Legislative Town Hall Addresses LGBT Community, Makes History
A standing room only crowd greeted state and local officials Monday night as the LGBT community gathered to air their concerns with elected leaders.
Representative Perry E. Thurston, Jr., the Democratic Party leader in the Florida House, presided over the town hall and admitted that just showing up was not "advocacy for the community."
Thurston listened to a number of Floridians give their testimony about living lives as LGBT people. He was joined inside the Wilton Manors Commission room by Senators Maria Sachs and Eleanor Sobel and Representatives Mark Pafford, Shevrin Jones, David Richardson and Katie Edwards. Florida gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich also attended the town hall.
"All Floridians deserve to have equal rights," said Rich, a former state senator seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor. "We need to have statewide laws so everyone is protected."
The town hall was organized by longtime human rights activist Michael Rajner, who called the evening "fantastic" but expressed concern that no current, or former, Republican state legislators showed up. The town hall was touted as the first of its kind in the state to specifically address the needs of the LGBT community.
"Human rights is not just a one party issue," Rajner said. "The next time we do this, there should be Republican [legislators] here."
The stories from citizens were moving and heartfelt, some dealt with trying to find employment as a transgender person, others spoke of the desire to have their marriage legally recognized. Florida does not allow same-sex marriage and has a voter approved constitutional amendment banning such.
"Florida has an oppressive feel," said William Rankin, who moved to the state from Ohio and is now running for Chief Financial Officer. "If this community wants a voice you have to speak up and speak loudly."
Stratton Pollitzer spoke on the need for the legislature to pass the Competitive Workforce Act. Pollitzer, a lobbyist for Equality Florida, said it's a "very simple bill" that provides a "ray of hope" for LGBT workers. Citing a poll from the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and the University of Florida that showed public support for the Competitive Workforce Act at 73 percent, Pollitzer said the bill prevents employers from firing someone based on sexual orientation. He said workforce discrimination would be Equality Florida's top priority during the upcoming legislative session.
"Victory," Pollitzer said. "Is in our reach."
Past efforts to bring equality sponsored bills to the House floor died in committee. Richardson, an openly gay representative from Miami Beach, said adding amendments to other bills is the best strategy. He did this last year, effectively launching a debate in the House on foster care. The debate led to Florida's Department of Children and Families including provisions for LGBT families in their regulations.
"It's amazing the light he's shown on the legislature," Thurston said of his colleague Richardson. "They need to pay David double."
During the town hall, Thurston announced he was running for Attorney General. The South Florida native is seeking to unseat incumbent Pam Bondi, but first faces competition within Democratic ranks from former DCF secretary George Sheldon.
Pafford, a West Palm Beach businessman, will replace Thurston as the Democratic leader in the House.
"Times change," Pafford said at the conclusion of Monday night's town hall. "A lot of these issues were created by Democrats in the first place. Let's not forget that."