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St. Petersburg Veterans Day celebration honors former USF dean, LGBTQ activist

Margie Manning

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Jim Nixon, LGBTQ liaison in the office of the mayor, spoke at the St. Petersburg Veterans Day celebration.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman sharply criticized policies that kept gay, lesbian and transgender persons from serving openly in the U.S. military during the city’s Veterans Day celebration.

Kriseman and Jim Nixon, LGTBQ liaison to the mayor’s office and a former service member who was discharged for being gay, said policies such as “don’t ask, don’t tell” — repealed in 2011 — should never have existed and should never return.

Nixon, along with the late Dr. Harold William “Bill” Heller, former dean and CEO of University of South Florida St. Petersburg, were honored during the Wednesday morning ceremony. The celebration — the 7th annual such event for the city — was rescheduled after Tropical Storm Eta forced a postponement on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

“Today of course is not Veterans Day and with this pandemic this event doesn’t quite look like past years, but there’s really never a bad time to honor our veterans,” Kriseman said.

Heller, who died in September, put USF St. Petersburg on the map, Kriseman said. During his 10 years as dean, he transformed the university from a small commuter school serving only upperclassmen and graduate students to the place it is today with more than 4,000 students. He later served as dean of the College of Education at USFSP and director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership Studies.

Heller also served in the Florida House of Representatives and was a noted philanthropist, but a leading source of pride was his military service as an Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, Kriseman said.

“The Korean War was ending but Bill was just getting started, not just accumulating 38 jumps, but always the educator, helping enlisted service members learn to read and write,” Kriseman said.

Sue Beal, sister-in-law to the late Bill Heller, accepted an award from Mayor Rick Kriseman on behalf of the Heller family.

Nixon, who has been an outspoken proponent for the LGBTQ community throughout the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, spoke about the discrimination he experienced in the military. When he joined the U.S. Navy in 1984 he thought he could keep his sexual orientation hidden, but he was outed after 11 months of service and involuntarily discharged. He was among the 114,000 service members who were discharged for being gay, lesbian or transgender between World War II and 2011.

“Generations of Americans, many of them LGBTQ, have shed blood around the world in defense of our freedoms and to protect our vital interests. But instead of honoring them, our current administration reversed the Obama-Biden administration’s efforts to allow transgender personnel the right to serve and protect our nation. Elections have consequences. President-elect Biden has committed that his administration will ensure our American heroes know that he has their back and honors their sacrifice always, no matter who you are or who you love. President-elect Biden has directed the Department of Defense to allow transgender service members to serve openly, receive medical treatment and be free from discrimination,” Nixon said.

Efforts need to be ongoing, Kriseman said.

“We just had an important election in this country and not too long ago a Supreme Court appointment. Both occasions should serve as a reminder that the rights afforded to us are precious rights, they are fragile and we must never stop doing the necessary work to secure them,” he said.

St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Ed Montanari, a retired veteran, spoke about a military friend, Col. Art Hoffson.

 

Also speaking was Gina Maniaci, director of the St. Petersburg Vet Center, which provides readjustment counseling for combat veterans and veterans who experienced sexual trauma.

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