Public Parks – is everybody welcome?

Whew!  For those of us who believe strongly in equality and inclusion, this has certainly been a whirlwind couple of weeks!  First, the Vice President and the Secretary of Education both affirmed their belief in the legality of same sex marriages on May 6. Then, North Carolinians voted to prohibit those marriages (again—going for the suspenders-and-belt approach) on May 8.

At a breakfast meeting I had the day of the North Carolina vote with TWIS Founder Matt Orr, he wisely wrote to all his Facebook friends that voting on civil rights opens a Pandora’s box. Indeed, I believe that civil rights are inherent in our living Constitution. Moreover, I think a vote on whether you believe that another person should have the right to marry, aside from being an injustice, is downright judgey.  It reminds me a bit of Mrs. Kravitz, the nosy neighbor on the great 1960s sitcom Bewitched, who was always suspicious of what was going on in the Stephens household.  She became an iconic figure for her unremitting attempts to meddle in other people’s business.

By May 9 there was some very good news. Amid much speculation, President Obama finally declared that he completed his evolution on the subject, and was firmly in favor of same sex marriage. Because I teach Constitutional Law, as did President Obama, I always found it difficult to see how we could both be reading the same documents and case law and not come to the same conclusion. Prohibitions on same-sex marriage ought to be deemed unconstitutional, just as miscegenation laws (forbidding marriage between different races) were in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

Fresh on the heels of the President’s big announcement, which was widely declared a triumph for the GLBT community, Sarasota held one of the largest, if not the largest, Harvey Milk Festival in the country on the weekend of May 10-12 in Five Points Park—the middle of downtown Sarasota.  You will recall (if not, see the video below) that just late last May, the Sarasota City Commission voted to remove the park benches from Five Points Park  as a response to neighbors who believe that the benches were serving as a way-station for the homeless. The benches have never been replaced.

My family attended the Harvey Milk Festival because we love live music and we support the cause. Over 4,500 people attended this event, and we had a ball—especially our 16-month-old daughter, Daphne, who danced all night (until her bedtime, that is) as band after band took the stage. She even tried hula hooping with the Urban Spiral Dancers. We wanted to go for sushi at Tsunami and listen to the music from across the street, but she refused to be strapped into her high chair and made a mad (accompanied) dash back to dance with the bands.Then boom!  Three days later, I learned that a movement might be afoot afoot to ban all public performances in Five Points Park. When you consider that the mission of Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, was to promote tolerance and inclusion, this public hearing demonstrates just how much we need to remember Milk’s message. How ironic that two days after the anniversary of Milk’s birth, the City Commission will debate whether or not to permit a festival in his honor.

If we want to maintain our standing as the #1 Small Arts City and to live in a community known for tolerance and equality, we must put a stop to this potential ban on public performances in Five Points Park. I moved here from Manhattan because I was so impressed by the wealth of arts offerings and creative people living and working here. But circumstances like this one make living in Sarasota difficult for young people. It’s beginning to feel like the town in Footloose where dancing was illegal. As much as I loved that movie (the original; I couldn’t even bear to watch the remake), it always seemed so unrealistic to me. Not anymore!

For those who plan to attend Thursday’s meeting, I suggest that we each consider our statements carefully and coordinate efforts to ensure we make the best case for utilizing parks for public performances. If you can’t attend, be sure to sign the petition. And remember the words of Harvey Milk: “Hope will never be silent.”

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