In 2014, Nadine Smith and Equality Florida made marriage equality a very real possibility for 2015

By : Steve Blanchard
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St. Petersburg – A long list of people worked tirelessly in Florida this 2014 to bring marriage equality to the Sunshine State. But someone who has been at the forefront of that fight for more than a decade is Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida.

In January, EQFL filed the very first lawsuit against the state on behalf of six same-sex couples demanding marriage equality. By doing so, marriage equality suddenly had multiple faces demanding equal rights.

“We’ve invested really deeply in telling our stories in a human way,” Smith says from Washington D.C., where she was preparing to attend the White House’s holiday celebration. “When it came to marriage, we really stopped talking about the technicalities and legalities of marriage and focused on the very human stories of people who love and care for the most important people in their lives. We showed why marriage matters.”

And it has worked. In 2014, a dramatic shift in public opinion appeared, showing that 57% of Floridians support marriage rights for same-sex couples. That’s impressive, especially since it was only six years ago that 62% of voters approved the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Equality Florida’s lawsuit was soon joined by multiple other suits against the state.

“That whole process, with all five of those lawsuits, has put the issue in people’s consciousness at a whole different level,” Smith says.
Smith is typically seen at galas and events celebrating—and protesting—government decisions. And while the venues change, one thing remains constant—Smith leads by example.

She and her wife, Andrea, and their son, Logan, are representative of the modern, American family. In 2009, the two women were legally married in Vermont. If Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage ends on Jan. 6, as a federal judge has ordered, the Smiths will be recognized as a legal couple here.

“I get calls from reporters eager to talk to the first couples to get married and I remind them that our state is massive and a lot of people here are already married, just not recognized by their home state,” Smith says. “It’s huge, obviously, for those who get married in January when that window opens. But it’s also incredibly huge for those of us legally married elsewhere but denied hundreds of rights here and at the federal level.”

When the Smiths welcomed their son, Smith says some people assumed she would quietly vanish and leave the activism of equality to someone else. That semi-retirement never crossed her mind, Smith says.

“Every day my family is a reminder of the work that still has to be done,” Smith says. “I want my son to grow up in a world where stories of what we face today seem like ancient history.”

And Smith is optimistic Florida’s ban will fall in January, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over for her, or Equality Florida. She encourages supporters of equality to remain optimistic, yet impatient.
“We are winning, but we haven’t won,” she says. “The worst thing we can do now is sit back and forget all the work it took to get us here. So we’re not going to take our foot off the gas for a moment. And we realize that marriage isn’t the end of the road for this work.”

A statewide non-discrimination law still needs to be passed in Tallahassee, even if marriage equality does come in 2015.

“Not everyone wants to get married or will get married,” Smith admits. “Marriage isn’t the right decision for everyone. But pretty much everyone needs a job where they don’t face discrimination on a daily basis, simply because of who they are.”

And that goes for transgender Floridians as well. And Smith is quick to share that transgender equality isn’t the next civil rights movement. It’s already here.

“I wouldn’t put it off in the future somewhere,” she says. “We have amazing leadership emerging in the trans community and I am thrilled Gina Duncan became our transgender inclusion director. The visibility of the trans community has the same effect as the visibility of the gay and lesbian community has. It takes the caricature and stereotype that is dehumanizing and turns trans people into real people.”

So while 2014 was truly a remarkable year for Smith and for Equality Florida, 2015 is shaping up to be just as amazing, if not more so.

“At the end of 2012, we said we would have marriage equality and a statewide non-discrimination law within the next three years,” Smith recalls. “I’m still hoping we hit that target on both counts. We also have a disproportionate part of the homeless population that is LGBT and we have the ongoing psychological and spiritual abuse inflected far too often by the faith community. We also have the issues that continue to disproportionately impact our senor population and moving them into institutions that force them back into invisibility.”

So there is still plenty to tackle moving forward, says Smith, who turns 50 in 2015.

“How did that happen?” she laughs.

Her personal goals for the New Year are as large as her professional and activism goals, and maybe even more admirable.

“My goal is to continue to heal,” she says. “This work is as much about changing me as it is changing the laws and the culture. Many of us who grew up in the same era s me know it is nearly impossible to escape all the internalized homophobia and internalized messages. So for me, it’s been a beautiful challenge to excavate that poison I was fed very early—intentionally and unintentionally from people who were supposed to protect me the most.

“So my goal for 2015 and beyond is to be the adult I wish had been there for me.”

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