How Florida Could Go Rainbow, Not Just Red or Blue
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because local legislation still has a massive impact. See: Carolina, North.
By Libby Coleman
In a recent TV ad, Beth Tuura promises to protect Florida’s environment and pro-choice policies if she’s elected to represent her Orlando district in the Statehouse. She talks about how she has shattered glass ceilings throughout her career and how she fought the odds to become a sports TV director. The 30-second spot also expresses a subtler message: Tuura’s sexual orientation. In a blink-of-the-eye moment, Tuura, 60, talks to a male supporter who wears a shirt embossed with a rainbow-flag heart and the slogan “Orlando United.” The subtext: Rest assured, Tuura supports LGBT rights.
In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, increasing the number of LGBT candidates in Florida office has become a rallying cry for PACs, advocacy groups and other supporters. The way Tuura puts it, “After Pulse, we had 49 more reasons to run.” This year eight LGBT candidates made it to the primaries — a record in Florida — and five are still in the running, including the only openly LGBT state legislator. Early voting suggests that many of these candidates, Democrats all, are running competitive races. If they all win, Florida would quintuple its LGBT caucus in the 120-seat Statehouse. “What you’re seeing is years of people before us current candidates who set the stage for acceptance of LGBT individuals to openly run for office,” openly gay candidate Ken Keechl tells OZY.
I’m open about being gay [when] going door to door, and no one seems to care.
It’s surprising that Florida is such a happy home for LGBT candidates. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Florida Legislature was “one of the most homophobic in the U.S.,” says David K. Johnson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida and author of The Lavender Scare. LGBT people were considered as unpatriotic as communists, and a committee was created to investigate and fire LGBT public educators. In the ’70s, Florida-based conservative activist Anita Bryant led the “Save Our Children” campaign, which helped pass a statewide LGBT adoption ban that stood for three decades.
And yet, Tuura says she has experienced zero prejudice during her campaign. “I’ve not received one negative comment,” she says. “I’m open about being gay [when] going door to door, and no one seems to care.” According to studies, many moderates criticize candidates for being anti-LGBT. A Public Religion Research Institute survey of 2,600 Floridians found that 70 percent of respondents favored laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.
In an already tumultuous election season, Florida’s five LGBT candidates could make an outsize impact on policies that matter most to them, including stricter gun laws, anti-discrimination laws that prevent employers from firing LGBT employees, and women’s health. Research by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute shows a multiplier effect when even a handful of LGBT state legislators are elected. Many of the legislators surveyed said they influenced their LGBT colleagues on issues related to that community and voted in line with them. “We are focusing on LGBT candidates in low-equality states,” says Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, president and CEO of the Victory Fund PAC. “LGBT state lawmakers are our best defense against the hundreds of anti-LGBT bills introduced by opponents of equality.”
If all five LGBT representatives pop Champagne corks next Tuesday, they will comprise just 4 percent of the Florida Statehouse, but in a country where LGBT politicians are few and far between, that figure would be comparatively high and representative. (Less than 4 percent of the general population self-identifies as non-straight.) Elsewhere, the times have seen some changing too. Wisconsin elected the first openly lesbian senator. And in 2013 the openly LGBT caucus in the U.S. House grew to six, although that remains a mere 1.4 percent of representatives. To help, PACs like Victory Fund, LPAC and the newly created Pride Fund to End Gun Violence conduct leadership programs, provide communications assistance and fund many campaigns.
So, on election night, the swing state of Florida might not just go red or blue. It could go rainbow.