LGBT activists go to war on social media

I admire Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida (EQFL), and wish she would someday run for governor, but I take exception to something I read in her appeal for financial support on Dec. 28, in which she says, “Check out this sweet list of victories accomplished in 2015! With you by our side, we: Secured marriage equality in Florida -- and nationwide!”

Really? A number of dedicated LGBT activists in South Florida let their long time grumbling about EQFL percolate to the surface upon receiving that money beg. I followed the sniping closely because it is indicative of the predicament faced by LGBT advocacy groups everywhere: how will they attract enough funding to support an infrastructure that is outmoded and outsized in a culture that senses LGBT victories more than new challenges?

Is EQFL nervous about its future and irritated by claims that equality was won locally in Florida rather than through its statewide efforts? How will EQFL avoid being considered a post-marriage equality carpetbagger here in South Florida? If a recent Facebook crossfire is any indication, there are no easy answers.

The Facebook spat involved EQFL Development Director Row Iliescu, Huntsman/Jones media director Mark Ebenhoch, Huntsman/Jones attorney Bernadette Restivo, President and Founder of Palm Beach County Human Rights Council Rand Hoch, State Representative David Richardson and number of longtime activists from South Florida who would prefer that EQFL stop meddling and siphoning donations that would be better used if kept local.

Iliescu defended the wording of the EQFL appeal, writing,

“I am in receipt of about 30 year end fundraising appeals from LGBT organizations from across this state and the nation---all of them doing tremendous worthy work--and none of them mentioning any of the other organizations that also do worthy work. So please forgive Equality Florida for doing the same.[…]And you should be proud of all the great work that PBCHRC, with you, Rand, at its head have accomplished[…]But you should be very ashamed of taking every opportunity of bashing Equality Florida, Rand. Mark--you should be ashamed, too. Talk about two-faced--When the largest statewide organization awards Aaron[Huntsman] and Lee[Jones] or Rand with the Voice For Equality it means we want everyone to know about the tremendous efforts individuals are putting forth and the results they are having. We do have great reach, and we were among the first to praise David Richardson for his success with the adoption bill language.[…]So please stop being so negative about this incredibly hard-working group of staff and volunteers which is helping to bring about sooo much positive change---collaborating with so many others.[…] You could really serve your community better by focusing your meanness towards our joint opposition.”

In 2016, LGBT infighting will probably match GOP infighting as nervous and inflated organizations in both camps shrink while rogue activism gains muscle, attracts mainstream attention and shows the world how instant connectivity and LGBT visibility that now drill down into the psyche of small town America are more effective at securing LGBT equality than are traditional advocacy groups. (This prediction means I won’t be invited to any fund-raising “galas” this year, but I skipped them all in 2015, so what the hey.)

In Florida, look for an increase in local and county LGBT initiatives in 2016, and compare them to EQFL’s mission and reach for the entire state. Is there room for both approaches in the new battles for equality? Yes. Will the rules of cooperation between the two groups change in 2016? Yes. Should EQFL’s wording in their appeal have respected this new dynamic? Yes.

In researching my forthcoming book about Aaron Huntsman and Lee Jones, the Key West bartenders who could be credited with winning marriage equality in Florida despite initially receiving a cold shoulder from EQFL, I encountered several activists who feel that Huntsman and Jones received honors/awards from EQFL not because of what those two men accomplished on their own, but as a way to ride their coat tails and seem to be a part of their victory. While Huntsman and Jones are fine gentlemen who cannot be drawn into making disparaging remarks about EQFL, their friends and associates do not refrain.

If we are to open our wallets for LGBT advocacy in 2016, how can we make sure that our dollars are effective in the areas that most concern us locally rather than get soaked up in support of the overhead of large entities which by nature shuffle and lumber where rogues can dodge and dart?

I asked EQFL Deputy Director Stratton Pollitzer to weigh in on the Facebook crossfire, having received a forwarded message in which he confirmed having reviewed it.

He begins his response, “We are proud of the relationships we have with local, state, and national organizations and we routinely praise our partners in our communications and honor them from the stages of our events.”

He also says that in 2016, EQFL will focus on fighting backlash, banning discrimination and impacting the fall elections. Okay, but what about the disgruntled local activists claiming that EQFL jumps in to take credit for things accomplished by others? I asked him a follow up question to which I have not yet received a response: “If you could rewrite the text of the EQFL appeal, would you reword the part about winning marriage equality?”

I do not advocate shunning EQFL’s request for financial support, but it is incumbent upon that entity to include in its money beg a list of extremely specific goals for 2016.

Donors can be very forgiving when specific goals are not met, but unforgiving when they suspect their generosity serves only to keep afloat an organization that simply monitors and applauds the success of others. (According to its website, EQFL has a staff of 27! That is a lot of applause!)

Additionally, if EQFL became more viral in its strategies and less reliant on a small pool of wealthy contributors, a broader spectrum of financial support and a streamlined organization might be the result. LGBT advocacy in Florida needs some new and daring rules for an adventurous new year. 2016 will be a sink-or-swim year for organizations like EQFL. I would like to see EQFL become much more rogue and much less traditional and bureaucratic in its forging of better relationships with south Florida LGBT activists.