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From the moment a coalition of LGBT groups in South Florida filed a workplace non-discrimination bill in the Florida Senate, it was dead on arrival – but not from Republicans, instead the statewide LGBT rights organization, Equality Florida, vehemently opposed it. 

Equality Florida waged a full scale social media attack last week against a bill that would protect LGBT people from discrimination – all because it doesn’t include public accommodations.

The Florida Inclusion Workforce Act (FIWA) focuses only on employment discrimination, leaving the fight for housing and public accommodations for another day.  

“Deplorable,” said Michael Womack, an Equality Florida communications associate who summed it up in one word on Facebook.

If passed FIWA would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Florida’s Civil Rights Act. It was filed in the Florida Senate last week by the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, State Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota). 

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FIWA is a collaboration between Gruters and SAVE Florida, a coalition that includes SAVE, Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, Translatina and the Conservatives on the Right of Equality. Former State Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami Beach) also provided assistance with the bill.

 Two Democratic state senators in Miami-Dade have also signed on as co-sponsors – Jason Pizzo and Annette Taddeo. 

“I have to commend and congratulate Sen. Joe Gruters for really demonstrating bipartisan support on this,” Pizzo said. 

FIWA’s fiercest critics so far have not been Republicans, or the religious right, but instead Equality Florida. Within hours of the bill being filed last Tuesday, Equality Florida went on the offense, releasing a statement opposing it. Shortly after, staffers turned to social media to attack it and its sponsors – mainly Tony Lima of SAVE, and Rand Hoch of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. 

On the same day, another bill – the Florida Competitive Workforce Act – was filed as well with Equality Florida’s full support. It’s the same bill that’s been filed for almost a decade. And while it’s slowly built up support over the years it’s gone nowhere in the legislature, receiving just one committee hearing in 2015.   

Equality Florida has accused the new bill of leaving the transgender community behind.

“Policy change is often incremental,” Richardson argued in a press release. “I applaud Senator Gruters for his fresh approach which is fully inclusive of the LGBT community.”


A War Erupts on Social Media 

Exchanges on Facebook turned ugly with accusations of biases against the trans community being tossed around.  

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, claimed to have emails from Hoch from 2007 that proved his alledged anti-trans bias.

“Facts are pesky and emails tell the tale,” she wrote. “I still have the email from you Rand threatening to go after Equality Florida if we introduced a bill that wasn’t sexual orientation-only.”

Hoch responded, writing, “Nadine, feel free to do whatever you want with your emails from a dozen years ago. And I can do the same.” 

In an earlier version of this story posted online last week, SFGN wrote that Nadine “threatened to expose” the emails. Smith later said SFGN mischaracterized the conversation.  

Hoch pointed to his organization’s long history of including the trans community in many of its initiatives at the city and county level.

“I’ve been called a lot of things in the past, but this one just doesn’t stick. We have enacted 49 trans inclusive laws in Palm Beach County going back to 2004,” Hoch said. 

While Equality Florida may now be attacking Hoch, in 2014 it was giving him an award. At that time the organization honored the LGBT rights activist at its Palm Beach County gala, giving him its Voice of Equality Award.

“This is a pivotal moment in the LGBT movement, and Florida stands on the front line of Southern states in achieving full equality,” Smith said in a press release at the time. “We are honored to be able to spotlight the achievements of two people who have contributed so much to bring our state to this tipping point.”

The press release described Hoch as “a trailblazer in the fight for LGBT equality in Palm Beach County for 25 years. To date, Rand’s efforts have helped to facilitate the passage of more than 65 ordinances and policies enacted to extend equal rights and benefits to the Palm Beach County LGBT community.” 

Five years later, local activists rushed to social media to defend Hoch against Equality Florida. 

“Rand is not anti-trans. Let me put that to bed right now,” said transgender activist Heather Wright, who also leads a trans support group at Compass. “I’ve worked with him on ordinances here in Palm Beach County protecting trans people.” 

Equality Florida honored SAVE last year presenting Tony Lima with their Community Partner for Equality Award. 

Lima said these accusations against himself and SAVE of being anti-trans “stings. It’s so severely untrue. Most of our work has been focused on the trans community.”

Morgan Mayfaire, a transgender activist and president of TransSOCIAL, came to Lima’s defense. 

“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if Lima was anti-trans. “Tony Lima and SAVE [have] been supporters of the trans community for a very long time. They’ve never turned us away for anything we’ve asked.”

It infuriated Arianna Lint, a trans woman and president of the TransLatina coalition on the East Coast, when she saw posts on Facebook attacking the SAVE Florida coalition. 

