TARPON SPRINGS — During the June 11 City Commission meeting, Mayor Chris Alahouzos read a proclamation declaring June 2019 as LGBT Pride Month in the city.
Alahouzos presented the certificate to Jack Spirk, an openly gay Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce employee and outspoken champion of many community causes.
After accepting the proclamation Spirk thanked city commissioners, noting, “June has been a big month for LGBT people,” due to historic events like the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which started the LGBT rights movement. “In 2015, the Supreme Court gave us the right to marry,” he said.
Spirk related how he was 19 years old when Stonewall took place in Greenwich Village and he doesn’t remember much about it, “Other than that I was a scared, 19-year-old, fully closeted person. Flash forward to today, when I’m honored to be able to receive this proclamation.”
Spirk finished by stating “I realize that we have a long way to go. We have a long way to go in the state. We have a long way to go in the federal level. But we are moving forward and it’s a positive thing that we have overwhelming support from the community.”
The city’s recognition of the LGBT community served as a counterweight to the roller coaster ride Spirk and his longtime partner, Richard Hughes, had been on for the past 16 months, including court filings, legal fees and unpleasant dealings with condo association board members and fellow residents stemming from a rainbow flag hanging from an exterior column of the couple’s condo.
The dispute began in March 2018, when he wrote a letter to the condo association president about neighbors encroaching on private ground, Hughes said. “Because I spoke out, they said our flag is attached to the column that belongs to the association, so we can’t hang the flag anymore.”
Rather than back down, Hughes and Spirk, native Pennsylvanians who moved to Tarpon Springs after living in Miami, where they fought for equality throughout the 1980s and 90s, decided to do what they do best: fight back.
They learned that a new amendment to the condo association rules prohibited flying any flags outside the units with the exception of the American flag, which Spirk characterized as an attempt to use an archaic standard against LGBT people.
That amendment, Hughes said, “solidified that we could never fly our flag because it’s part of the rules.”
The couple then decided to look into filing a civil rights lawsuit in Pinellas County. After a mediator recommended the case go to court, however, Hughes and Spirk elected to take a different approach.
“We didn’t want to sue. We wanted a wrong corrected,” Hughes said. “We could’ve said let’s go to court, but all we wanted to do was solve it. So we agreed to a compromise.”
The compromise consisted of the condo board giving Spirk and Hughes 90 days to get two-thirds, or 22, of the 32 unit owners to approve the flag. With only 12 votes in hand at the deadline, they had to accept defeat. On May 20, 16 months after Hughes sent the initial letter, they took the flag down.
“We celebrated,” Spirk said, noting they refused to let the loss defeat them.
Throughout their ordeal, Spirk and Hughes heard comments from friends and neighbors, many negative, some positive.
Spirk, who served in the United States Air Force, said he once replied to one of the comments by saying “I am a veteran and that flag represents freedom as much as the American flag does.”
After removing the colorful Pride flag, which used to catch the setting sun when it flapped in the wind, Spirk and Hughes replaced it with a stained-glass replica, donated by neighbor Marilyn Strandell.
The flag flap caused Hughes to sour on the place he’s called home for the past 10 years.
“I hate it here,” he said. “I hate the fact that someone can have control of my life because of who I chose to love.”
Spirk, a perpetual optimist, chooses to remain positive amid all the negativity.
“I love it here,” he said. “I don’t focus on the small group of people who did it. I focus on those who supported us.”
Regarding the city’s decision to recognize and promote LGBT awareness, the pair, who aren’t married but have been together for 37 years, agree it is a step in the right direction.
“Chris Alahouzos is a very progressive person, and we thank him for recognizing us,” Hughes said.
When reached for comment about the proclamation, Alahouzos said “we must make sure everyone is treated equally and fairly regardless of what they believe. Even though there’s been a lot of progress, people still feel discrimination in some places, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen in Tar-pon Springs. We want to make sure everyone has equal rights.”
Spirk said, “ever since I started working for the chamber, I wanted to promote LGBT tourism,” noting he was vice-president of the first gay business guild on South Beach, which eventually became the Miami-Dade Gay Chamber of Commerce. “Gay business was nice then, but now it’s a huge business. So I hope we can use this to promote LGBTQ tourism and get more LGBTQ people to move here. That’s basically the goal.”
When he was asked how it felt to accept the proclamation following the flag saga, Spirk said he was honored and elated. “Oh my god, what a perfect end to the story,” he said.
“I believe we raised awareness,” Spirk added. “We may have lost the battle, but we’re winning the war.”