Thursday, January 16, 2020

Florida's Oldest Gay Rights Law Turns 30

January 16, 2020

Today Florida's oldest gay rights law marks its 30th anniversary.

Thirty years ago, there was not a single law in effect in Florida which provided protection against discrimination for gay men and lesbians.

That changed on January 16, 1990 when Palm Beach County Commissioners voted 4-1 to prohibit discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on a person's sexual orientation.

LGBTQ rights activists celebrate vitory in 1990

The historic gay rights campaign was led by Rand Hoch, President of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council "(PBCHRC") and Jim Swope, President of the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Democratic Club ("ACDC").

Over the years, PBCHRC has been responsible for the enactment of more than 130 local pro-LGBTQ+ laws and policies.

"It was no easy task in 1990 to convince elected officials in Florida - especially Republicans - to openly support gay rights," said Hoch. "There was just too much history."

In 1977, Dade County Commissioners enacted a gay rights law. Shortly thereafter singer Anita Bryant formed Save Our Children ("SOS") which campaigned for a special election to repeal the law.  (FOR A TREAT, PLEASE CLICK ON THE "ANITA BRYANT" LINK)

In 1978, when the votes were counted following a heated and ugly campaign, the law was repealed by a vote of more than 2-1.

There were no further efforts to secure gay rights in Florida until 1989, when gay rights activists in Tampa and in Broward County sought to have their counties' laws amended to protect sexual orientation based on sexual orientation. However, both efforts failed.

After carefully studying the unsuccessful gay rights efforts in Florida, Swope and Hoch came up with a different strategy."

"Our goals were simple. We activated LGBTQ people and our allies and then educated the commissioners," said Swope. "Ultimately, we out-organized our opponents."

In the weeks leading up to the hearing, commissioners received more than 3,000 letters from constituents in support of gay rights. In contrast, there were only 43 opposing the proposed change in the law.

The public hearing, which was intentionally scheduled to fall on the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, lasted more than three hours. More than 100 residents crowded the County Commission Chambers.

Thirty people, including lawyers, educations, REALTORS, two rabbis, a minister and a retired Episcopal bishop spoke in favor of the gay rights law.

Only seventeen people spoke against it.

"We not only had more teachers, we had more preachers," said Hoch, who was the last member of the public to speak before the commissioners deliberated.

"It all comes down to this -- 'Equal Justice Under Law' a concept so American that it is literally carved in stone above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court," Hoch told the commissioners.

When the votes were cast, Democratic County Commissioners Carol Roberts and Carole Phillips voted in favor of the change, as did Republican County Commissioners Carol Elmquist and Karen Marcus.

Commissioner Ron Howard, also a Republican, cast the sole vote against protecting the county's gay men and lesbians.

While the four commissioners who voted to protect the gay and lesbian community were re-elected, Ron Howard was not. And despite several attempts, he never held public office again.

The law, the Palm Beach County Ordinance for Equal Opportunity to Housing and Places of Public Accommodation, has since been amended to prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

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