What’s Next? A New Focus

(L to R) Rand Hoch, Michael Rajner, Tony Lima, Tony Plakas, Caitlin Wood, Bishop SF

SFGN interviews LGBT activists and leaders to see what comes next for LGBT rights in Florida now that the fight for marriage is over

Marriage equality is now the law of the land.

So what’s next in LGBT rights in Florida? As many leaders and activists point out same-sex marriage was never the be-all and end-all to LGBT rights.

So SFGN decided to reach out to LGBT leaders and activists to see what the community needs to focus on now that marriage is off the table.

Transgender Education

While the recent attention to transgender people in mainstream media has led the way toward more acceptance, many Florida LGBT organizations believe the community can do more to educate people on how to treat and act around trans people.

Palm Beach County’s Compass’ biggest focus right now is educating parents and adults on transgender youth, said Tony Plakas, the executive director.

“Sometimes parents are unknowingly the first bullies to their [children],” he said. “They call their child a tom boy or a sissy. This has been something that has been an acceptable form of parental scolding to essentially tell kids that they’re not conforming to the proper gender.”

Compass has been holding meetings and presentations to try to educate the public on sexual orientation and acceptance, Plakas said.

“We’ve gotten marriage equality, but forgotten the people that have been most dehumanized by their gender,” he said.

The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council has been focusing on educating people in the judicial system, said PBCHRC President Rand Hoch.

He said he noticed a few years ago that some of the judges and court personnel needed training because they didn’t know the right terminology and how to properly address transgender people.

“We’re trying to work with the court systems to get some training for court personnel so that they’re more comfortable when people come into court who are not what they expected to see or aren’t comfortable with,” he said.

While both Compass and the PBCHRC have specific target audiences, both SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) and the Broward County Human Rights board has been focusing on educating the public in general.

Michael Rajner, a member of the BCHR board, said the group has been trying to facilitate a better understanding of the transgender identity.

“[We’re] helping others understand the process and discrimination down to the very basic things like which pronoun a transgender person would refer to be addressed as so I think we’ve done a great deal,” he said.

Soon Broward County will welcome the Southern Comfort Conference, the largest national transgender conference, to its shores.

SAVE, who works mostly in Miami-Dade, has taken a different approach, canvassing and visiting neighborhoods to try to educate the people.

“We have been doing long form work in the most conservative neighborhoods in Miami in order to reduce the prejudice in the trans community,” said Tony Lima, executive director.

Florida Competitive Workforce Act

The Florida Competitive Workforce Act is a bi-partisan piece of legislation that prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workforce. While counties have passed ordinances that prevent this type of discrimination, in most parts of the state people can be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It’s no surprise that many organizations have been focusing on the Competitive Workforce Act because without it, people can still be fired for being in a same-sex marriage, and transgender people can still be fired just for identifying as they choose.

Bishop SF, from the Pride Center in Wilton Manors and a member of Equality Florida’s transgender advisory board, said the biggest issue they’ve been working on is the Florida Competitive Workforce Act.

“I know that Equality Florida is seeking to move this through the legislature, and I think that if that is accomplished, we’ll have a better Florida where all Floridians are protected from employment discrimination,” he said.

Hoch from the PBCHRC said he’s been waiting 41 years to see an act that would protect people in the workforce.

“There are still no federal laws that protect them based on sexual orientation and gender expression,” he said.

While in Palm Beach County, ordinances have been passed to ensure that discrimination is illegal, it still has to be properly enforced, Hoch said.

Caitlin Wood, the executive director of the Aqua Foundation for Women, said the Aqua Foundation wants to focus on education about workplace fairness.

Lima said SAVE has been working on making sure that in Florida the complete community is protected when it comes to the work force.

“Right now, you can be fired from your job, denied public services, denied public accommodations,” he said. “You can get married today, but fired tomorrow.”

One of the ways that these organizations are hoping to get the Florida Competitive Workforce Act passed is by getting LGBT allies elected to the legislature.

Electing LGBT Allies

A crucial step in protecting the LGBT community has been electing LGBT allies to the Florida legislature. Many organizations have been advocating and campaigning for people they think can make LGBT-friendly laws and ordinances happen.

Bishop said an important step to ensure change is made is finding people on the legislature who will ensure protection for trans citizens.

“The reality is that we have to find and identify committee members who are willing to go before the municipalities,” he said. “We have to find the legislators who understand that transgender citizens need these protections and encourage those allies to sponsor these pieces of legislation, and then we move forward from there.”

He said stakeholders and other key people involved in creating change should also be identified.

Hoch agrees. The PBCHRC has stressed the importance of maintaining longstanding relationships with elected officials and people involved in law.

“We’ve been at this since 1988,” he said. “It’s easier here than in other parts of the state, and we have people who have supported us [working with the law]. The relationships really help us move forward with our goals.”

