Gay Hillsborough County Commissioner: ‘Still Much Work to be Done’

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Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, representing the countywide District 6 has been called a “hero” in his successful bid to repeal an ordinance in the county that prohibited county officials from recognizing gay pride celebrations.

His motion to repeal the eight-year-old ordinance resulted in hours of debate from the public and from the commissioners. Ultimately, the commissioners voted 7-0 June 5 to repeal the ordinance, that, thanks to former

Commissioner Ronda Storms, needed a supermajority to repeal.

A few days after the vote, Beckner spoke with Watermark about the commission meeting, his thoughts on the surprising unanimous vote and what’s next for the county with a less-than-stellar record of handling LGBT rights issues.

“What we saw with this vote was an important step in rebranding our community as one that is more diverse and accepting of LGBT people,” said Beckner. “I guess I thought in my heart that the vote would be unanimous. What surprised me was the level of conversation around amendments that would have muddied the waters and were clearly designed to help appease some of the other commissioners’ more conservative base.”

Beckner said he was also surprised when commissioners exaggerated facts to make a point.  He referenced the conversation about the library display that prompted the ordinance in the first place.  One commissioner tried to make the display sound like it contained adults-only material that many might find offensive.  The display, in fact, was a celebration of widely recognized and acclaimed literary authors who also happened to be gay.

The display was removed from the library by its board after some were uncomfortable with the topic.

“It is not the role of government to blatantly discriminate against any of its citizens,” said Beckner, who is gay. “In fact, our country’s founders intended a democracy based on all people having been created equally. The vote by my colleagues aligns Hillsborough County more closely with those guiding principles, and chips away at a perception that we are intolerant of diversity, especially pertaining to LGBT taxpayers.”

During the June 5 commission meeting, Beckner refused to allow the conversation to turn to definitions of what was obscene and he diffused proposed amendments which would have made the repeal one in name only.

Contrary to information circulated by supporters of the ordinance, Beckner’s initiative simply requested repeal of the policy; it did not request taxpayer funding for or county endorsement of future LGBT events. Beckner is hopeful those requests will eventually come from the community, but he cautions that every single request would be considered by the commission on an individual basis as it considers its annual budgeting.

Hillsborough is the fourth largest county in Florida, but lags behind a host of other municipalities and counties that have passed policies that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity expression, as well as others that provide domestic partner registries and health insurance benefits for unmarried partners. Despite obvious movement by leaders of both political parties toward embracing gay rights as fundamental issues of human rights, the Hillsborough County Commission has resisted change.

Beckner acknowledged the most recent victory, but tempered it.

“Those of us who support human rights without condition made progress that day, and for that we deserve to be proud,” he said. “We must also be mindful that there is still much work to be done.”

In May, all commissioners signed a proclamation proclaiming Memorial Day weekend GaYbor Days weekend, which recognizes the positive impact the GaYbor District Coalition has had on Ybor City.

Other issues that have brought headlines to Hillsborough include the failure of it creating a domestic partner registry and the faltering of its diversity council. Beckner said those are issues unrelated to the repeal of “Pride ban” ordinance, and must be taken on individually.

“My colleagues continue to evolve in their thinking when it comes to LGBT rights,” said Beckner.  “I have cause for hope, but there are no guarantees as we face each item as it comes up.”

One of the reasons Beckner ran for the commission was because of the ban and how it made him feel as a proud and openly gay man living in Hillsborough. He made it one of his missions to repeal the ban. He said he does feel vindicated and he hopes that others that might be considering a run for political office realize their dreams too.

“I believe that other than serving in the military, seeking to serve the public through political office is one of the most patriotic things you can do to show your love of your country,” said Beckner.

From our media partner Watermark

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