For many GLBT Americans, particularly those who have witnessed first-hand the growth of the modern gay rights movement, the changes in both the perceptions and the attitudes of society-at-large have been rapid and in many instances surprising.
The culture has come a long way since the Stonewall Riots in New York City: juxtapose the brutality of the NYPD in Greenwich Village during the summer of 1969 with Adam Lambert’s same-sex lip-lock during the American Music Awards during the winter of 2009.
The pop culture reflects the changes in the prevailing attitudes of mainstream society, from “Will & Grace” and “Queer as Folk,” to the LoGo and Here! networks (to say nothing of Bravo, the gayest network of them all).
But for many GLBT Americans, the underbelly to this benevolent façade remains as ugly as it ever was. From Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to California’s Proposition 8, institutionalized discrimination remains an ever-present reality for tens of thousands of GLBT citizens.
One in three GLBT individuals have reported receiving harassing letters, emails or faxes at their jobs because of their sexual identity. One in three GLBT individuals say they’ve been turned away from buying or renting a home for the same reason. And half of all GLBT individuals have reported being discriminated sometime in their lifetime.
That said, the battle to end discrimination based on sexual and gender identity has resources at its disposal that the pioneers at Stonewall didn’t.
In 2007, then-supervising attorney George Castrataro and others from the Legal Aid Service of Broward County established the Broward Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) with the goal of protecting the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons through legal representation, education and mobilization. Scott Rouda of Atlantic Properties International on Galt Ocean Mile was a founding member of BHRI’s original advisory board. He remains an active member of the organization.
“We had an opportunity to do something,” Rouda recalls. “Broward County had a human rights ordinance, and a framework where gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons could seek protection in cases where they believed they’d been discriminated against.”
A realtor by profession, the Initiative’s mandate to protect against housing discrimination hit close to home for Rouda. “As the Supreme Court said, we are a definable group,” says Rouda. “And there are still many areas where we aren’t being treated fairly, and right here in Florida, too.”
BHRI is supported financially by Legal AidOn January 13th, BHRI’s advisory council had its first meeting of 2010 at the Pride Center at Equality Park. The meeting was convened to map out a plan for BHRI’s sustainability through the rest of this year and into the future. Its work has never been more important.—the only free legal service provider in Broward County—as well as from community donations, and through a grant by the John C. Graves Charitable Fund of the Community Foundation of Broward.
According to the group’s staff attorney, Kara Schickowski, the state of Florida generally is not accommodating to its GLBT community: gay marriage has been voted against by the people, and Florida is one of only two states in the country that don’t allow a gay person to adopt a child.
“There has been another recent push to have these state and federal laws amended to include sexual orientation,” Schickowski says.
She says that if people are aware that they more comfortable taking steps to correct any wrongs they may have experienced—in their places of employment or housing, for instance.
Schickowski says that the advisory council meeting set the tone for BHRI’s future work.
“I’m here at Legal Aid, available to meet with clients that may have faced discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but if the community doesn’t know BHRI and Legal Aid exists or that they have rights in Broward County then this project just doesn’t work,” Schickowski added.
Schickowski says that getting the word out about BHRI is job one in 2010. “I have a feeling that there are still many folks that mayhave rights in Broward County, they should feel have experienced discrimination that have not come forward,” she said.
“So,” adds Schickowski, “this goes back to BHRI’s main role in the community this year—increase visibility of the project and educate the community at large.”
Rouda says he’s upbeat about the prospects for both GLBT civil rights and the future of BHRI. “We have already established informal alliances with similar groups in Palm Beach County and in Orlando. That says a lot for the direction Florida is moving.”
Cliff Dunn has over 20 years of broadcasting and journalistic experience. He lives in Wilton Manors.