LGBTQ Equality: Nothing More, Nothing Less
Written By: Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida
If you’ve never travelled to Tallahassee to lobby for LGBTQ equality, this is the year to show up and call on leaders to include our community as equals in the state’s civil rights statute.
Lobby Days are March 11-12 and with new leadership in the state Capitol and bipartisan momentum on our side, your voice can make a difference at a time when we are on the brink of a breakthrough.
Florida has come a long way since Equality Florida’s founding more than 20 years ago. We are the nation’s third most populous state and today nearly 60% of Floridians are covered by local nondiscrimination protections that include sexual orientation and gender identity.
One thing we’ve learned from working to pass nondiscrimination ordinances all across the state, in progressive and conservative areas alike, is this: At the moment we are closing in on victory, we will be offered less than full equality. In that moment, if we start bargaining away our civil rights, we lose the moral high ground and we abandon critical protections that will take more than a decade to come back to secure.
Sometimes the bargain proposed is the introduction of unreasonable exemptions. Often it is a move to jettison protections for the most vulnerable in our community. But it always arrives with a lecture on incrementalism and what is realistic and pragmatic. Our refusal to settle for less than full equality under the law in these moments has been the key to securing full protections that leave no part of our community behind in city after city and county after county.
We Are at a Tipping Point for LGBTQ Protections Statewide
The Florida Competitive Workforce Act (FCWA) has been reintroduced with the direct and simple goal of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing categories in Florida Civil Rights law. Last year FCWA was the third most co-sponsored bill last year and has earned broad, bipartisan support. It is a priority for business leaders across the state who have formed Florida Competes to push for passage.
All of the bipartisan support in Tallahassee, the pressure from grassroots voices, along with business, faith, and community leaders, have made failing to pass comprehensive protections increasingly a political liability for legislative leaders. And now with the end zone visible, we have to resist the pressure to sell our community short.
This year a competing, employment-only bill has been introduced that would fence us out of full inclusion in our state’s civil rights statue by addressing only employment. Under this bill, our community would be specifically carved out of housing and public accommodation protections that apply to all other groups protected under Florida’s Civil Rights Act. This is clearly not acceptable. The standard we have held and that we deserve is to be treated as equals under the law, not ⅓ Floridians in a separate and unequal category.
The Strategic Perils
We cannot ignore the negative political and legal implications of this “settle for less” strategy. Some will say it a necessary sacrifice for a significant gain. But a clear-eyed legal analysis reveals that is not so.
First, securing employment-only protections could actively harm LGBTQ people in the other contexts of housing and public accommodations. For example, certain federal agencies and courts have interpreted prohibitions on sex discrimination to protect LGBTQ people, but making those arguments becomes much harder if we pass an employment-only bill that specifically carves us out of housing and public accommodations. No other state with a comprehensive civil rights law has ever attempted such a risky scheme and for good reason.
A judge could cite the existence of explicit employment protections as evidence that the Florida Legislature knew how to establish LGBTQ protections when it intended to and, therefore, must have intended to exclude protections for LGBTQ people in housing and public accommodations. In other words, our legal advocates are in a position now to argue based on case law that LGBTQ people are protected in all areas under current sex-discrimination laws, and the passage of an employment-only bill could effectively take those arguments away. We have come too far to risk undermining our progress in this way.
Second, backers of this employment-only bill claim it will draw support from legislators who are uncomfortable or even hostile to providing transgender Floridians access to public accommodations, specifically bathrooms. We cannot capitulate to those lies as the far right targets transgender students to deny them access to public accommodations and supports policies barring transgender service members from the military. The only way through the lies is to confront them, not acquiesce or avoid them.
Third, a strategy focused only on employment ignores the coordinated malice of anti-LGBTQ crusaders who are spending incredible resources to go to court to be able to tell LGBTQ customers, “We don’t serve your kind” in public accommodations. And, research on elder issues in Florida shows a staggering 45% of same-sex couples experienced discrimination while seeking senior housing. An employment-only strategy trades away progress we’ve made toward vital housing and public accommodation protections for our most vulnerable.
Fourth, a misstep by Florida in this crucial moment will reverberate nationally. Under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership, passing comprehensive LGBTQ protections through the Equality Act is a priority for the U.S. House of Representatives. There could not be a worse time to accept abandoning full equality.
A Familiar Moment of Tension
When we stand together for full civil rights, for our whole community, we show that basic protections for our community are non-negotiable. When we flinch, we send the message that we will acquiesce to ugly ideas about who we are.
The battle for equality in one of the most conservative areas of the state offers us lessons on what it takes to win in Tallahassee. It shows we can win without jettisoning protections vital to our community.
In 2012, the Jacksonville City Council had rejected adding sexual orientation and gender identity protections, and some in our coalition who had been pushing for that change began to advocate for a sexual orientation-only bill. Both versions then failed, but a new coalition emerged unshakeable in its commitment to leave no community and no protections behind. Together we leaned into elections, educated lawmakers, and lifted up the stories of why the protections were vital. Ultimately, Jacksonville adopted a fully LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, ushered in under a GOP mayor and conservative City Council. Mayor and former Republican Party of Florida Chair Lenny Curry signed a fully inclusive Executive Order and refused to veto the ordinance despite pressure from anti-LGBTQ conservatives. Many of our valued partners who had flinched in that pivotal moment, who had been willing to cave into a “take what you can get” philosophy, came to understand that moment as we do - a sign of how close we were to the finish line.
Stand Up for Full Protections
We have reached that tipping point in Tallahassee, where last year the majority of freshmen legislators, GOP and Democrats alike, joined in supporting full protections. Public opinion has moved dramatically in our direction. We can’t now back off and allow any legislator to feel they can abandon their obligation to provide comprehensive equal protections to LGBTQ Floridians by passing incomplete legislation.
That is why organizations who fight this fight all over the country issued a statement opposing this new legislation that carves us out of full inclusion in the state’s comprehensive civil rights statute.
All the protections in our civil rights laws are vital. Our community’s tremendous progress toward this goal has always rested in the grassroots power of Floridians standing up and demanding their rights at City Hall, before the County Commission, and in the State Legislature.
We call on everyone who believes in full equality to come to Tallahassee for Lobby Days on March 11-12 to demand our Legislature complete that task of including sexual orientation and gender identity in the state civil rights act just like every other protected group, nothing more, nothing less. Sign up here, for Lobby Days.
Side by side bill comparison:
(Florida Competitive Workforce Act - Comprehensive Bill)
(Employment Only Bill)