Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Tampa Storms over Gay Rights

Bigotry is still alive and passing legislation in Tampa.

It was never the mild-mannered librarian’s intention to spark such an almighty fuss.

Meagan Albright, 24, a graduate student in library sciences at the University of South Florida, says she simply wanted to bring her class project to the West Gate Regional Library, where she works part-time. Her boss liked the idea. Thus were the seeds of a tempest sown.

Albright, who is straight, had made a display for Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, celebrated in June. She fashioned a brightly colored poster depicting famous lesbians and gays, like Ellen DeGeneres, Truman Capote and Elton John, and included outreach pamphlets and books from the shelves of West Gate, near downtown Tampa.

The display went up across from West Gate’s orange Formica circulation desk, and its life span was seven days. Three patrons complained, prompting supervisors to remove it on June 7.

But while the display is history — Albright tossed the poster into her car trunk and the books went back on the shelves — the fact that it ever existed incensed one Hillsborough county commissioner, Ronda Storms. She took umbrage at Albright’s pamphlets, saying she never wanted to have to explain to her young daughter what “questioning one’s sexuality” meant.

On June 15, Storms proposed that the county not acknowledge, support or participate in gay pride events. All but one commissioner backed Storms, then voted that only a super majority of five of the seven commissioners could render the policy obsolete.

In the days since, furor over Hillsborough’s new policy has swiftly gained momentum and sweep, spiraling out from the newly invigorated local gay community to include state and national agencies like Equality Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

Gay pride, which had recently languished in Tampa, was suddenly, wildly, in bloom. More than 500 protesters, angry and indignant, filled a municipal church last week. On Sunday, 2,000 marched against the county policy, holding pictures of Storms aloft.

According to Brian Winfield of Equality Florida, the policy is unique to Hillsborough County and, as far as he knows, is unmatched elsewhere in the state.

“What they said was we don’t want your kind here,” said Karen Doering, regional counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “But what they have done with this resolution is awaken a sleeping giant.”

Supporters of the policy agreed with Storms’ assertion that gay-themed displays promote a partisan agenda and have no place in public libraries. Storms, who represents the suburban enclave of Brandon, has a history of battling prurience, and previously tried to shut down a public access television show she felt was obscene.

“While our libraries regularly celebrate people and culture, the idea that our libraries should be used as a bully pulpit to promote a politicized sexual agenda is offensive to me,” said Brian Blair, a commissioner who backed Storms, in a statement.

Storms also contested assertions that gays ought to be considered an oppressed minority like women or African Americans, saying gays were never denied access to education or enslaved. “To say otherwise is offensive to some in the civil rights movement,” she said.

The only people who have politicized gay rights have been the bigots and homophobes of the Religious Reich, aided and abetted by the Republican Party who have never turned down a chance to cater to fearmongering for their own advancement and fatten up their direct-mail databases. For Ms. Storms to assert that gays have never been oppressed is contradicted not only by history — perhaps she’s forgetting or never knew about the pink triangles that were all the rage in Germany back in the 1940’s — not to mention the vast repetoire of laws on the books in Florida and across the country that deny basic rights to gay and lesbian Americans, including the right to get married or adopt children.

I can have a calm and civil discussion with my Republican friends over things like Social Security or education reform, and I can respect their views and their apparent logic for wanting smaller government and more freedom from regulation. What I cannot understand and what has never been explained to me by anyone is how these people — these friends of mine, some of whom I’ve known for decades — can support or even tolerate the tone of outright bigotry that comes from gay-bashers like Ronda Storms and how they can, with a straight face (pun intended), say that it is an American value to demonize an entire class of people. I just don’t get it.