In June 2015, with decades of rough and tumble politics under its belt, the country accomplished the near impossible: the Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional and that same-sex married couples were to be accorded the same recognition as opposite-sex couples at state and federal level Gay marriage was legal and Equality Florida certainly contributed to that monumental victory.
By the time the matter had reached the Supreme Court, however, the same-sex marriage landscape had become a dizzying patchwork of state law, ballot initiative and federal action, each either allowing or preventing same-sex couples from marrying. Florida, along with every other state, contributed to the mayhem with its own set of disappointing legal decisions.
“When Massachusetts passed a law allowing same-sex couples to marry in 2004, it set off a backlash that eventually led to 30 states passing constitutional amendments banning our marriages,” says co-founder of Equality Florida (EQFL) and current Deputy Director of Field and Development programs, Stratton Pollitzer. “Long before marriage was legal anywhere in the U.S., state legislatures began passing laws to preemptively block our marriages.”
Often called DOMAs — or defense of marriage acts — he recalls how these laws often passed with overwhelming margins, as the ban did in Florida in 1997. It passed the state house of representatives 107-13.
From the Ashes
It was this environment that gave rise to numerous organizations across the country, including Equality Florida. Like most states, Florida had no statewide LGBTQ advocacy group and no presence at the state capital to fight against the preemptive measures and other hostile actions. And while a handful of local organizations lobbied for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, those efforts were not coordinated. It was clear that it would take a concerted effort on the part of Florida’s activists to ensure that marriage equality became a reality.
Pollitzer, along with current Chief Executive Officer, Nadine Smith, and the advisory board of the Human Rights Task Force of Florida came together to create Equality Florida, an organization whose primary objective would be to establish a full-time lobbying presence in Tallahassee. And it did, thanks to the work and financial support of lesbian and gay non-profits all over the state. With deserved pride, Pollitzer affirms that Equality Florida has been in the state capital every year since 2007, and the group has either blocked or neutralized every single piece of anti-LGBT legislation filed since then.
That’s a lot to claim in a state that at one point voted down gay marriage with 61 percent of the vote.
Enjoying the Journey
For now, however, Equality Florida is taking the time — the whole year in fact — to recognize its accomplishments, remember the journey and celebrate. Over 100 meet, greet and engage events have been scheduled throughout the year from the panhandle to Key West. All are designed to highlight two decades of success and shift focus onto the new challenges that lie ahead. In addition to these smaller gatherings, marquis events will be held in 10 cities statewide. These Equality Connections are free, catered affairs held at high-profile hotels and restaurants, ideal opportunities for regional communities to get to know the organization better, and everyone is welcome.
Even though Equality Florida was motivated into existence by clear needs surrounding a particular issue, it is now primarily a human rights organization promoting ongoing education pertaining to LGBTQ issues and progressive change, as long as that is necessary.
While last year’s Trump/Pence win doesn’t mean that the country will reverse marriage equality, there is certainly a cloud of uncertainty hovering over LGBTQ and other minority rights. That combined with a spate of pro-LGBTQ decisions made during President Obama’s second term have emboldened the opposition, which means vigilance remains imperative.
Pollitzer stresses that Equality Florida — indeed the broader LGBTQ community — has always completed its work in a hostile political climate. “We’ve learned how to carve out victories in spite of the odds,” he says.
He goes on to outline four initiatives that Equality Florida will prioritize:
1. Stop the passage of anti-LGBTQ legislation, notably House Bill 17 (HB 17). If passed, it has the potential to block future anti-discrimination protections at the local level and repeal every existing human rights ordinance in the state by 2020. Stopping that bill, along with a slew of religious exemption bills is critical since setbacks here are likely to spread quickly across the South.
2. Push forward anti-discrimination legislation.
3. Invest deeply in building the base of supporters and volunteers in preparation for the 2018 gubernatorial race and midterms.
4. Expand the safe schools work, made more urgent by the recent spike in campus-based harassment.
This fourth initiative, and what Pollitzer describes as “an unshakable commitment to the inclusion of transgender people,” are possibly the most important and immediately publicized issues to fill the “gay agenda” after marriage equality.
But shifting public opinion is no easy task. It is easy to gain ground and then lose it in short measure. This is particularly true of a state as vast as Florida. Changing hearts and minds is daunting but education and outreach have been central to the organization’s mission from day one.
“Our goal is to make this a non-partisan human rights struggle,” says Pollitzer. “In the end, every breakthrough with a pastor or a politician begins locally with someone who has the courage to talk to their elected official or the CEO of their company or their dad about why we need them in this fight.”
Equality Florida can boast a number of accomplishments it has made over the last 20 years. Here are a few highlights:
• Building a coalition of more than 700 faith leaders from a wide range of religious backgrounds.
• Gaining the support of Florida’s largest companies, 65 of which have joined the organization’s Equality Means Business advisory board.
• Hiring a Safe Schools Director who, in that position’s first six months, has begun working with 27 of Florida’s 67 school districts providing LGBT sensitivity training to over 2,000 school principals and district leaders.