Florida lawmakers, activists divided on how to best legislate equality

By : A.S. Reynolds
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Florida’s legislative session convenes each March, a time where our legislators make or amend state law. With each session comes an opportunity for lawmakers to add LGBTQ employment and accommodation protections to the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, which currently secures freedom from discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap or marital status.

Since 2007, lawmakers have introduced legislation fighting for equality on these fronts but have met failure in the conservative Florida legislature. This year, Rep. Jennifer Webb (D-Gulfport), Sen. Darryl Rouson (D- St. Petersburg) and Sen. Joe Gruters (R- Sarasota) have introduced two differing LGBTQ equality bills ahead of the 2019 Florida legislative session, scheduled to begin March 5.

Rep. Jennifer Webb (Photo by Dylan Todd)

The lawmakers believe passage in the Sunshine State is possible but have different ideas on how to achieve this goal. Rouson and Webb’s HB485/SB430—the Florida Competitive Workforce Act (FCWA)—amends the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 with workplace and public accommodation protections, making it illegal to terminate a person from their employment, force them to leave a business or evict them from their home simply for being LGBTQ. Lawmakers introduced this bill in late January without Republican sponsorship.

Other lawmakers supporting SB430 through co-introduction include Sen. Lori Berman (D-Palm Beach), Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami-Dade), Sen. Kevin J. Rader (D-Palm Beach), Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orange), Sen. Gary M. Farmer (D-Broward) and Sen. Lauren Book (D-Broward). Webb and Rouson’s ambitious efforts enjoy full support from Equality Florida, the Human Rights Campaign, ACLU Florida and the National Center for Transgender Equality among others.
SB438, the Florida Inclusive Workforce Act (FIWA), was introduced one day after Webb and Rouson introduced the FCWA. It was introduced by the freshman Sen. Gruters, also the Florida Republican Party’s chairman, and focuses on workforce issues.

It does not include public accommodation protections and is co-sponsored by Sen. Lori Berman (D-Palm Beach), Sen. Kevin J. Rader (D-Palm Beach) and Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami-Dade).

Both Webb and Rouson are encouraged that their bill will pass this year due to the large freshman class of lawmakers. They also look to a growing demand from corporations for LGBTQ inclusive employment protections, including from 11 fortune 500 companies, as well as Florida’s desire for a tech industry and perhaps a broad degree of bipartisan support. “Industries want inclusive spaces for their employees,” Webb says. “Businesses want assurance that employees and their families are protected.”

Sen. Darryl Rouson (Photo courtesy Darryl Rouson’s Facebook)

When asked why she is committed to comprehensive protections, she says “I want to champion this bill because I’m a product of this community and I’ve watched this bill fail for years since its first introduction. I’m grateful to prior legislators and in awe at how far we’ve come.” She adds that “when I talk to fellow lawmakers, the view is that it’s important to have a fully-inclusive, equitable Competitive Workforce Act.”

The lawmaker also believes that Florida’s newly-elected Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) won’t utilize his veto power. On his first day in office, the governor signed an executive order protecting state workers from discrimination based on religion, sex, color, age, race, national origin, marital status and disability that did not specifically include LGBTQ protections.

Webb is confident that if the bill arrives on his desk DeSantis will “do the right thing.” Watermark reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment but as of press time has received no response.

“Passing the Florida Competitive Workforce Act would send a message that Florida is open for business to all,” Rouson explains. “Passing nondiscrimination protections is vital for growing Florida’s economy and building our brand as a top state for business. Eighteen other states have already passed comprehensive nondiscrimination bills—it’s past time that Florida join those states. This bill will give LGBTQ Floridians the protections they deserve.”
SAVE, a Miami-based LGBTQ nonprofit, the Palm Beach Human Rights Council, TransLatina, the Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality and Gruters believe this legislation will continue a pattern of failure and will not make it out of the lower House chamber. “Legislation to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations was initially introduced in 2007 but failed to hit the Senate floor,” SAVE’s website reads.

Rep. Joe Gruters (Photo courtesy Joe Gruters’ Facebook)

“The Florida Competitive Workforce Act followed in 2009 but unfortunately, in the past nine legislative sessions, the bill failed to be heard in the Florida House of Representatives,” it continues. “In 2015, there was one hearing in the Senate, which failed to pass.”

