Florida LGBT rights push reflects
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[May 03, 2017]
By Letitia Stein
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - A Republican,
a Democrat and a lobbyist for leading businesses in Florida huddled this
spring at the state Capitol, mapping out the next move in a campaign to
enact the first statewide LGBT anti-discrimination law in the U.S.
A record number of Republican lawmakers had thrown their support behind
proposed protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,
and hundreds of companies backed the cause.
While the bill has so far fallen short with time running out on the
legislative session, its lead backers were heartened by their progress
and determined to retool for next year.
"We definitely need to ramp up the grassroots," said Joseph Salzverg, a
lobbyist for Florida Competes, a group of more than 450 state businesses
supporting LGBT protections. "There's a lot of Republicans that agree
with the policy but are worried about the effect it has back home."
A year after transgender bathroom access erupted as a U.S. culture wars
flashpoint, Florida is among the conservative statehouses where LGBT
activists see momentum building for affirmative legislation.
The nation's third most-populous state, Florida could offer the next
breakthrough in a national movement to advance LGBT civil-rights
protections, viewed by advocates as stepping stones to their ultimate
goal of federal anti-discrimination law.
Only 18 states, mostly concentrated in the U.S. West and Northeast, and
the District of Columbia have laws that fully guard against LGBT people
being fired from jobs, kicked out of housing or denied services in
restaurants, hotels and other businesses. This fight continues even
after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2015 that legalized same-sex
Florida's strategy, years in the making, aims to build bipartisan
support with economic arguments and the passage of similar measures
locally that show the LGBT protections can succeed. The bill's backers
must convince a Republican-controlled state legislature that all of
Florida benefits from LGBT protections.
"It's really about the math of being based here in Florida, but
competing on a global market," said John "J.T." Tonnison, president of
Tonnison is chief information officer of Tech Data Corp, a technology
distributor. In the state capital of Tallahassee this spring, he told
legislators about a prized recruit reluctant to relocate from
California, concerned about a gay son visiting a state without strong
"It sets us apart in a less-than-positive light," Tonnison said.
BUILDING BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Local LGBT protections are now in place in communities representing 60
percent of Florida's more than 20 million residents. In conservative
north Florida, the state's largest city, Jacksonville, recently passed a
nondiscrimination policy after a fight that lasted years.
Local successes helped convince 19 Republican legislators to join 52
Democrats this year to cosponsor legislation that would add sexual
orientation and gender identity to Florida's civil rights statutes, just
shy of a majority in the 160-member legislature.
Representative Joe Gruters, an anti-abortion activist who co-chaired
President Donald Trump's state campaign, was among the first Republicans
to sign on. Perhaps an unlikely LGBT ally, the first-term lawmaker said
the case made by advocates, and a prominent conservative colleague's
support, resonated with him.
[to top of second column]
Florida Representative Rene Plasencia (L), discusses efforts to
advance LGBT anti-discrimination legislation in a meeting at the
state Capitol with lobbyist Joseph Salzverg (C), representing the
business advocacy group Florida Competes, and Democratic
Representative Ben Diamond in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S., April 4,
2017. Photo taken April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Letitia Stein
"I will continue to fight for this, and for any type of right, that
treats people fairly," Gruters said. "It's going to happen."
By contrast, the Florida Family Policy Council, advocating for
conservative social values, decried the legislation as an intrusion
on religious freedoms and public safety by allowing men into women's
bathrooms and private facilities.
Such LGBT measures are "weapons to punish Christians for simply
acting out their faith in the marketplace," said its president, John
"People are trying to force other people to do things," he added.
"Why can't we just disagree?"
But backers see Florida as a model for other states engaged in
long-term legislative efforts, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"Attracting bipartisan support really proves this isn't an urban
versus a rural issue, or a Republican versus Democratic issue," said
Dan Rafter, a spokesman for the advocacy group Freedom for All
Florida, and most other states, avoided fights this year over
transgender bathroom access, possibly dissuaded by the national
boycotts organized against North Carolina before its recent
roll-back of restrictions enacted in 2016.
Nonetheless, Florida's LGBT protection bill never got a hearing
during this session, which will end within days. The legislature's
leaders did not comment on what stalled the measure.
Supporters are reorganizing for next year with a more pointed
"Inaction is not neutral," said Hannah Willard, public policy
director for the advocacy group Equality Florida.
During the strategy meeting last month at the state Capitol,
Republican Representative Rene Plasencia proposed mobilizing
business supporters to engage legislators in their hometowns.
"We are protecting people's rights to live freely, to not be
disadvantaged economically, because of the personal choice of who
they love," he said.
Looking over a list of lawmakers not yet on board, the lead Democrat
behind the House bill agreed.
"We need to persuade people before they get to Tallahassee,"
Representative Ben Diamond said. "Thatís the challenge."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Matthew Lewis)
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