To fully understand where we are today in our fight for equality, it’s more important than ever to understand who paved the path for us. Robert Pope from GBY & Associates has done exactly that.
Pope is a native of Florida, a lawyer, and a long time LGBT advocate. He began his legal career in 1971, after graduating from Stetson College of Law and has continued to serve clients in the Tampa Bay area for over 45 years. He is also one of the founders of Metro Wellness Center.
OUTCOAST had the chance to sit down with Pope to learn about his legal career, his advocacy for AIDS patients, and why he never plans to retire.
Which name do you prefer I use?
When I was growing up in high school, everyone called me Robert. In Tallahassee, everyone called me Bobby. When I left, people started calling me Bob. So, I’ll answer to any and all of the above. Just don’t call me ‘late for dinner’.
Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you wind up in St. Pete?
My grandmother moved from San Diego to St. Petersburg in 1912. My mother was raised in St. Pete and my parents met in Tallahassee. In fact, my mother went to Florida State College for Women, which is now FSU.
What was it like to grow up gay in the 50’s?
People ask me how things were growing up gay. Honestly, we didn’t have issues when we were growing up gay because we didn’t tell anyone.
How did you wind up in law school?
Like my mother, I graduated from FSU in 1957. One of my dear friends was a boy from Norway. That summer we went up to New York and worked our way across the Atlantic on a freighter to Norway.
During my trip, I wrote my father about getting into law school through his friend, Judge Harold Leon Sebring (AKA Judge Tom Sebring). Judge Sebring was an American judge at one of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals after World War II. He was also a former Florida Supreme Court justice and Dean of Stetson University College of Law, which had recently moved to Gulfport, Florida.
My father called the judge and I was enrolled at Stetson Law School in 1957. I hadn’t even taken the LSAT! Needless to say, I wasn’t ready for law school and only stayed a year.
Instead, I joined the Army as a Special Agent with the Counter-Intelligence Corp. I was trained in Baltimore at Fort Holabird, which I like to call “the pit of the world.” I also volunteered for Korea to get away, and ironically was sent back to Holabird.
After the Army, eleven years following my first attempt at law school, I reapplied to Stetson after taking the LSAT. I had been living in Daytona at the time, but returned to Florida in 1968 for law school.
What type of law did/do you practice?
I had my own firm for years and was doing criminal law (defense), which is very stressful. It was hard at the end of the day to think, “I go home and they might go to jail or home.”
But I was good at what I did. I once tried three jury trials in one day. One might say I was crazy, but I won them all.
Now, I’m an injury attorney.
You were very involved with the LGBT community, too. Tell me about the gay bars you owned.
My husband, Lawrence and I owned a gay bar called The Wedgewood Inn on 4th Street in St Pete. It had forty motel rooms, a restaurant, and a disco bar. We also owned the Engine room, which was originally a western bar, but later became another gay disco bar.
I technically went into competition with myself!
I eventually closed the Wedgewood, because I was losing lots of money every month, every week, every day. And we kept the Engine Room.
How was the St. Pete area in the 1970’s? Was it safe for LGBT people?
We were much more closeted back then. We had our area, but it wasn’t the same. The Wedgewood was raided three times, although annoyingly it always happened after I had left for the evening. I would get calls in the middle of the night and have to come back to the bar.
Why did they raid you? Just because you were a gay establishment?
Essentially. We were a restaurant and were required to have 200 seats operating. We also couldn’t serve liquor after 2:00 AM, which we did. Instead, we served breakfast at this hour. The police raided us, saying that we were operating a cabaret without a license.
How long have you and Lawrence been together?
We have been together 54 years. We were legally married in Canada in 2004 at a Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto, CA.
Congratulations! That’s impressive. How did you and Lawrence meet?
I was on special assignment with the Red Cross with the United Front of Daytona Beach. I was sitting at the Hollywood Bar. Lawrence was sitting across the bar from me and had the cutest smile you ever wanted. I kept saying how cute he was to the people around me. So a nurse friend of mine went over and grabbed him to bring to me. We’ve been together ever since.
What a nice friend! How did you feel when gay marriage was legalized nationwide?
It was exciting to have the court affirm our relationship, but we had been together for many years by then and had been through so much together.
Also, it was not an easy time growing up. We grew up in a time when people were putting our names, addresses, and phone numbers in public papers.
I remember this one time we had planned to go to a bar called The Gate in Madeira Beach, but decide not to go. Later, we found out that people were arrested and their names were publicized in the St. Pete Times the next day.
We also frequented another bar where we had to keep our hands on the bar, or the police would arrest you when they came in. We were always on guard.
By the time gay marriage was legalized, we had already been through so much.
Tell me about the founding of Metro Community Center.
I was working as an attorney with the King of Peace MCC church at the time. They had 16 members. The church hosted weekly Thursday night dinners, which gathered about 70 LGBT people, mostly gay men.
I was invited to speak at one of the dinners. I gave legal advice on how to “stay out of the bushes” and what to say if and when they got in trouble with the police. Lawrence and I enjoyed the evening so much and the reception was so nice that we started to go to Sunday services. I eventually joined the board.
Our church moved to their 9th Ave North location and kept growing. We had nearly 300-400 members. At 9th Ave, we started noticing several people who appeared thin and sick looking. This was our first experience with the AIDS crisis.
Later we moved to our current 5th Ave location to support our growing membership and to provide better support to our community.
We founded the first AIDS support group in Pinellas County, called SDIA. We were a big part of supporting the AIDS crisis. We knew we couldn’t support our community on donations alone and knew we needed to access government funding. So, we formed a 501(c)3 called METRO Charities.
The first board of METRO was made up of our Church board members, so I was on the board.
In order to become a 501(c)3, you had to have an audit. We had a CPA on our MCC board, but he couldn’t do the audit due to conflict of interest. Instead, I had a friend from Tallahassee (Johnny Williams) do the audit in exchange for helping him with legal support in Colorado. I’m known as the founder of METRO, but there were a lot of other people involved.
I was asked to be President years after I founded METRO. The current president is Kathleen Farrell, who was also on the original board, I believe.
What do you like about working for GBY & Associates?
What I like about Ian’s office is that he establishes good relationships with his clients. It’s somewhat of a boutique firm. Everyone is approachable and always willing to help.
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
I tried to once. I think I’m still waiting for that big case out of the sky! My father lived to be 98 and my mom at 85. I’ve got plenty of years ahead of me.
I notice that you have a yellow string tied around your neck. Do you ever take that off?
The yellow string has been on my neck since February of last year. Lawrence and I were in India and spent a week in Nepal after the earthquake. We visited a holy temple. The head of the temple gave us the string. I figured, “he’s holy, so what have I to lose!” I’ve kept it on ever since.
There have been several articles written about Bob Pope and his partner, Lawrence Conrad, throughout the years. In 2013, Watermark wrote an article about their golden anniversary. Click here to read the article.
To learn more about GBY & Associates, click here.
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