“Thanks to the efforts of Senator Gruters, the LGBTQ community has a new champion in the Florida Senate,” says Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE. “Protecting our LGBTQ community from discrimination in Florida will take a bipartisan effort that SAVE believes is the winning pathway.”

Gruters’ bill has the backing from SAVE and other southern Florida LGBTQ equality-driven nonprofits. FIWA’s critics believe it reinforces the idea that transgender individuals are “bathroom predators,” unequal to their cisgender counterparts. The concerns are heightened during a time when the U.S. president is targeting transgender Americans with discriminatory policy demands and rhetoric.

“From transgender students being harassed at school to efforts to eject transgender service members from the military, to the numerous murders of transgender women of color in Florida, the transgender community is bearing the brunt of the attacks on LGBTQ equality,” Equality Florida Director of Transgender Equality Gina Duncan says. “By omitting specific rights and protections, the FIWA reinforces the bias and stigma that the transgender community faces every day.

“The FIWA is incremental legislation, designed to ‘move the ball down the field.’ This segmented and partial approach to civil rights validates the false and hateful rhetoric designed to marginalize the transgender community,” she continues. “By omitting public accommodations, the FIWA is acquiescing on this issue and gas lighting the false anti-transgender bathroom rhetoric that has been dispelled time and again across the country.”

According to Webb, “it sets up an underclass where LGBTQ people are seen as second class citizens not deserving of civil rights.” She says “equality isn’t for some, it’s for everyone,” adding that she’s “absolutely not willing to leave anyone out.”

Rouson agrees. “The accommodations portion is essential because it protects those most vulnerable in the LGBTQ community—the transgender community. The Florida Civil Rights Act should be amended to protect all individuals in our community—no person should be denied access to public spaces simply because of who they are.”
Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders disagrees with the notion of passing legislation without accommodation protections. “Just as the levees holding back progress begin to buckle, and when the pressure has been the greatest it’s ever been, they’ve argued for a ‘pragmatic’ and piecemeal approach that would leave behind protections in public accommodations and housing.

“Let us be clear, those of us who oppose an employment-only strategy don’t believe that those calling for the Florida ‘Inclusion’ Workforce Act are transphobic,” he continues, “but we do believe that this strategy is a capitulation to anti-trans attacks and outrageous lies that equate our community’s most vulnerable with predators and pedophiles. At a time when Florida had the most murders of transgender people of any state, when the top target of our opposition is trans students using the proper bathrooms at school and efforts intensify to force trans service members out of the military, we should not acquiesce to these ugly lies about who transgender people are or give them power.”

“Do you want to pass a bill? Or do you want to make a point?” Gruters asked rhetorically in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Jan. 23. “I want to pass bills.”

Watermark reached out to Gruters for additional comment but received no response. According to public record, he and his proponents believe passage of the FIWA is a first step in championing LGBTQ protection measures in a deeply conservative legislature.

Breaking the legislation down into incremental bits may not be good enough for the over 450 businesses calling for anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws in Florida. “Without statewide LGBTQ protections, business leaders have testified that they struggle to compete for top talent,” Duncan says.

“With laws in place ensuring the rights of LGBTQ people,” Webb adds, “our region could attract top industries—making Tampa Bay the next San Francisco.”

With only 21 out of 50 states codifying equality laws in 2019, states providing employment and accommodation protections are in the minority. However, Florida is the third largest state in the country and cities such as Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami all rank in the top 25 most LGBTQ dense metro areas in the U.S.
Florida companies calling for these policy measures include The Walt Disney Company, Darden Restaurants, Tech Data Corporation, Marriott Hotels & Resorts and others major corporations—all of which support the FCWA.

Equality Florida Director of Transgender Equality Gina Duncan speaks during the “Rally to End Hate” in 2016. (Photo courtesy Equality Florida)

Florida’s lack of statewide hiring protections leaves cities and counties charged with defending LGBTQ citizens from discrimination. According to The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 10 counties and 14 cities from Key West to Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Orlando, Pinellas County, Tampa and more provide ordinances protecting LGBTQ residents.

Additionally, Florida has more local nondiscrimination laws than any other state and each one includes gender identity and sexual orientation protections—covering 60 percent of LGBTQ residents. In a statement from Equality Florida, the organization advises that “communities enact these protections because they know having a diverse talent pool helps their community thrive. Having these protections is quickly becoming the standard for cities and counties across Florida.”

