This month marks a number of key anniversaries for the LGBT movement in Florida. As we commemorate and mourn the loss of the 48 lives lost in Orlando in the Pulse nightclub shooting just over one year ago, we’re also at a pivotal moment of political resistance to the Trump administration and unprecedented attacks on transgender people around the country. Miami may feel like a bubble of acceptance and diversity, but it has its own dark history that should never be forgotten.
Forty years ago this month, beauty-pageant queen and anti-LGBT activist Anita Bryant led a historic campaign of lies and fear-mongering that led voters in the county to repeal an ordinance that ensured protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Bryant’s initiative, misleadingly called “Save Our Children,” was an attempt to paint LGBT people as immoral and dangerous — lies that persisted throughout the fight for marriage equality. They have been have been recycled by opponents of equality to this day, restricting fair access for transgender people. But in 1977, the LGBT movement was especially unprepared for the slew of attacks; and Miami’s nondiscrimination ordinance overwhelmingly was repealed by 70 percent of the county’s voters — the largest turnout ever in a special election Miami-Dade.
The repeal of the ordinance sparked a new wave of organizing among LGBT advocates and the largest political movement since the Stonewall riots nearly a decade prior. The significance of the Miami fight was felt nationally, with similar conversations about nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people taking place and contingents forming in cities such as St. Paul, Minnesota; Eugene, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington.
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As a gay and transgender man who was born and raised in Miami, it’s disheartening to think that only a generation ago, I wouldn’t have had the simple freedom of knowing I couldn’t be fired, denied a home, or refused services simply because of who I am. Miami has since updated its law, but there’s no statewide law cementing these protections in place in Florida — meaning as soon as I leave my hometown, I’m again vulnerable to discrimination. And in more than 30 other states, this is still the reality for LGBT people.
Today, cultural acceptance and opportunity for LGBT people are at a crossroads. Eighty-seven percent of Americans report knowing someone who is gay, and 16 percent report personally knowing someone who is transgender. These figures are higher than they’ve ever been, meaning that Americans feel increasingly safe and comfortable to be out about their authentic selves; and happily, young people have the language to express themselves at an earlier age than ever before. Yet the LGBT community continues to be denied basic freedoms, and transgender students in particular are being targeted for discrimination by lawmakers around the country.
We can’t be complacent. It’s not sustainable to have a patchwork of unequal laws that allow protections from discrimination in some places and in some areas of life, but not others. Freedom must be the law universally, no matter who you are or whom you love. Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to ensure a comprehensive federal law that secures explicit protections from discrimination in all areas of life, without exception. We can’t stop doing the work until we achieve this goal of freedom and fairness for all.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, of Miami, is the director of public education at Freedom for All Americans, the national campaign to secure comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. The son of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, he is the first openly transgender child of a member of Congress.