At SAVE, Lima said, they’re focused on electing equality minded leaders to represent the community. They seek to replace seats of discriminatory officials with LGBT allies.

Most notably, they’ve helped Rep. David Richardson, the first openly gay legislator, get elected by preparing him and supporting him.

“He’s still working on very hard,” he said. “He’s the strongest voice in the legislature right now.”

SAVE has recently backed Richardson for the Florida Senate in 2016.

“We’re helping to pass policy, such as being able to fight the bathroom bill,” Lima said. “We want to squash the adoption bill.”

HIV/STD Prevention

Another major issue that has continuously been at the forefront of LGBT organizations’ attention is HIV/STD prevention.

Luigi Ferrer, bisexual activist and director of Health Services at Pridelines Youth, stressed the importance of educating LGBT youth.

“As director of Health Services, I would hope that one of the issues we can take up in the near future is the lack of Comprehensive Sex Ed in our school,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Miami has the high HIV transmission rate in the U.S. and we have no Sex Ed in our schools. Furthermore what is offered is heteronormative to a fault and does not include any information on same-sex HIV/STI prevention.”

He said he believes that “LGBTQ teens growing up in the highest HIV incidence metro area in the country have the right to accurate, unbiased, science-based sexual health information.”

Other organizations also feel that HIV/AIDS education is important within the community.

Plakas said Compass was one of the first groups to get involved with HIV and AIDS education.

“Thirty years later, we are the experts in how to engage groups of people free of bias and stigma,” he said. “I’m making sure the emerging population have someone they can turn to and [access to] mentoring and assistance. We’re up to speed on an epidemic that has been a blight on the community for over 35 years.”

Rajner said it’s important to work to ensure that sexual health and sex educations are important.

“We continue to drill down these efforts through legislations and good public policy so our community is prioritized, especially when looking at issues with HIV men,” he said.

Anti-Bullying and LGBT Youth Support

While acceptance has grown for LGBT people across the board and more schools than ever have Gay-Straight alliances, bullying and LGBT homeless youth is still an issue.

Hoch said the PBCHRC has done a lot of work with students. Currently, he said, there is no statewide law that specifically protects LGBT students from bullying.

They got a policy passed in 2008, working with the ACLU of Florida, to make sure teachers and administrators know that if they see any form of bullying, they have to report it.

PBCHRC also gave a college scholarship to a man who founded his school's GSA.

SAVE has been helping to build a network of GSAs in high schools in inner city areas.

“You often find GSAs in schools in the higher income areas,” Lima said. “We want something prevalent in [schools like Central, Northwestern and Homestead High]. We want to really build those and have a support network for cities in lower income areas to be supported.”

Wood, of the Aqua Foundation, said they’ve been focusing on youth homelessness, especially in the transgender community. They also offer scholarships and mentorship programs.

“We’re definitely focused on providing safe spaces and opportunities and support, especially youth homelessness as well,” she said.

Encouraging LGBT Leaders

A great step to ensure that the LGBT community stays strong and continues to fight for equality is ensuring that there are leaders to fight for the community.

Wood said the Aqua Foundation provides leadership conferences and scholarships to focus on emerging LGBT leaders.

“We want to provide people with the skills and networking opportunities to be LGBT leaders in the community, “she said.

SAVE recently gave out its Luminary Awards, which honors young LGBT-allies and leaders in the community.

Protecting the Elderly

Another focus of many of the groups has been on encouraging and supporting domestic partner benefits and protection and care for the elderly.

Some have suggested that since marriage is now legal for same-sex partners it’s time to get rid domestic partnership benefits but for Rajner, those benefits are really important to continue.

“One of the things is that as we move beyond marriage, the issue of domestic partner benefits is something that’s going to be debated,” he said. “I think that marriage isn’t for everyone, and domestic partnerships give people the minimal level of protection.”

He said the community should continue to be supportive of domestic partnerships for older people regardless of sexual orientation and gender.

Plakas, of Compass, said he agrees that senior needs are important to keep in mind.

“They’re coming out at a very late stage in their lives after they’ve had children and been married,” he said. “They have no desire to take advantage of marriage equality because they’re from different generations and have different values.”

How You Can Help

SFGN asked these leaders how people at home can help, and here are some tips on how you can create change.

Bishop encourages people to sign up for the newsletters of Equality Florida, SAVE Dade and the Pride Center – to name a few.

“I encourage them to stay informed about the issues that impact our community,” he said.

Hoch said that people should thank the elected officials who support LGBT rights and encourages people to fund and donate to pro-equality organizations.

People should also get involved in LGBT events and share their stories, Rajner said.

“Share your stories with others about what the decision for equality means to you, how it’s affected your lives and how these discriminatory laws have affected you,” Rajner said. “Recognize we’re getting past that.”

Wood advises people to volunteer and help mentor other LGBT people through the Aqua Foundation.

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