“Currently, comprehensive local nondiscrimination protections that include gender identity and sexual orientation cover 60 percent of our state’s population, proving that there is a clear mandate for passing comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation,” Duncan says. “The LGBTQ community has achieved this by refusing to accept scare tactics and instead, addressing fears and misinformation directly. We need to do the same at the state level.”

“This new bill goes into the Florida Civil Rights Act and literally fences us away from both housing and public accommodations—a move made solely to make those who believe lies about the transgender community comfortable,” Saunders adds. “Politically this comes in a moment when the chorus to create comprehensive protections has never been louder.”

Orlando, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Miami Beach and Wilton Manors all scored a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Municipality Index in 2018. Tourist destinations such as these cities are putting their foot down on discrimination through efficient ordinances.

The City of St. Petersburg’s Human Rights Ordinance was expanded in 2013 to include protections for gender identity and expression in employment, housing, and public accommodations. “No one booking a hotel or making a restaurant reservation in Florida should have to wonder if they are welcome there, or worry about being asked to leave because of who they are,” says Gina Driscoll, St. Petersburg City Councilmember. “This is true for our residents and for the growing number of LGBTQ visitors who spend millions of dollars in our state every year.”

Orlando is going as far as installing “multi-stall gender neutral bathrooms in City Hall,” says Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando). “Consensus building while not compromising on the issues is how places like Orlando, with the help of Mayor Buddy Dyer and City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, elevate equality-driven policy.”

If 60 percent of Florida is covered by anti-discrimination laws, why hasn’t legislation passed at the state level—especially with significant support from major corporations?
“The support in Tallahassee for statewide nondiscrimination protections has been strong and bipartisan for years,” says Nadine Smith, co-founder and CEO of Equality Florida. “The problem really has boiled down to leadership’s unwillingness to let the bill move.”

Over the years, popularity for the FCWA increased, making it the third most co-sponsored bill in 2018. “We have the votes in the house and senate,” but “a handful of leaders including the senate president, speaker of the house and others refuse to schedule a vote,” says Smith.

However, the “competing watered-down legislation of the FIWA is a result of successful pressure from pro-LGBTQ rights leaders in charge,” he continues. “At some point, they will have to hear the bill … the reality is that hate crimes are on the rise, especially those targeting transgender women of color. Right wing fear-mongering produced the FIWA, which capitulates against the notion transgender people are bathroom predators.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (L) and fiancee Jerick Mediavilla celebrate equality at Come Out With Pride 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)

Smith believes the best way to confront the “outright lie” of transgender stereotypes is “head-on, by not cutting public accommodations” from a protections bill. The Orlando representative opposes the FIWA, advising it only updates the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 “with one-third of protections for LGBTQ Floridians.”

“I know I am not one-third of a person,” Smith asserts, “and neither is anyone else identifying as LGBTQ. This bill only protects employment rights, leaving out housing and public accommodation protections.”

LGBTQ employment, housing and accommodation protection legislation first debuted in 2007 which failed to make the Senate floor. In 2009 the official FCWA was introduced, meeting an early demise in the lower chamber as well. Finally, in 2016 FCWA garnered strong, bipartisan support from Republicans like Jack Latvala, Travis Hutson and Sally Raschein.

The following year the FCWA was one of the most popular bills in legislative session, again. Even Gruters supported the bill in 2018 which was introduced by Rouson, along with 16 co-introducers, including one Republican. Yet, passage was still unattainable.

“For the past decade, passing protections for the LGBTQ community have not been a legislative priority,” says former Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami Beach), Florida’s first openly gay lawmaker.

Still, proponents of FCWA are cautiously optimistic. “Educating members of the legislature, helping them understand the reasons why the FCWA is so important for all Floridians is critical to passing this legislation,” says Rouson. He also sees it as a potentially major hurdle to SB430’s success.

“FCWA will continue to have an enormous positive impact through discussions and debates,” Webb says. With the help of “equality lawyers who intimately understand how to introduce bills, we’ve carefully crafted this legislation … inclusive bills hold promise-of-future for what our community can do. Political discussion is an opportunity to educate leaders on inclusive spaces.”

However, Florida is a state that fought same-sex marriage until the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it, debated a transgender bathroom bill and refused public monument funding for victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. Critics of the bills argue that passage of any bill would be antithetical to Florida’s history concerning who deserves protected rights codified into the state’s Civil Rights Act.