“Do not tag me if you have never worked with a community as vulnerable as we are, [the] transgender women of color, who live in South Florida,” Lint wrote in response to a post from an Equality Florida staffer. “[We] do not need you to take advantage of us, [you] do not speak for transgender [people.] When [you] puts us on the same level, [at] the same table maybe you can talk about transgender [people.]” 

David Richardson,  meanwhile wrote a lengthy Facebook post addressing Equality Florida’s tactics.  

“What is disappointing for me is that some have strayed from the debate to make personal, negative, slanderous comments. I learned on Friday that Nadine Smith posted a comment […] saying there is a video of me making a transphobic comment, and that I’m not supporting the transgender community,” he wrote. “I did not make a transphobia comment. Her comment is not true. I’m happy to have a debate, but I’m not going to allow anyone to impugn my integrity and reputation.” 

Richardson also pointed to his time in office as a state legislator to back up his LGBT rights bonafides. 

“I’m one state legislator who actually got positive measures accomplished for the LGBT community while serving in Tallahassee,” he said. “Here are just a few examples: the first-ever and only funding in the state budget specifically earmarked for a LGBT initiative and removal of the gay adoption ban from state statutes.” 

It infuriated Lima’s husband as well when an Equality Florida staffer posted a message on his personal Facebook page.

“This is my personal Facebook page and I share what I care about and believe in. How dare you? You should be embarrassed,” Yonel Galano said. “If you are so confident, why the desperate post on the page of the husband of the executive director of SAVE.” 

Others in the community were shocked the fight went so public. 

“I would certainly question the wisdom of taking this fight to the public square,” said Damian Pardo, the chair of 4ward Miami, an LGBT organization promoting LGBT diversity, economic status and civil rights through cultural arts programs and events. “I also don’t see how very public attacks against this bill help the LGBTQ community as a whole.”

Lima agreed. 

“This divisive rhetoric, it’s unnecessary.”   


National Orgs Weigh In

Two days after the two competing bills were filed, Equality Florida released a second statement with a handful of national LGBT organizations signing on to its side of the battle, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the ACLU of Florida, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. 

According to the statement, “the organizations reaffirm their support for fully-inclusive, comprehensive protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”  

SFGN reached out to all of them. The Task Force initially responded, but did not follow up. NCLR and the ACLU of Florida responded and provided a comment. 

“Florida is not a place that should give up on comprehensive protections for the LGBTQ community. [...] more than sixty percent of the state already has comprehensive local protections. Enacting a statewide bill that failed to provide the same full protections would be a step backward,” said Shannon Minter, the legal director of NCLR. “LGBTQ people need and deserve the same basic protections against discrimination that other Floridians enjoy, not a partial bill that would provide only limited protection. Equality is equality. That’s what LGBTQ people and their allies in Florida have been  working to secure. Anything less is a nonstarter.”

Lima felt blindsided when the national groups weighed in on the matter.

“As the leader of this organization, I feel like we’ve been thrown under the bus. I have relationships with the heads of these groups,” he said. “We’ve been strong partners with all of them. We’ve helped them locally. No one owns the rights to LGBT rights.”

A day later more groups signed on to the statement, including the National Center for Transgender Equality and QLatinX.  

However, Equality Florida appeared to go too far in at least one of their posts on Facebook.

“LGBT national organizations have stepped in to affirm Equality Florida’s FWCA and publicly rebuke the outright damaging and dangerous bill lobbied by SAVE Florida comprised of Tony Lima of SAVE, Rand Hoch of PBCHRC and former state rep. David Richardson,” wrote Jonathan Barrio, Miami development officer at Equality Florida. 

Minter responded: “I would not use the term ‘rebuke,’ and I do not question the good intentions of those promoting a more limited bill. I know everyone has the same goal of protecting our community.” 

Daniel Tilley, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, responded with the below statement.  

“Through the joint statement, the ACLU of Florida is not rebuking any person, organization, or position, or characterizing any person, organization, or position as pro- or anti-trans. We are explaining why we support a comprehensive bill. We will always fight for public accommodation protections.”

Barrio later edited his online post and removed the word “rebuke,” calling it a “bad choice of words.” He also added that he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the organization. 


Trans Community Left Behind 

Advocates of FIWA insisted some protections are better than nothing for the LGB and trans communities. Currently Florida has no statewide non-discrimination laws protecting any of the LGBT community — in any capacity. 

But Equality Florida sees the new bill as leaving the trans community behind. 

Below is what its initial statement said on its website. 

“The pressure to remove public accommodations protections from the FCWA comes from one place and one place alone - anti-transgender bigotry. From transgender students being harassed at school to efforts to eject transgender servicemembers from the military, the transgender community is bearing the brunt of the renewed attack on LGBTQ equality,” the statement reads. “It has never been more important for LGBTQ people and our true allies to push back against slanders and refuse to give a pass to those who demonize transgender people as unworthy of basic dignity and equal protection.”

