they’ve been able to help us with this task.”

Eric Skains, executive director for St. Pete Pride, an LGBT rights organization, said he feels the announcement takes away from a proclamation signed by Buckhorn, but that he is happy for the repeal of the ban in Hillsborough County.

“There are a lot of ways in which these kinds of proclamations are good for the community at large,” Skains said. “We would hope that the proclamation could be more than what it is today, but we want people to understand what these proclamations mean — it’s the security and the safety that people feel they have when they go into a certain city or certain area, and this is a big step in that direction.”

Skains said an annual gay pride parade used to be held in Tampa, but it was moved to St. Petersburg after the ban was put in place. The economic impact of the parade on the St. Petersburg area has been great, and Skains said he is confident that the event will remain in the area though the ban has been repealed.

“Last year we built a really good relationship with the Visitors Bureau in St. Petersburg/Clearwater (area),” Skains said.

Skains said the city did an economic impact analysis of the parade last year, and found that approximately $10.7 million in revenue was generated on that day.

“Nearly half of that was out-of-state or out-of-town expenditures, where people are spending money when they don’t live here in St. Petersburg or Pinellas County,” Skains said. “It has a huge impact not only on the county, but on the city specifically. We are one of the largest economic generators for the city annually when it comes to events.”

Vanessa Forero, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, said she supports equal rights and doesn’t see a problem with people or the county showing their support.

“I have friends who are gay and they are afraid to be themselves,” Forero said. “There are people who are going to be against it and not want to see people waving rainbow colored flags and they are going to start fights. USF is really diverse, so I feel they are going to accept it and be supportive here.”

Dylan Kwaterski, a senior majoring in marine biology, said he thinks the Tampa area will be fine if the ban is repealed, and that people should have the right to pursue their own happiness.

“I believe in freedom of speech, and the pursuit of happiness allows people to do what they want,” Kwaterski said. “I would only have a problem if they force those beliefs.”

Beckner said as progress is made he hopes USF students know their diverse backgrounds are welcome in Hillsborough County.

“I hope the USF students have received a message today from this county commission,” Beckner said. “We do value diversity and all of our students — we welcome their many diverse backgrounds that they bring to our community, and we look forward to working in partnership with the students and to fostering leadership within the student body.”

— Additional reporting by Alex Rosenthal