Thousands rally for equality, celebrate Supreme Court rulings at Lake Eola

By : Susan Clary
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Rene Cotto and Frederick Lewis smiled at each other and held hands as they exchanged vows in a commitment ceremony under a decorated canopy on Lake Eola. They wore matching white tuxedo jackets and red shorts.

Across the lake, thousands of people dressed in red gathered June 27 at the Lake Eola Bandshell in another celebration. A day earlier the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and dismissed Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage in California.

“Can you feel it?” State Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) asked the crowd. “We are winning and it feels so good.”

Saunders, the first openly gay Central Floridian to be elected to the State Legislature, was one of a dozen LGBT leaders who took to the stage to express their jubilation. The 90-minute “Paint Orlando Red” marriage equality rally drew approximately 4,000 people. A party followed.

See a gallery from Paint Orlando Red here!

Musician Blue Starr entertained as the Mistress of Ceremonies for the program. Julie Ohrberg with the Central Florida Sounds of Freedom and the Proud Veterans of America kicked off the event with the National Anthem. Terri Steed, of Joy MCC, said a prayer.

Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, sporting a bedazzled red hat, stepped to the stage and took the opportunity to tout past LGBT accomplishments including everything from a Domestic Partnership Registry in Orlando to the passage of a Hate Crimes Prevention Act at the federal level.

“But oh, what happened yesterday,” Sheehan said. “History has been made in our nation. 83-year old Edith Windsor did what many activists have tried to do for decades – a senior citizen armed only with her love of another woman and the life they created in 42 years together toppled DOMA.”

Sheehan was referring to Windsor, who was the plaintiff in the DOMA case. In 2009 Windsor’s partner Thea Spyer, died after a battle of multiple sclerosis. Spyer left her estate to Windsor, but because their marriage was not legally recognized, Windsor was charged $363,053 in estate taxes. Windsor’s legal battled ended in success with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in her case. She will be eligible for a tax refund, plus interest.

The crowd stood and cheered when the Orlando Gay Chorus sang a resounding version of “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables as members waved red equality flags and banners down the aisles, stirring emotion in the crowd. A woman stood on stage to translate into American Sign Language.

Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, who stood with wife Susannah and daughter Hillary, said his move from the state legislature to county government allowed him to update the office anti-discrimination policy and provide a tax equity program for LGBT employees.

“Yesterday’s decisions strengthened everyone’s marriage,” Randolph said. “We are here as straight allies.”

Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, who was in Washington D.C. and did not attend the rally, sent constituent field representative Vivian Rodriguez to read a statement. State Rep. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) and retired Orlando Police Chief Val Demings gave rousing speeches. The Orlando Gay Parents took the stage. A large rally banner listed sponsors:
The Center, Come Out With Pride Orlando, ACLU, Equality Florida, Metropolitan Business Association, Watermark and the Human Rights Campaign.

As the sun set, the Lake Eola fountain lit up in a rainbow of colors while red luminaries placed around the lake set off a glow.

Rob Domenico stepped up to talk about his unexpected hospitalization in January due to a terminal heart condition. The Domestic Partner Registry protected him and his partner of 11 years from discrimination as a same sex couple in the hospital system. Domenico encouraged the crowd to register.

“Further legitimize your relationship to each other, your friends and family. Show our government just how many couples are in need of protection,” Domerico said. “Let society know our relationships matter and deserve their respect. Ensure your hand is the one your partner holds as he or she leaves this earth.”

Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida, who wiped tears from her eyes backstage as each speaker passionately spoke, took the stage as the final speaker. She encouraged the crowd not to move to a state where gay marriage is legal, but to stay and fight for equal rights in Florida by becoming involved EQFL’s statewide call to action, “Get Engaged.”

“When the Supreme Court ruled, the country shifted,” Smith said. “Marriage equality is coming to Florida and we are not going to wait for it to trickle down.”

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