Friday, December 4, 2009

Florida Activists Frustrated On Gay Rights

By Carlos Santoscoy. On Top Staff Writer

December 03, 2009

Gay activists in Florida are growing increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of progress on gay rights in the state.

“Almost two decades have passed since Florida passed a law addressing the gay and lesbian community,” said Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “It's frustrating.”

Hoch's group is among the handful of grassroots organizations working for change at the local level. He talked to On Top Magazine about his concerns after a new scorecard ranked Florida among one of the lowest states on gay and lesbian rights.

The report compiled by the group ranked Florida at 43 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only Ohio, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi and Tennessee ranked lower. While no state received a perfect score, California, Iowa, New Jersey and Vermont received high marks. Only Iowa and Vermont have legalized gay marriage.

Florida is the only state that specifically forbids gay adoption. Failure to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations also effected Florida's low score.

Hoch said his group has sponsored a non-discrimination bill for the past three years.

“Although 25% of state legislators signed on as sponsors for the bills in 2009, all were Democrats and the bills went nowhere,” he said. “With Republicans still firmly in control of the Legislature, there is a long way to go.”

R. Zeke Fread, director of Pride Tampa Bay, agreed, saying the report's conclusions were “very disappointing but not surprising”given the political climate in Tallahassee.

“I don't see that changing anytime soon, because it's run by the Republicans,” he added.

But Fread said he sees hope in local politics, pointing to Tampa's recent passage of a transgender non-discrimination law, the election of several openly gay mayors – Steve Kornell in St. Pete and Ken Keechl in Broward County – and the appointment of Jane Castor, who is openly lesbian, as police chief of Tampa.

While Hoch and Fread might be frustrated, they both remain optimistic.

“I'm optimistic that we are turning the corner here in Florida,” Hoch said. “Last July, Organizations United Together (OUT) – a newly formed federation of Florida's local LGBT and allied organizations – received a $150,000 grant to strengthen local organizations to create an environment where statewide LGBT policy change is possible.”

And Hoch said plans are already underway to reintroduce a gay protections bill in the Legislature next year. The Access to Opportunity Act (ACT) is expected to attract support from Republicans and the business community because it creates a framework for business owners to address discrimination complaints.

“The proposed law would also allow Florida to retain $2 million in federal funding to investigate housing discrimination claims,” Hoch added.

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