It was a bitter loss in Tallahassee on a crisp February afternoon when the Competitive Workforce Act (SB 120) died at the hands of a Senate Judiciary Committee 5–5 deadlock. The bill would have afforded statewide anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, public accommodations and housing. As it stands, there is no Florida state law prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community.
While a Supreme Court ruling last year lifted the ban on gay marriage nationwide, the tough reality is that there is no federal law prohibiting employment discrimination and, even today, 28 states including Florida lack basic LGBT equality protections.
Still, progressive Florida legislators and LGBT advocates see a silver lining. It was a small victory to have the bill heard at all this past February. It garnered the support of two Republican senators, including Judiciary Chair Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R–Coral Gables) who was instrumental in bringing the bill to committee.
“It’s a sign of momentum,” says Stratton Pollitzer, co-founder of Equality Florida, an advocacy and lobbying organization dedicated to securing full equality for the LGBT community. “I believe that next year we will have the opportunity to pass the bill.”
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This places Florida on the verge of a unique moment on the national stage, with the potential to be the first state in 10 years to pass an LGBT non-discrimination law and the first state in the South to do so.
“The whole country is looking at Florida as one of the states to break this logjam,” says Pollitzer, who sees non-partisanship as the key to equality legislation. “Florida has been a laboratory for how you can achieve that.” With progress at the local level, support of public opinion and — perhaps the strongest boon — influential business coalitions advocating for LGBT corporate equality, Pollitzer believes republicans and democrats can indeed work together.
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Despite the lack of statewide legislation, 56 percent of Florida’s municipalities are protected by Human Rights Ordinances (HROs), which includes language addressing both sexual orientation and gender identity. “Even Tallahassee has these protections [at the municipal level], so arguing against them [at the capitol] is silly,” Pollitzer points out.
Florida is the third most populous state in the country, and its residents largely support LGBT equality in public opinion polls. What’s more, that support is only strengthening thanks to the wave of millenials coming of age. Corporate America is on the vanguard of the LGBT equality movement, and it has mounted one of the most compelling arguments for moving beyond partisanship. Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500 companies are already well ahead of lawmakers, having well-established equality protections in place.
In February 2014, when Arizona Governor Jan Brewer stepped in to veto SB 1062 — allowing businesses in Arizona to decline service to customers on religious grounds — it was American Airlines, Apple, the NFL and Delta who turned up the pressure in opposition. Indiana became the focus of national scrutiny last year when its legislature passed its so-called religious freedom law. That was swiftly revised thanks in large part to opposition from a slew of companies, including Marriott, Angie’s List and Salesforce.The incentive for large companies, and even small enterprises, to take on a pro-equality stance is twofold. Not only is it good business to be inclusive, it also affects where the talent and therefore the industry goes.
“One thing you don’t want to do in business is automatically turn any of it away,” says Damian Pardo, Head of the Pardo Group, a wealth management firm on the Morgan Stanley platform with offices in Plantation, Florida and Chicago, Illinois.
“If a city, county or state has a reputation for intolerance, it makes it harder for companies to relocate employees there when they open branches. It makes it harder to recruit new people and to hold onto people,” Pollitzer says. “And companies make decisions about whether or not they even want to open in states that have this reputation.”
In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) developed the Corporate Equality Index (CEI) to measure how corporations stack up when it comes to equality protections. As the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the country, the HRC also keeps indices on state and municipal equality. In its first CEI in 2002, only 13 businesses nationwide earned a perfect score of 100 percent. Today, it counts more than 400 top-rated businesses. Of the 21 Florida companies ranked in 2016, the average score is 87 percent, with nine companies earning a perfect score.
The numbers demonstrate that public support for LGBT equality has blossomed in the years since the CEI was established. “Respect for LGBT people is a barometer for how people measure acceptance and diversity overall now,” says Pollitzer.
This is also evident when you look at the marriage equality movement. In 2008, when California’s Proposition 8 sought to reinstate the ban on gay marriage, less than five corporations spoke out in opposition. By the time the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2015, hundreds of corporations had signed on in support.
“For many businesses, the internal case being made to become more inclusive was coming from LGBT employees and their allies,” says Deena Fidas, HRC’s Head of Workplace Equality Program. “Businesses shifted from thinking about LGBT issues as external or simply social issues to issues that are absolutely relevant to their own workforce. So when a CEO stands up for marriage, they’re not standing up for some hypothetical ideal, they’re standing up for their openly gay chief financial officer or their lesbian daughter. Visibility continues to be a major source of what leads people to change their attitudes and move from being ‘okay’ with LGBT people to actually being an advocate for greater fairness and equality for the community.”
The Road Ahead
With all the progress that’s been made in public opinion and the private sector, the resistance from some lawmakers leaves many advocates scratching their heads.
The backlash to DOMA has already begun with state bills that undermine marriage equality under the guise of religious freedom, and Florida is flirting with disaster by introducing bills like the Pastor Protection Act (SB 110 and HB 43), which contends that religious organizations should not be required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or provide services, accommodations, goods or privileges for those purposes if that’s in violation of their religious beliefs. The bill, which narrowly passed a senate vote, was signed into law in March by Governor Rick Scott and will take effect on July 1.
These conflicting efforts place Florida in the unlikely position of potentially being either the first state in the South to comprehensively embrace equality protections or being skewered on the national stage for publicly expressing its homophobia — refusing to learn from the Arizona and Indiana experiences.
For Representative David Richardson (D–Miami Beach) — who became Florida’s first openly gay legislator when he was elected in 2012 and is a co-sponsor of the Competitive Workforce Act — it’s all about shifting strategy. During this session, they implemented the Republican-based lobbying firm Southern Strategy and sought a female Republican, Holly Raschein (R–Key Largo), to run the bill in an effort toward bi-partisanship.
“That’s why you’re having the bill heard where it hasn’t been recently,” said Richardson.
In spite of the defeat this session, he remains optimistic. But the fight won’t be easy. The next two Speakers of the House are even more conservative on social issues.
In the bill’s current iteration, workforce equality is combined with public accommodations and housing. Richardson thinks it might get more traction if the issues are separated. “Some people here in Tallahassee believe that when you want to change policy, you have to get everything you want or you take nothing. I’m not one of those people. I very much believe that sometimes you have to move in baby steps,” he says. “I’m a bit tenacious. I don’t really give up.”
Until then, Florida will remain something of an anomaly. With its robust corporate allies and public support, as well as a solid majority — 56 percent — of its municipalities already on-board, the state itself runs the risk of missing a great opportunity by choosing to stand with those resisting the relentless march toward basic equality.