(SS) Florida has only one openly gay state legislator, but a record eight LGBT candidates are on the ballot trying to change that.
All the candidates are in winnable races. They say the LGBT community needs greater representation because the Legislature's conservative outlook on gay rights has not kept up with the swiftly liberalizing views of Floridians.
Five of the candidates running are from South Florida, including incumbent state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. He has a Republican opponent in November, but the district is largely Democratic.
He believes the relatively large group of LGBT candidates is an indication of things to come.
"I think it's going to be the new normal," he said. "We're at a place and time where people are truly being evaluated based on their qualifications and not some of these other demographics."
The other South Floridians are: Paulette Armstead and Ken Keechl, both running in Broward; and Michael Góngora and Kevin Burns, facing each other in a state Senate race in Miami-Dade.
They are joined statewide by Carlos Guillermo Smith and Beth Tuura, both running in the Orlando area, and Jennifer Webb, running in a west coast district that includes parts of St. Petersburg.
While all eight of the candidates are Democrats, and the Democratic Party generally pushes for expansion of gay rights, they say it makes a difference to have members of their community in the Legislature.
"The more gays and lesbians that are involved on the floor of the House, the more the other side is going to see that we're not different than anybody else," Keechl said. "It's a very toxic environment to begin with, and we're only there for two or three months, but I'm hopeful that it can make a difference."
"When I'm able to stand on the floor and speak on an issue that affects me so personally, then I think it's more impactful," he said. "We're always going to need our straight allies, but I do think it changes the dynamics to have someone who's so personally affected talk about it in a way that people can relate to it on a personal level."
After the legalization of gay marriage, the state Legislature started to push back at the expansion of LGBT rights, including the passage last session of a bill that protects clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages. They already have that right under the First Amendment, but supporters of the bill said it would protect clergy from expensive lawsuits.
Opponents of the bill called it homophobic and unnecessary.
A Gallup demographic study in 2012 found that 3.5 percent of Floridians self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But because the study asked people to self-identify, it's possible the number of LGBT people in Florida is somewhat higher.
Despite that small percentage, a series of polls over the past two years has found about 60 percent of Floridians support gay marriage, and a slightly larger percentage support LGBT nondiscrimination laws.
Richardson became one of Florida's first openly gay representatives, along with Joe Saunders of Orlando, when the two were first elected to office in 2012. Richardson says his sexual orientation was never an issue.
"I didn't even get any questions," he said. "No one asked me to leave their front porch when I was knocking on doors."
Saunders lasted just one term in office, but Smith, the man who served as his legislative aide, is now looking to take Saunders' old seat back from the Republicans. And Smith has an easy path to power; he faces only an independent candidate in November.
"The last couple years have been fairly hostile for LGBT Floridians even as Republicans need to be moving on from these social wars. Not only because it's 2016 and, come on, get over it, but because they can't afford to marginalize a very active voter base," he said. "Things are moving in our direction, and I think that's a good signal of things to come."
For the other six LGBT candidates, the future is less certain. Burns, Góngora and Armstead don't have Republican opponents but face crowded Democratic primaries.
"I'm running as an out-and-proud lesbian, but it doesn't make a difference. I want people to look at my qualifications, my advocacy," Armstead said. "To have more [LGBT candidates] is not some big surprise. Even Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is, so I'm in good company."
Armstead said that although the LGBT community may take a deeper interest in issues such as firing people based on their sexual orientation — the subject of a bill that comes up every year and just as frequently dies — the most important issues tend to be the same.
"A lot of the issues facing the LGBT community are some of the same issues facing the general community — the economy, jobs, the expansion of Medicaid and quality health care," she said. "That community is interested in good schools, affordable housing. The issues are no different."
The final three candidates face the toughest odds of getting elected, because all are trying to unseat incumbent Republicans.
Tuura has to win a primary before trying to beat state Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, in November. Webb will face state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, in November. And likely Democratic candidate Keechl will go against state Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, the only Republican state legislator in Broward County.
Beating an incumbent is rarely easy but all three of these districts produce close races, and all three candidates have raised enough money to keep them competitive.
"I think this is a precursor of things to come," Keechl said. "If the House has 120 people in it and we say five percent of the population is gay or lesbian, you would expect to have 5 or 6 gay or lesbian House members."
Keechl became Broward County's first openly gay county commissioner in 2006, and even ten years ago, he found there was little pushback over a gay politician.
"I don't remember any homophobia in 2006 while I was running, with the exception of one thing that happened," he said. "Jim Scott, my Republican opponent, and I live in the same neighborhood. I was jogging one day and I saw a Jim Scott sign defaced with the word 'Fag' and I thought, 'I think they got the wrong guy.'"