Official Bigotry

In Florida, both anti-gay political rhetoric and hate crimes are on the rise

Andrew Stelzer

Marchers show solidarity at the Hillsborough Gay Pride in Exile celebration in Key West.

When Paul Day returned home to see die fag” spray-paint­ed on the steps of his smol­der­ing mobile home, he was fright­ened, but not shocked. Day and his boyfriend had been harassed before, and their home­town of Lake­land in Florida’s Polk Coun­ty also boasts the First Bap­tist Church at the Mall, whose head pas­tor is spear­head­ing the dri­ve for a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to ban same-sex mar­riage – despite the fact that it’s already ille­gal in the state. 

Bri­an Win­field, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of Equal­i­ty Flori­da, says he’s brac­ing for more events like the arson attack. He says that it stands to rea­son that if the anti-gay forces choose to make their home in Lake­land, it reflects a com­mu­ni­ty where peo­ple feel com­fort­able with their big­otry, so much so that they are will­ing to act it out in vio­lent ways.”

Vocal oppo­si­tion to gays has also become main­stream in neigh­bor­ing Hills­bor­ough Coun­ty, where Tam­pa is locat­ed. Its GLBT com­mu­ni­ty received a wake-up call in June, when Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er Rhon­da Storms raised objec­tions to a shelf of books fea­tured in her local library in hon­or of gay pride month. Storms claims she spoke for her rur­al and sub­ur­ban con­stituents when she pro­posed that the coun­ty ban acknowl­edg­ing, pro­mot­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing” in gay pride events. 

I do not want to have to explain to my [6‑year-old] daugh­ter what it means to be ques­tion­ing one’s sex­u­al­i­ty … or what a trans­gen­der per­son is, or what a bisex­u­al is or what a gay or les­bian is,” said Storms. She added that the library shouldn’t be used as bul­ly pul­pit to intro­duce those con­cepts to a child out­side of their par­ents’ purview.” Only one coun­ty com­mis­sion­er vot­ed against the ban, which result­ed in the removal of the shelf of books, as well as a larg­er dis­play in the cen­tral library. 

Patrick Jones, co-founder of Equal­i­ty Polk Coun­ty, was frus­trat­ed that it took the local media four days to even report the arson. He says the gay pride ban had put the com­mu­ni­ty on notice, and the fire­bomb­ing reaf­firmed their fears. It makes you won­der what lev­el it’s going to be stepped up to in this area,” Jones said.

It’s not just a mes­sage to these two indi­vid­u­als,” says Win­field of the arson attack, but to any gay or les­bian cit­i­zen of Lake­land, or of Flori­da for that mat­ter, that you’re not want­ed, that if we know that you’re gay, and you’re out of the clos­et, your life is at risk.”

The most recent hate crimes report from the state attor­ney gen­er­al found that in the last four years on record (2000 – 03), Flori­da law enforce­ment agen­cies report­ed 194 hate crimes moti­vat­ed by sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion – more than the com­bined total for the first eight years of hate crimes report­ing. In 2003, the 55 hate crimes against gays com­prised 20 per­cent of Florida’s total, the high­est per­cent­age ever.

Win­field is call­ing on those in pow­er to stop preach­ing hatred. We need to begin a process by which our polit­i­cal and reli­gious lead­ers step away from using this anti-gay rhetoric that’s become so pop­u­lar in order to build one’s base,” he says, because his­to­ry shows that when such rhetoric increas­es, so do hate crimes against gay people.”

In response to the gay pride ban, more than 2,000 peo­ple marched through down­town Tam­pa. Some long-time res­i­dents are con­sid­er­ing mov­ing out of the state. Some out-of-town­ers are writ­ing let­ters to the edi­tor, vow­ing not to trav­el to the area on vaca­tion. But with con­ser­vatism grow­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar in Flori­da, a polit­i­cal back­lash against homo­pho­bic pol­i­cy­mak­ers doesn’t appear likely.

Instead, eco­nom­ics may be the tol­er­ant community’s best tool. The co-own­er of a Mis­sis­sip­pi-based mini-stor­age busi­ness has tak­en Tam­pa off his list of poten­tial con­ven­tion sites; activists are hop­ing a boy­cott by oth­er con­tro­ver­sy-shy con­fer­ences and con­ven­tions may get the gay pride ban over­turned. There are also plans to ask the Nation­al Foot­ball League to pull the 2009 Super­bowl out of Tam­pa. NFL com­mis­sion­er Paul Tagli­abue has a gay son and is an active mem­ber of Par­ents, Friends, and Fam­i­ly of Les­bians and Gays (PFLAG). Gay rights sup­port­ers point to the exam­ple of a Cobb Coun­ty, Ga., res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the gay lifestyle” as incom­pat­i­ble with the community’s stan­dards, which result­ed in a detour of the Olympics around the coun­ty in 1996

But the deci­sion by the Olympic com­mit­tee to snub Cobb Coun­ty didn’t come until the lead-up to the games, three years after the anti-gay pol­i­cy was insti­tut­ed. For South­west Flori­da res­i­dents who are now look­ing over their shoul­ders, four years is a long time to wait.

Andrew Stelz­er, a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Oak­land, Calif., is a pro­duc­er at Mak­ing Con­tact,” a week­ly pub­lic affairs radio pro­gram. His reports have appeared on The World,” Free Speech Radio News” and Lati­no USA,” among oth­ers. Stelz­er has been a con­trib­u­tor to In These Times since 2005, and can be con­tact­ed at www​.andrew​stelz​er​.com.
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