A decade ago, Largo City Commissioner Michael Smith was afraid to tell his friends and family he was gay.
On Saturday, he'll be leading the St. Pete Pride parade as one of four grand marshals, front and center of the largest Pride celebration in the state.
The road to coming out was wrought with anxiety, Smith said, but he's never looked back. He was elected to the commission in 2011, defeating Mary Gray Black, a longtime commissioner who had a hand in ousting a transgender city manager.
Smith, 36, is a Largo native who attended Osceola High School and St. Petersburg College. He works as a library assistant for the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library in Pinellas Park and has been with his partner, Eric Hutton, since 2011.
Smith talked to the Tampa Bay Times about his experience in politics, Largo's past and how the city has progressed.
You came out to friends and family in 2008. What was that experience like?
At first fear. Fear that my family would not accept me, as many LGBTQ people have experienced, or that they would think they did something wrong in how they raised me. Fear that I would lose the friends I had made or that someone could attack or harm me because they didn't approve. After much research on coming out, self-reflection that hiding who I am would continue causing me more self-negativity, and having the acceptance of the first two people I came out to (my sister and a co-worker), I knew the time was right.
The love and support I experienced that day in 2008, I wish all LGBTQ individuals could have with their families. My parents and I cried, myself more so, because that fear of possibly not being accepted by them was finally gone, and I knew my life would be completely different moving forward. Today, I could not be a happier person.
A few years before you were elected to the City Commission, Largo was known to many as a city hostile toward the gay community. Commissioners fired former city manager Susan Stanton in 2007 after she came out as a transgender woman. Largo police also arrested Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith during one of the hearings before firing Stanton. What role did that play in your decision to run for the commission?
I had been interested in public office and helping make a difference in public policy from a young age. I had run for office twice before — once for school board and once for state house — but at the time I was too young to fully understand what it took to run for office (not to mention my inability to be true to myself out of fear of being "outed"). When I decided to run again for public office in 2011, I did so not to be "the gay commissioner," but rather I wanted to be a Largo City Commissioner who happens to be gay. Now, when it came to choosing which opponent I would run against, these past anti-LGBTQ decisions and other issues did play a role.
How has Largo changed since then, if at all, in its relationship with the LGBTQ community?
I know Largo has changed for the positive and will continue moving in the right direction with the leadership we have on our City Commission as well as our amazing, supportive staff. Just look at our new branding: Largo is working to be "the Community of Choice in Tampa Bay," and I see this coming to fruition on a daily basis. As commissioners we know how diverse Largo is, and with our talented staff have become more engaged in fostering a unique and friendly location that's welcoming for all.
I also believe my election (and subsequent reelection) has fostered a more progressive view of Largo among the LGBTQ community, many of whom might otherwise have continued to associate us with the stigma of our past. Finally, many of the current Largo Commissioners have attended previous St. Pete Pride parades as representatives of Largo, and many will be attending this year in support of my selection as one of the Pride Grand Marshals.
What does it mean to you to be selected as a St. Pete Pride grand marshal?
With over 200,000 LGBTQ (plus) and Allies turning out to the largest Pride celebration in Florida, and the overwhelming support I've felt across a wide spectrum of individuals — from friends, acquaintances, constituents, and strangers — being selected as a Grand Marshal of St. Pete Pride means a great deal to me, not only for myself but for the city of Largo and our community as a whole.
Editor's note: These responses have been edited for length and clarity. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kathrynvarn.