As leaders from the LGBT community gathered in Fort Lauderdale to discuss the future of the equality movement there was a sense of urgency in the audience. Court wins in states across the United States were blunted by the electoral process two weeks ago as Democrats took a drubbing at the ballot box.
Our Fund, a foundation dedicated to connecting the LGBT community in South Florida, hosted a forum at the Museum of Art, in which explanations were given and projections made. Lesbian philanthropist Mona Pittenger moderated the forum. The panel featured U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith, Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart, National LGBTQ Task Force Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Stacey Long-Simmons and Washington, D.C. Supreme Court lawyer Paul Smith.
“We have to make sure we are not complacent,” said Wasserman Schultz, who represents House District 23 in Congress, which includes Weston.
Nadine Smith, the CEO of Florida’s largest civil rights organization, acknowledged the LGBT community “took some real losses and lost some real heroes.”
One of those heroes was Florida Representative Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) who lost by some 700 votes in the hotly contested district 49. Saunders was a co-sponsor of the Competitive Workforce Act, a bill that offered protections to those who identify as LGBT in the workplace.
Nadine Smith said the current Florida legislature resembles the Jeb Bush era in Tallahassee.
“Nothing has changed,” she said. “We’re still dealing with the same political climate.”
And that climate is not friendly for LGBT causes such as same-sex marriage. Currently, there are 32 states in the U.S., including Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal.
“It’s easier to name the states that do not have same-sex marriage,” Pittenger said.
And Florida is one of them.
The Sunshine State, despite having a large LGBT population, particularly in South Florida, is governed by a Republican governor and a state house that has a Republican super majority and is veto-proof. Saunders is gone, but his bill lives on, said Nadine Smith, and will be introduced at the next session by a Republican, Representative Holly Raschein of Key Largo.
“Just don’t get played,” said Wasserman Schultz, who sounded skeptical as to the bill’s advancement through a committee.
Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, also warned of tactics employed by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“I have no faith in Pam Bondi,” said Wasserman Schultz. “She will do everything she can to throw obstacles in our way.”
Stacey Long-Simmons agreed and warned the audience that the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage was not going away.
“We need to be ready for NOM,” Long-Simmons said. “They are not just going to sit quietly.”
Long-Simmons proudly announced the Task Force has a new name – adding the letter “Q” to its title in a show of support for the queer community. She also plugged the organization’s slogan -- “Be You” -- and encouraged audience members to attend next year’s “Creating Change” convention in Denver.
Meanwhile, Lambda Legal attorneys Cathcart and Paul Smith tried to strike a balance between the state court victories for same-sex marriage and the realities of midterm elections that were unfriendly to LGBT candidates and allies.
“October was an amazing month, let’s not forget that,” Paul Smith said. “We are in a so much stronger position now with the progress made in the states.”
Smith said the Supreme Court has been monitoring the states march to same-sex marriage and is likely relieved there has been no civil disobedience over the issue.
One of the biggest applause lines of the evening came when Cathcart lamented Democrats’ midterm strategy of distancing party candidates from President Barack Obama.
“I think people are writing off the President too quickly,” Cathcart said. “There’s still a lot of power there. Agencies have a lot of power. Once policy work is done, it’s hard to undo.”
All panelists agreed that mobilizing LGBT voters during the next election cycle was vital and some even joked that a theme for the next campaign should be “bring a date to vote.”