Nadine Smith knew she was gay from a very young age. Possibly because her third-grade girlfriend “Amber” told her so. – Not that she was gay, just that she was in fact, her girlfriend. 

It wasn’t until they told their teacher about their plans to get married, that they were told that ‘boys had to marry girls, and girls had to marry boys.’ That’s the way things were.

“I took that to mean that if I did not choose a husband for myself, one would be assigned to me,” Smith said. Sleepy-eyed conference goers laughed, listening as she told her story Saturday morning between sips of coffee.

“I didn’t realize I had gaydar back then, but I must have because I went up to the gayest little boy in class, and I told him he was going to be my husband, but that “Amber” was going to move with us after her husband died in the war. This was at peace time. – But I was an early activist is what I’m trying to say.”

Nadine was one of four national co-chairs of the 1993 March on Washington. She met with then President Bill Clinton in the first meeting of its kind between a sitting president and gay community leaders. 

But it was in the third grade that Nadine learned the first lesson.

“It was the first time that I learned the lesson, that got reinforced time and time again throughout my life. ‘You shouldn’t exist,’” Smith said. “‘You shouldn’t exist, and if you do exist, you should hide…and if you don’t hide well enough – you deserve what happens to you.’”

After graduating from high school in Panama City Florida, Nadine joined the Air Force Academy, but left in 1993 after the passage of DADT. 

“There were certain questions I answered accurately, and got into the Academy, that, but I could not answer those questions the same way after I’d been there for a little bit,” Smith said. 

Smith said that first lesson was often reinforced by the people who were supposed to protect her the most: teachers, faith leaders and family members. So, in a pre-internet era, her activism didn’t begin until she took the opportunity to travel to Europe, while she was attending the University of South Florida. 

“It could have said “blah blah blah blah, free trip to Europe, I was in,” Smith said. “I was really unprepared for this environment. I was just wondering what lesbians in London might be like.”

She served on the founding board of the International Gay and Lesbian Organization, after seeing an announcement looking for American delegates on a college bulletin board. The experience, she said, changed her world view.

“I’d never experienced anything like this before, where there were young people from all over the world, but where the Western European government was funding this work, there were confident, and out, and I had never experienced that.”

Smith describes a meeting in Berlin, where members of the IGLO were “roughed up” by some U.S. soldiers.

“I remember thinking, when they came back, some of banged up some bleeding and scraped, ‘Yeah, that happens. You gotta be careful.’ – the reaction of everyone else was ‘This is outrageous, we’re going to call the U.S. Embassy, we’re going to have a demonstration, we’re going to protest,’” Smith said. “And I thought, ‘My God, how did I learn to be so accepting and docile…’”

She had to unlearn it. And that was where her activism began.

Now Smith is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Florida Advisory Committee, a Florida Chamber Foundation Trustee, and she has served on President Obama's National Finance Committee.  

She was named one of the state's "Most Powerful and Influential Women" by the Florida Diversity Council in 2013, and she was given the League of Women Voter's Woman of Distinction Award in 2015. She lives in St. Petersburg with her wife Andrea and son Logan, but works as a lobbyist in Tallahassee during the legislative session.

“For me activism is about unlearning all those things I’ve learned, unlearning to be docile and getting that poison out. – It’s one of those things that you don’t know exists until you see the possibility of a different world.”