February 13, 2013 at 11:11 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Florida LGBT rights movement grows more visible
Steve Kornell, St. Petersburg, Florida, gay news, Washington Blade

St. Petersburg (Fla.) Councilman Steve Kornell (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell was at his first candidate debate in 2009 when a woman in the audience asked him to respond to a “rumor” that he was gay. There was an audible gasp in the room, but Kornell did not hesitate to acknowledge his sexual orientation.

Even his opponents applauded him.

“Even though I was completely out, thousands of people didn’t know me at all so they didn’t know that about me,” Kornell, whom voters elected to represent the city’s Pinellas Point neighborhood in 2009, told the Washington Blade during a Feb. 4 interview near his home. “Somebody could have used that as an attack, and my response to that was I’m going to put it right out there.”

Kornell is among the public faces of a statewide LGBT rights movement whose profile has grown significantly over the last 15 years.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she had difficulty putting together a statewide board of directors when the organization formed in 1997 because people were afraid they would lose their jobs if they were outed. Journalists who wanted to cover Equality Florida events had to stand in the back of the room. They could only film the backs of the heads of those who had given their permission to appear on camera.

“When people stepped forward to the microphone at a county commissioner or a city council meeting to talk about the need for basic discrimination protection, they were literally risking their job,” Smith said. “There are some parts of Florida where that remains true.”

Only a handful of cities and counties included gay-specific protections in their anti-discrimination and anti-bullying ordinances in 1997. That number has grown to dozens of municipalities throughout the state.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010 announced Florida would no longer enforce a law that banned gays and lesbians from adopting children in response to a state appellate court that found the 1977 statute unconstitutional. He signed the state’s LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying law in 2008.

State Reps. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) and Dave Richardson (D-Miami Beach) last year made history as the first openly gay candidates elected to the state legislature. The Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs on Feb. 19 will debate a bill sponsored by state Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) that would create a statewide domestic partnership registry.

Saunders and state Sen. Joe Abruzzo (D-Wellington) on Feb. 7 filed the Florida Competitive Workforce Act that would add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the state’s employment non-discrimination law. State Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key West) is the proposal’s primary co-sponsor.

“Florida has changed dramatically over the last 15 years,” Smith said. “The change has accelerated in just the past three or four years.”

In spite of the aforementioned victories, the movement has suffered a series of stinging setbacks over the last decade.

Voters in 2008 approved a state constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

The Hillsborough County Commission on Jan. 24 voted 4-3 against a proposed countywide domestic partner registry — commissioners in neighboring Pinellas County that includes St. Petersburg nine days earlier approved an identical registry for unmarried same-sex and heterosexual couples. The Lake County School Board’s move to ban extra-curricular clubs in the district after a group of middle school students in Leesburg tried to form a GSA has sparked outrage among LGBT advocates and their supporters.

Smith noted the board’s announcement coincided with a near unanimous vote in the Tavares City Council on Feb. 6 that created Lake County’s first domestic partner registry.

“It’s not a direct line between here and there,” she said. “It’s a zigzag line and forward motion and push back, but the message we deliver is we’re going to keep coming because we’re fighting for our lives, for our families, for many of us for our children. We’re never going to give up.”

SAVE Dade, CJ Ortuno, gay news, Washington Blade

SAVE Dade Executive Director CJ Ortuno (Photo by KUTTNERpix.com; courtesy of CJ Ortuno.)

CJ Ortuño, executive director of SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) Dade, brings this message to his advocacy.

The Miami Beach resident who is a straight man of Cuban descent told the Blade that a gay man named John introduced his parents. He and his partner lived downstairs, and gave them the dining room table from which Ortuño’s young daughter Amalia eats.

Ortuño said he decided to become involved with the movement during President Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008 — the same year Florida voters approved the constitutional same-sex marriage ban.

“It was me staring at my daughter and saying, ‘I don’t know who she’s going to love when she gets older, but I’ll definitely be damned if I don’t do something,” he said. “I want to change this world and leave it a little better than the way I found it.”

SAVE Dade, which was founded in 1993 in the wake of the Anita Bryant-led movement that successfully repealed Dade County’s gay-inclusive human rights ordinance, continues to work with local municipalities to offer domestic partner benefits to their LGBT employees.

The Coral Gables City Commission last October unanimously approved domestic partner benefits to LGBT employees — more than a year after lesbian police officer Rene Tastet filed a complaint with the city manager’s office after she did not receive bereavement leave to attend her partner’s father’s funeral in North Carolina. The organization is also lobbying the Miami-Dade County Commission to add gender identity and expression to the county’s human rights ordinance.

“I think we can do that this year like our neighbors to the north (Broward County) and south (Monroe County) of us,” Ortuño said.

SAVE Dade also works with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other members of South Florida’s congressional delegation on immigration reform — and especially the Uniting American Families Act that would allow gays and lesbians to sponsor their foreign-born partners for residency in the United States. The organization also advocates for the re-authorization of the Ryan White CARE Act.

“We do the same thing on a statewide level,” he said, noting Miami-Dade has the largest legislative delegation in Tallahassee. “We don’t drive state policy, but we often support or provide resources through our Dade delegation.”

Smith said Equality Florida, which has chapters throughout the state, looks to its local partners to cultivate relationships with lawmakers in Tallahassee.

“They have a constituency that they are accountable to,” she said. “We really look to our local partners to help us reach out and cultivate these relationships. We do so much local work that the partnerships are essential.”

Saunders told the Blade during a Feb. 1 interview in his Orlando office that some of his fellow lawmakers are “still trying to readjust and figure out how to deal with this new community that’s now represented” in light of his and Richardson’s election. Kornell said his presence on the St. Petersburg City Council has had what he described as a positive impact on LGBT-specific issues.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, whom Kornell said made some “less than pro-gay” statements when he was a city councilman, approved his proposal to extend domestic partner benefits to the city’s 1,800 non-unionized employees.

“The mayor went ahead and did it,” Kornell said. “That’s the kind of thing when we have gay people sitting at the table; those kinds of things start to shift. It’s hard to hate somebody when you get to know them.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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