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.