ORLANDO, Fla.—Gay Florida state Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) was a sophomore at the University of Central Florida in 2003 when two friends with whom he attended an off-campus party were attacked because of their sexual orientation. The police arrested the assailants, but Saunders said the immediate response at UCF “wasn’t as reactive as I felt like it needed to be.”
He wrote his first press release on the day after the attack, and later stood on a box outside the UCF student union with a sign in support of LGBT rights. The university eventually added LGBT-specific language to its non-discrimination policy. It also began offering domestic partner benefits to its employees.
“It was an outrageous moment,” Saunders, who was Equality Florida’s state field director before his election, told the Washington Blade during an interview at his Orlando office. “The police came. The triage moment happened, but the educational moment, the advocacy moment wasn’t generated. I just felt like I wanted to do something and help the broader UCF community understand that this thing had even happened, that in 2003 people were still being attacked because they were gay. I just thought that was crazy and that kind of anchored me and kind of set me on a path of advocacy that eventually got me to work with Equality Florida and turned me into kind of a political creature.”
Saunders and state Rep. Dave Richardson (D-Miami Beach) made history last year as the first openly gay candidates elected to the state legislature.
His partner Donald Rupe, who teaches in nearby Kissimmee in Osceola County, joined him on the floor of the state House of Representatives in Tallahassee on Nov. 20 during his official swearing in.
“Before that moment, nobody like me had stood on the floor of the House with a partner like mine and taken that oath, and i think that was really powerful,” Saunders, 29, said. “Certainly folks within the LGBT community understood how important that was.”
Saunders represents a large swath of northeast Orange County that includes UCF, Valencia College and Naval Support Activity Orlando. More than 30 percent of House District 49’s population is Latino, with a large Puerto Rican community in the city’s Union Park neighborhood.
He told the Blade he plans to sponsor a bill — the Competitive Workforce Act — that would add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to Florida’s non-discrimination and civil rights laws. Saunders also described a measure that would create a statewide domestic partnership registry as “a big deal” during the 2013 legislative session that will begin next month.
“We will find support for both of those bills,” he said. “How much support I think is certainly a question that kind of depends on how hard we all work, but there’s something different. It’s a different time to be doing work around LGBT equality.”
Saunders spoke with the Blade the day after Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his proposed $73.4 billion state budget that includes a projected surplus.
The governor hopes to earmark some of those additional funds to public education and health and human services projects, but his proposed 2013-2014 budget would cut funding to county health clinics. It would also not provide additional funding for mental health and substance abuse programs.
The Florida AIDS Drug Assistance Program in 2010 instituted a waiting list for those with HIV seeking access to anti-retrovirals because of statewide budget cuts during the recession.
The National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors noted nobody with the virus was on the waiting list as of Dec. 12, but Saunders stressed an online sales tax is one way to raise revenue to avoid future cuts.
“The HIV/AIDS community needs to be really vigilant about watching where those surplus funds go,” he said. “We obviously need to be thoughtful about the impact that health and human services will have on the HIV/AIDS community.”
Saunders conceded that the GOP-controlled legislature in Tallahassee “is a problem” when it comes to advancing LGBT-specific issues, but he said he remains optimistic.
“The Democrats really are a minority of voices and one of the things we have to break through is the stranglehold that the far right has on social policy anchored in the Republican Party, but there are a lot of young legislators this year,” he said. “I’ve already started talking with a bunch of them from the Republican Party who are just sort of — they don’t understand why we are even making a big deal about these issues anymore. To them, they’re almost there on marriage equality. When one-on-one with the door closed, there are some legislators who are ready to say privately I’d be with you on marriage. So when we start talking about a basic non-discrimination law or we talk about a domestic partnership policy, there’s work to do to even get those people into the process, but I don’t think it’s going to be as hard as some of us think it might be.”
He also spoke of the impact President Obama’s re-election – and his second inaugural address – would have on pro-LGBT efforts in Tallahassee. Saunders further recalled then-President George W. Bush’s support of a proposed federal constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman during his 2004 re-election campaign.
“The leader of the Republican Party of this country was going around, basically saying that there was something so wrong with LGBT relationships that we needed a federal constitutional amendment to protect ourselves from it,” he said. “A week ago the president of the country talked about Stonewall — and maybe more importantly he equated the movement to protect LGBT people and give our families every opportunity that everybody else does. He equated it to the same struggle that African Americans have gone through and women did when they were fighting for the right to vote at Seneca Falls, he talked about Selma, he talked about immigrant communities and the fight to make sure that those communities have access to opportunity. I think that the conversation is changing because people are understanding that while the struggle is different, the experience is different to be LGBT, at its core it’s a community that’s been denied opportunity and I think fundamentally Americans and Floridians sort of get that shouldn’t happen.”
Saunders further acknowledged there is “a culture shift” occurring “even within the Republican Party” on LGBT-specific issues.
“There are some members in this legislature that are sort of done with the wedge issues that come from this,” he said. “They’re losing votes every year because they won’t let go of this idea that gay people shouldn’t be recognized in non-discrimination policies. So hopefully that takes us somewhere.”