2009 proved hopeful for Florida's LGBT activists

Joseph Erbentraut READ TIME: 4 MIN.

If one word could describe the mood of Florida's LGBT activists over this past year it would be simple: Rebuilding. While the majority of eyes focused on California's Proposition 8 last fall, Florida faced its own anti-marriage bill that strictly defined marriage as between one man and one woman and effectively banned any legally-recognized same-sex union with similar rights as marriage. The measure passed in Nov. 2008 with 62 percent of the popular vote and derailed any momentum Floridians had gained on the marriage issue.

Instead of taking their loss lying down, however, LGBT activists in the Sunshine State saw an opportunity to consider a new strategy toward legislative progress in their state, which ranks as one of the least equal in the nation because of its gay adoption ban, a lack of a statewide employment non-discrimination bill and other contentious issues. They have focused on local victories -- and these include the expansion of domestic partnership recognition in Miami and Tallahassee, the defeat of an anti-gay measure in Gainesville and expanded protections for Tampa's transgender residents.

Local victories, statewide organizing
The Miami City Commission's unanimous vote to extend domestic partner benefits to municipal employees in June was certainly among the most impressive legislative victories the state's LGBT activists achieved in 2009. Activists consider the Miami victory among the first of what they hope to be many to result from a rejuvenated dedication to statewide coalitions in opposing anti-gay legal opposition.

"If local cities start supporting pro-LGBT legislation, I think there will be a ripple effect that reaches Tallahassee," C.J. Ortu�o, executive director of SAVE Dade, said of the Miami legislation. "... A network is being developed so that we can effectively mobilize and organize people to react to our opposition."

That network, Organizations United Together (O.U.T.,) formed earlier in the year as part of an effort for LGBT organizations to share resources and lobbying power at the grassroots level. Since June, O.U.T. has hosted a number of training sessions on other legislative issues facing the state, hired an executive director and remains focused on securing further local victories to build momentum toward statewide change.

Justice for hate crime victims
In another important victory for the state's LGBT activists, Polk County jurors found Joseph Bearden and William Brown, Jr., guilty of first-degree murder in early November in the death of Ryan Keith Skipper, a gay man who was beaten and stabbed nearly 20 times before his assailants slit his throat two years ago. A judge later sentenced the two men to life in prison.

The case served as a tragic wake-up call for LGBT Floridians' need to remain vigilant against anti-gay violence, particularly in response to continually disappointing statistics on violence. A report published earlier in the year confirmed anti-LGBT violence in the state has increased more than 30 percent in three of the last four years. And the death of 47-year-old gay man Craig Cohen, who was in a coma for six months after two men beat him near his Oakland Park home, served as yet another reminder of a statewide culture that remains less than LGBT-friendly.

"Because that culture exists here in Florida, we have a lot of work to let people clearly understand that these kinds of hate crimes are absolutely unacceptable," Equality Florida spokesman Brian Winfield said. "Silence in the face of these violent acts is not acceptable."

Church apparently prefers Coke
Part of the broader culture that continues to stand against LGBT progress in the Sunshine State continues to stem from Florida's many megachurches. But it would appear this reach may be losing a bit of its potency based on some Florida churches' increasingly ridiculous conquests against the so-called "gay agenda."

When the Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon decided to remove its 10 Pepsi soda machines from its premise based on the soft drink giant's efforts to "establish a homosexual activist group," it and the American Family Association had hoped to lodge a larger war against the company. PepsiCo, however, stood by it's sponsorship of Chicago's Citywide Pride and other LGBT causes. And it released a statement that said the company valued "diversity and equality [as] benchmarks of our business ... We work hard to foster an inclusive environment where all our employees feel comfortable."

And no other organizations joined in on the protest. Fail, Bell Shoals, fail.

Transgender teen stands against Orlando McDonald's
When 17-year-old Zikerria Bellamy went into an Orlando McDonald's in July to apply for a job, she probably would never have anticipated the media clamor that would follow when a manager refused to interview her once he realized she was trans. The voice mail she later received - claiming the restaurant "[did] not hire faggots" - grabbed the attention of media outlets worldwide and served as a chilling reminder to the employment discrimination trans people routinely face.

"Zikerria's story is all too common," Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said.

His organization filed a complaint against the restaurant on Bellamy's behalf.

"Transgender and gay employees who just want to support themselves and their families deserve the opportunity to do so and should be protected from this kind of discrimination,"Silverman added.

In response to the case, the manager in question was fired and the restaurant released a statement to condemn the language used against Bellamy.

Broward County's new mayor bolsters visibility
2009 was also a year that brought increased representation of out public officials in the state--including Ken Keechl, who was elected Broward County mayor last month. Before Annise Parker's election as Houston's next mayor earlier this month, Keechl was the highest-ranking openly gay municipal official in the country. He remains, however, the highest-ranking openly gay politician of any stripe in the state's history.

Speaking with EDGE only days after being sworn into office, Keechl said he was "in the right place at the right time as a gay man to ascend to a position of power as commissioner and then as the mayor."

He added he feels his new post would lend him increased bargaining power to put LGBT issues to light statewide, supporting the election of gay-friendly politicians and advocating progressive stances.

"I am proud to be the mayor of Broward County, proud to be an openly gay man and proud to be a role model to the extent that I am," Keechl said.

by Joseph Erbentraut

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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