By Friday though the above press release was no longer on Equality Florida’s website. SFGN was only able to find a cached version of it online.

Activists in South Florida were surprised by Equality Florida’s aggressive push back.  

“The trans community is being used here and it’s reprehensible,” said TransSOCIAL President Mayfaire. “I don’t like that the trans community is being used as a weapon to fight one side, or the other. It’s wrong.”

 When asked specifically if this bill leaves the trans community behind, East Coast TransLatina President Lint said, “Never. [SAVE] is not going to leave the trans community behind. This bill is very important for the transgender community. This is a good start.”

Jen Laws, a trans man and local LGBT rights advocate, pointed to a recent report published in the Human Rights Watch that said 63 percent of trans women living in South Florida reported an income of less than $10,000 per year. It also stated more than half were unemployed. 

“Employment based health care insurance is the primary means of health care access for most Americans but far too frequently denied to Transgender persons due to lack of protections and discriminatory actions in the workplace,” he said. 

The report also noted that one in three respondents were living in “unstable” housing situations.

“The Florida Workforce Inclusion Act would finally allow us a tool to combat these and many other issues stemming from lack of economic mobility and workplace protections,” he said.  


Incrementalism vs. All or Nothing 

Nadine Smith firmly believes in the all or nothing approach. 

“This isn’t the time for us to back away in Florida for full inclusion,” Smith said. “It has strong Republican support. We’ve built business support.”

Smith worries a competing bill will only peel away support from her favored bill, while Florida will lose its best opportunity to pass comprehensive legislation protecting the LGBT community, not only in the workplace, but as well in public accommodations and housing. 

Others disagree.

 “The ‘all [or] nothing’ strategy has failed. It is time for a new strategy,” Richardson wrote on Facebook.  

4ward Miami chair Pardo also supports the incremental approach. 

“Our movement has often been characterized by incremental legislative gains paired with education. I believe it’s closed minded to think there is only one path to victory,” he said. 

 Pardo pointed to the Miami Dade Human Rights Ordinance as an example of how the incremental approach can work. 

“[The] HRO effort started with a municipal HRO in Miami Beach that had little enforcement action, but opened many opportunities to change hearts and minds,” he said. 

Many of the supporters of FIWA also support FWCA.  

“I love their bill. I wish their bill was law. It would be the best thing for everybody. But my wishes don’t always come true,” Hoch said. “Their bill will go nowhere again. It’s had one hearing in the past and it didn’t even pass at the committee level. It’s dead on arrival.”

Mayfair read both bills and agreed. 

 “I still think SAVE’s is a first step in the right direction and has a real possibility of passing and making a huge difference for the LGBTQ+ community,” he said.  “Equality Florida’s is a good bill with broader protections, but one that has lagged for 10 years in limbo.”

Wright added: “[obviously] I’d like to see the stronger one passed.” But in the meantime, she’ll take what she can get out of the Republican-controlled legislature and governor’s mansion. 

Justin Flippen, the gay mayor of the gayest city in Florida, Wilton Manors, is also standing firmly behind the new bill and the incremental strategy. 

“When the large step approach towards equality we often find more successful in South Florida doesn’t work on a statewide level, smaller steps in that same direction are more practical,” he said. “And sometimes smaller steps in the right direction are more permanent in the long run in changing hearts and minds, especially of conservative lawmakers.”

Flippen plans to bring a resolution up at the next city commission meeting in support of the new non-discrimination bill.


Public Accommodations 

 While it’s true FIWA does not cover public accommodations, it does include gender identity, which means trans people would be protected in the workplace.  

Not to mention the fact that FIWA’s definition of gender identity is identical to FWCA’s.

“We need to protect the most people as fast as possible in our most important aspect of our lives – earning a living,” Lima said. “You can’t pay for your housing, unless you have a job, and you can’t go eat at a restaurant if you don’t have the means to pay. Workplace protections are key.”

For Smith that’s just not enough. She stressed over and over to SFGN that only full equality was acceptable, even though she stopped short of drawing a red line on public accommodations. 

“Our bill does a very simple thing by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing law,” the executive director of Equality Florida said. 

But according to Hoch, the existing law is flawed and Equality Florida is misleading people about its own bill, and the fight over public accommodations. 

“Equality Florida wants us to believe that if the Competitive Workforce Act becomes law, then LGBTQ Floridians will be protected from discrimination not only in employment and housing, but also in all aspects of everyday life. But that is just not true,” Hoch said. “The definition used in the Competitive Workforce Act filed this week is more than 55 years old!”

