MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith is among the LGBT activists who met with then-President Clinton in the Oval Office on April 16, 1993.
The meeting — which was the first between a sitting U.S. president and advocates in the Oval Office — took place nine days before the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
Smith, who was a co-chair of the 1993 March on Washington, told attendees of the World OutGames Miami Human Rights Conference in Miami Beach on May 27 that she urged Clinton to speak at the march. Smith said that Clinton talked about a four-star general who approached him during a Rose Garden event that took place shortly after his inauguration.
“[He said,]’I want to talk to you about this whole gays in the military thing,’” said Clinton, according to Smith. “And he said, ‘I thought this guy was going to deck me and I wondered what the Secret Service would do if he did.’”
Clinton said the general told him his son is gay and he “would be a perfect cadet but because he was out he couldn’t get into the military academies and that was ridiculous,” according to Smith. The general then told Clinton that he “served with gay soldiers and he needed to fix it.”
Clinton did not speak at the 1993 March on Washington, which was televised and took place less than eight months before he signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Clinton in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Smith, who was named an honorary co-chair of the upcoming Equality March for Unity and Pride on Tuesday, said the 1993 march left a lasting impression.
“For me, the overriding message of it was we can’t just do this work in the big cities,” she said. “We have to go home. We have to do the work in the places we live.”
‘Activism has always been about unlearning’
Smith grew up in the Florida Panhandle.
Her advocacy began in the mid-1980s when she and her roommate at the University of South Florida attended a planning meeting in London for what became the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization.
Smith told the OutGames conference attendees that a group of U.S. soldiers “roughed up a lot of our guys” at their next planning meeting in Berlin. The incident sparked outrage among her colleagues.
“I thought, ‘My God how did I learn to be so accepting, so docile,’” said Smith.
“For me activism has always been about unlearning, like getting that poison out of my system,” she added. “It’s one of those things it doesn’t exist until you see the possibility of a new world.”
1987 March on Washington was ‘transformative’
Smith served on the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization’s first board of directors. She also attended the 1987 March on Washington.
“It was transformative for me,” said Smith.
Equality Florida Pulse fund raised more than $9.5 million
Smith co-founded the Human Rights Task Force of Florida that became Equality Florida. The organization officially changed its name in 1997.
Dozens of municipalities across Florida over the last two decades have enacted ordinances that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Equality Florida continues to lobby members of the Florida Legislature to support a statewide nondiscrimination measure and other pro-LGBT bills.
Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry in Florida since January 2015. Governor Rick Scott later that year signed a bill that officially repealed the state’s gay adoption ban.
A fund that Equality Florida launched hours after a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016, raised more than $9.5 million for the victims’ families and those who survived the massacre in less than four months. Equality Florida is also among the dozens of LGBT advocacy groups that support gun control.
“While Pulse was unprecedented in the scale of violence, our community is no stranger to violence,” said Smith.
Smith was among the U.S. LGBT rights advocates who traveled to Cuba last month. Nelson Gandulla, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, an independent advocacy group, was unable to meet with him because authorities on the Communist island refused to allow him to leave the province of Cienfuegos in which he lives.
Activists ‘got to pull’ anti-LGBT violence causes ‘up by its roots’
Smith spoke at the OutGames conference five days after a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured dozens of others outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.
She ended her remarks by saying “we’ve got to pull” the causes of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity “up by its roots.” Smith said it is the same mission that “began for me” more than three decades ago when she and her roommate traveled to London for the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization’s organizing meeting.