Longest-Running Florida Gay Rights Law Hits 30-year Mark

Rand Hoch. Photo courtesy of Rand Hoch.

(Mirror)The oldest Florida gay rights law – the Palm Beach County Fair Housing Act protecting gays from housing discrimination – recently hit a milestone.

The ordinance was voted into law in 1990 and recently marked its 30th year on the books Jan. 17. 

Rand Hoch was involved from the start in getting it passed. 

He also carries the distinction of having been Floridas first openly gay judge. Hoch is also the founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. 

Florida has always been slower than a lot of states when it comes to gay rights,” Hoch said. 

He recalls that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, equal rights initiatives had begun to take hold in cities like New York, where gays and other marginalized groups demanded to be treated like everyone else.

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In 1977, the (then) Dade County Commission passed a gay rights ordinance, making Miami the 40th U.S. city to do so.

Its passage prompted a crusade by anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant, who called for a referendum to repeal the ordinance.

It was an ugly campaign,” Hoch said. Portraying gay people as pedophiles, it was frightening.” 

Bryant got her wish later in the year when the referendum passed by an almost 2-to-1 margin.

Hoch said it had a demoralizing effect on the gay rights movement.  

It took until the late 1980s for anyone to even try to get something done,” he said. She did such a number on the minds of Floridians, even in relatively progressive Miami.”

In the late 1980s, Congress made changes to the federal Fair Housing Act for people 55-and-older to accommodate adult-only” communities. 

That opened a door, because every place that had fair housing laws that didnt protect those 55-and-over now had to do it,” Hoch said.

Hoch, who was an attorney, saw a unique opportunity to be leveraged. 

We figured we could get the words sexual orientation’ added [to the Palm Beach County Fair Housing Act] to cover LGBTQ,” he said. In reality, we got sexual orientation defined as homosexuality and bisexuality.’”

 

The long game

As one might imagine the process took a lot of organization and work – in fact about three years’ worth.

The former Atlantic Coast Democratic Club played a big part. Gay Democrats from across Palm Beach County strategized and met.

At the time, they were facing a county commission that was Republican by a 3-to-2 margin. It was known that the Republicans opposed the change and the Democrats supported it. 

Hoch said the strategy wasnt so much to gather scores of gays for public rallies and try to ram through legislation, but to methodically become involved in political campaigns in order to gain influence. 

We wanted to get to know the people who run campaigns and the elected officials,” Hoch said. To help people get elected.”

Hochs influence would increase, too, with roles as vice chair and chair of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. 

And all of the sudden once we had these connections, we said: Yes, we have a gay agenda. To protect people from discrimination,’” Hoch said.

They decided to keep the pressure on, but keep it as simple as possible.

We were asking them to put in a couple words and a definition,” Hoch said of the as-non-threatening-as-possible strategy at the time.

And instead of going to the media and creating a lot of publicity, they went directly to the county commissioners. 

The idea was to simply convince at least one Republican to vote for the new language,” Hoch said. 

But the media eventually caught wind of the situation, and headlines read Law to protect live-in lovers,” and things of that sort, Hoch said.

So much for flying under the radar – but they stayed optimistic.

Two hearings were soon set: a first reading” and a final vote. 

Hoch said supporters mostly sat quietly in the first hearing to gauge the opposition, which he said generally fell into two groups.

There were the Realtors who worked in gay areas that were worried about being fined [under the proposed change],” he said. They thought it was unfair.”

Fines for violating the ordinance went up to $50,000.

And then there were the crazies. 

Hoch said the crazies were those who perpetuated the AIDS scare. They essentially had the view that gay people were bad and were going to spread AIDS across Florida if the ordinance was passed. 

Fortunately, Hoch said, there werent many in that group.

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We had our people there with buttons reading Housing is a Right, Not a Benefit.’ We had preachers, teachers and lawyers on our side. The other side underestimated our organization,” Hoch said.

The day of the final hearing Hoch printed out a list of the many municipalities across the U.S. that had already enacted similar laws to show that what they were trying to accomplish wasnt a radical idea.

We were demonstrating that if its OK to protect gays from housing discrimination in other cities, its OK in Florida. That was significant,” he said.

When the commissioners cast their votes it was 4-to-1 in favor of the new law. They got two Republican crossovers.

It was monumental for us. This was breaking the glass ceiling,” Hoch said. It takes a while to build something monumental like this.” 

 

Life of action

Hoch had founded the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council in 1988 with Jim Swope in the midst of the campaign for the new law. The group helped do much of the organizing in the run-up to the 1990 hearing.

It remains very active today, recently launching a gender-neutral restroom initiative in West Palm Beach.

Hoch, who has vast political and civic experience, grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Florida in 1978. 

He was a real estate broker before he went to Stetson University College of Law to be near a gay beach” in St. Petersburg.

Hoch himself said hed been discriminated against in 1984 for being gay. He was employed by an undisclosed law firm at the time. The experience was part of what motivated him to get the law changed in Palm Beach County.

Hoch had come out to his employer to let them know if there were functions where spouses were invited, hed like to bring a date if he had one. He said hed assumed it was OK to be gay at the firm. 

But a series of events made it clear that the firm thought his sexuality would be more trouble than it was worth.

Hoch went on to practice real estate law, labor law and unemployment law, representing unions and workers.

In 1992, he became Floridas first openly gay judge. He did one judicial term in Daytona, representing Volusia, Seminole and Flagler counties.

 

 

For more on the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, go to PBCHRC.org.


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