Hoch explained that there are different definitions of what public accommodations cover. Palm Beach County for instance has a broad definition, including almost all public places. But the state has a more limited definition. 

“If the bill is enacted into law, we would be protected from discrimination when we go to hotels, restaurants and bars, gas stations, places of entertainment, theaters and stadiums. That’s it,” he said. “So, if clothing stores refuse to allow trans women to purchase a dress, that won’t be illegal. If bakeries refuse provide cakes for our weddings, that won’t be illegal. If funeral parlors refuse to bury us, that won’t be illegal. If daycare centers refuse to care for our children, that won’t be illegal. If senior citizen centers refuse to let us participate in their programs, that won’t be illegal.”

The point Hoch was attempting to make is even Smith’s strategy is incremental and more work would still have to take place if their bill passed. 

Smith appeared to agree on Facebook, saying, “I’m happy to work with you on expanding the current definition. That is a separate matter.” 

The same arguments Equality Florida is using against FIWA, Hoch said, could be used against FWCA.  

Will Conservatives Vote for Either Bill?

It’s unclear if Gov. Ron DeSantis would even consider supporting either bill. After he took office he signed an executive order banning discrimination, but did not include the LGBT community. 

And if either bill passed it would still need his signature. 

Sen. Pizzo pointed out that Sen. Gruters co-chaired Donald J. Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign for president. 

“He commands the respect of his party,” Sen. Pizzo said. “I think he can bring his colleagues with him in the Senate.”  

It’s because of those conservative credentials that Pizzo believes DeSantis could be convinced to support the more narrow bill. 

Pardo said it’s foolish to continue to hold out hopes that Democrats are going to sweep to power and change everything. 

“Should we all just wait around for another ten years while LGBTQ people continue to be exposed to workplace discrimination in the hopes of the fictional ‘blue wave’ finally hitting Florida?” Pardo said. 

Pardo may have a point. A recent story from Politico details the uphill battle Democrats will face in 2020. 

“The nation’s biggest swing state looks even more like Trump Country heading into 2020,” the article reads. “The driving force: white voters who broke Republican and showed up in such big numbers in 2018 that it looked as if they were casting ballots in a presidential election and not a midterm.”

The article goes on to note that there was a surge in nonwhite voters and young voters. But it wasn’t enough to overcome a massive uptick in white voters.  

That’s why Pizzo believes having a pro-Trump Republican advocating for this bill will increase its chances of passing. 

Flippen agrees that it’s important to reach out to conservatives.

“Working with Republicans who control our state government in Tallahassee on advancing equal rights wherever possible is the responsibility of us all. Equal rights and nondiscrimination is a matter of right and wrong, not political left and right,” Flippen said. “It transcends political party, and while Republicans may have a history of being reluctant to support LGBT issues, when they do, it is important to find successful ways to embrace that support and add it to the longstanding support of progressives and democrats to increase the chances of actually getting legislation passed.” 

Richardson intimately understands the uphill climb for any LGBT rights bill to pass the state legislature. In 2017 he said he forced the first ever recorded vote count on LGBT rights when he brought an amendment up to vote on the House floor that would have required LGBT protections in car-sharing services like Uber. 

“I couldn’t even get 50 votes, and I only got a handful of Republican members to support the amendment,” he said on Facebook. “It is time to acknowledge what so many of us know to be a fact – the comprehensive FCWA bill is dead.”

This week the religious right in Florida weighed in attacking the bill and Sen. Gruters. John Stemberger, president of the anti-LGBT Florida Family Policy Council, called for his resignation as the Chair of the Republican Party. 

“If passed, this bill will be used as a weapon to punish Christians for simply acting out their faith as small businessmen or private individuals,” Stemberger said in a prepared statement. “No state Republican Party chairman in the history of America has ever supported a bill this dangerous and irresponsible. Gruters is totally out of step with the base of the GOP, state legislative leadership, Governor DeSantis’ agenda, the Republican President of the United States and even the most recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion on similar statutes.”  

Lima and Smith though are both hopeful the governor would support their respective bills. 

“There is a possibility,” Lima said. “We have hope.” 

Smith added: “he has done some things […to] surprise people. We should not write him off.”

Smith pointed out that the LGBT movement has been making progress in “deep red territory” in Florida in places like Jacksonville and Kissimmee. 

SFGN asked Smith if the narrower bill, FIWA, made it to Gov. DeSantis’ desk, would she urge him not to sign it.

“What I would say is we need full inclusion in the civil rights law and we won’t stop until we get it,” she said. “That’s the message we have been delivering, and we will continue to deliver that message. It has brought us closer to passage than ever before.”