Will sparing the bill of accommodation protections make LGBTQ protections passable in 2019?

SAVE believes Gruters’ approach is the correct path and is now lobbying in favor of FIWA after exhausting its push for public accommodation protections and asking Gruters to sponsor the bill. Its executive director insists the FCWA will not pass in the lower chamber, and Lima advises that he is confident Gruters’ bill will be a success due to its lack of partisanship and the senator’s status in the Florida Republican Party. He hopes the FIWA will send a clear message for other conservatives to fall in line.

Retired Judge Reed Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach Human Rights Council, says “Senator Gruters’ bill is sharply focused on key economic discrimination faced by LGBTQ Floridians—discrimination in the workplace.” He adds that “achieving this first step will open the door, enabling us to move forward with protecting our community in every part of Florida and in all areas of our lives.”

Richardson adds that “continuing to rely on a failed strategy and a bill that has floundered no longer makes sense.” He says that “policy change is often incremental. I applaud Senator Gruters for his fresh approach which is fully inclusive of the LGBT community.”

Equality Florida’s Equality Means Business and ThinkSpot Inc., a Florida-based research and policy development consulting agency, conducted a study revealing how the state’s lack of protections impact the economy.

Participants of the study included Florida Blue, IBM Corporation, Miami Heat, Regions Bank, Marriott, Tampa Bay Rays, the University of North Florida, and more. “Florida employers are losing more than $362 million annually in productivity and turnover costs alone,” it revealed. “Business executives who participated in the research agree that the impact LGBT discrimination has on the workplace is substantial.”

Thinkspot Inc. concluded Florida’s lack of LGBTQ rights diminishes the state’s global competitiveness, creates talent loss (especially among Millennials), erodes customer loyalty and creates corporate reputation damage. “The cost of LGBT discrimination is not isolated to the individual. Discrimination in the workplace negatively impacts the host company, its customers, its industry, (e.g. chain supply) and the geopolitical areas (i.e. city, county, state) these employers call home,” the study advises.

“Research demonstrates that the link from employee engagement to profits and competitiveness is direct,” it also notes. Several study participants reported expansion or relocation decisions are based favorably on locations promoting diversity and non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community through public policy.

Take Amazon for instance, a billion dollar mega corporation endorsing marriage equality, supporting lawsuits fighting transgender discrimination, providing benefits covering transgender services and facilitating an active diversity and inclusion network for LGBTQ employees called GLAmazon.

The company isn’t playing around when it comes to providing a culture of respect and dignity for their LGBTQ workers. In a statement on company diversity, Amazon advises “we believe that diversity and inclusion are good for our business, but our commitment is based on something more fundamental than that. It’s simply right. Amazon has always been, and always will be, committed to tolerance and diversity.”

When CEO Jeff Bezos recently named his final contenders for their (now scrapped) second headquarters, Miami was on the list. Although Bezos didn’t specifically name state codified LGBTQ rights in Amazon’s request for a proposal, it did advise that locations must provide “a compatible cultural and community environment,” including “presence and support of a diverse population.”

Miami, with its robust LGBTQ community, nightlife, and as North America’s gateway to Latin America, fits the bill—but what about neighboring cities and suburbs? For instance an LGBTQ family who prefers rural life to Miami’s grind? They might not enjoy the same protections as their fellow colleagues in a state like Florida, where equality comes in a patchwork and this fact directly impacts a diversity driven CEO’s decision-making.

Other states providing LGBTQ citizens with comprehensive protection laws include California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington state and the District of Columbia.

Most, if not all of these states codified LGBTQ equality laws in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s. Protections began with marriage equality and then progressed into workplace and public accommodation laws. It’s for that reason that LGBTQ activists believe Florida has a lot of catching up to do in order to be a viable competitor that attracts top companies and talent, and also to retain the vast diversity of LGBTQ people who currently reside here.

As the debate continues, one thing is certain. By July 2019, lawmakers and activists will know if Florida is joining these other states in providing employment, housing and accommodation laws with Sen. Rouson and Rep. Webb’s FCWA, if we will incrementally begin our civil rights journey by providing employment protections with Sen. Gruters’

FIWA, or if legislation securing LGBTQ equality will even move forward at all.

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