Righting rights: The fight for equal protection in Florida has been a long one

It took several days for Governor Rick Scott to acknowledge that the gunman who killed 49 in Orlando earlier this month was indeed targeting the LGBT community. Attorney General Pam Bondi, meanwhile, acknowledged it right away, but was called out by CNN host Anderson Cooper for past treatment of Florida’s gay and lesbian populations — spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars battling marriage equality in the courts and all.

Their attitudes following the event can serve as a metaphor for the lack of leadership in Republican-dominated politics in a diverse state that could benefit economically from friendlier policies toward LGBT residents and visitors.

The horrific events that unfolded at Pulse nightclub that Sunday morning fueled heated debates on a range of topics — guns, religion, equality — but LGBT activists hope that out of the tragedy a renewed inspiration will come to develop greater protections.

LGBT equality advocates say while there have been notable nationwide victories in recent years — marriage equality, for one — lawmakers in Tallahassee lack the will to pass an anti-discrimination measure that protects all Floridians and visitors regardless of whether or not they conform to traditional gender norms.

“It’s definitely been a lot of two steps forward, one step back as far as legislative agendas go,” said Grant Drain, a spokesman for the Florida Transgender Alliance and advisory board member for Transaction Florida. “We’ve had success. Obviously marriage equality was won last year. We’ve had some movement on a piece of legislation that allows same-sex parents to have both names on a birth certificate. A lot of good things are happening in the legislative arena, but the Florida Competitive Workforce Act is kind of a crown jewel that we’ve been chasing for a while.”

The Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which has been introduced three times in the State House and Senate, would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — discrimination that is still legal in some parts of the state. The law would apply to housing, employment and accommodations.

“So that way you don’t get married to your same-sex partner on Saturday, put a photo on your desk on Monday and get fired for it, which is still legal in Florida,” he said.

According to the group Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce, 22 states already have such policies on their books. Many cities and counties in the state, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Tampa and St. Petersburg, have adopted such protections locally, meaning about 56 percent of the population is protected (though if one lives in Pinellas and works in Pasco or vice versa, things may get confusing).

A poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute shows 70 percent of Florida voters in support of such a measure. Yet this past session, after the legislation was introduced for a tenth time, the bill died in a Senate committee despite bipartisan support. Its sponsor, Wellington Democrat Joseph Abruzzo, hopes to introduce the bill yet again ahead of the 2017 legislative session.

Due to redistricting, he said, he is running for State House, and if elected he’ll introduce it in that chamber.

“It is my absolute intent to continue this effort,” said Abruzzo, who sponsored the bill’s Senate version for the third time in 2016. “It is my top priority, and we will be working very hard to get it up in the Florida Senate and the Florida House.”

Yet even as most of Florida evolves on LGBT equality, some lawmakers have pushed legislation that encourages discrimination. In the 2015 legislative session, State Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, introduced a bill requiring transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their sex at birth, citing fears over public safety, fears that are unfounded.

“It’s based on absolutely no facts,” Drain said. “There are so many cities and counties, over 250 cities and counties have passed human rights ordinances with no increase in public safety incidents. There are mountains of data that show this is not something to actually fear. There are already laws on the books saying that if you misbehave in a public bathroom you will go to jail. There are already laws on the books protecting us from the narrative they’re trying to spin.”

The possible passage of such a law, or the “pastor protection” law that was passed this past session, or the lack of will to extend civil rights protections to the LGBT, worries much of the business community. Supporters of discrimination protections in Florida include Marriott, Walt Disney World, AT&T, Darden Restaurants, Tech Data and others. A concern is that a discriminatory climate could deter potential employees, who might be concerned about themselves or a loved one being discriminated against, or who might avoid the state out of protest.

The passage of a transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina had profound repercussions courtesy of companies like PayPal, which changed its plans to locate a facility in the state after that law passed. It Governor Scott wants Floridians to think of him as a jobs governor, signing a bill like Artiles’s might not be the best move.

But advocates say the Florida Competitive Workforce Act may have a better chance at passing this year than ever before. In the wake of this month’s horror, Drain said, the spotlight on the LGBT community may help humanize a long-stigmatized group, enough so that even longtime holdouts may be changing their attitudes. Sen. Abruzzo agrees.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if you propose this exact bill to the full Florida House or the full Florida Senate, even in its current makeup today, that the majority would overwhelmingly vote for this bill and send it into law. No doubt in my mind,” he said. “It is the will of the leadership in both chambers to put it on the floor and allowing the full Senate and House to have their say. 

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