| TALLAHASSEE, Fla.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. May 2 A Republican, a
Democrat and a lobbyist for leading businesses in Florida
huddled this spring at the state Capitol, mapping out the next
move in a campaign to enact the first statewide LGBT
anti-discrimination law in the U.S. South.
A record number of Republican lawmakers had thrown their
support behind proposed protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender people, and hundreds of companies backed the
While the bill has so far fallen short with time running out
on the legislative session, its lead backers were heartened by
their progress and determined to retool for next year.
"We definitely need to ramp up the grassroots," said Joseph
Salzverg, a lobbyist for Florida Competes, a group of more than
450 state businesses supporting LGBT protections. "There's a lot
of Republicans that agree with the policy but are worried about
the effect it has back home."
A year after transgender bathroom access erupted as a U.S.
culture wars flashpoint, Florida is among the conservative
statehouses where LGBT activists see momentum building for
The nation's third most-populous state, Florida could offer
the next breakthrough in a national movement to advance LGBT
civil-rights protections, viewed by advocates as stepping stones
to their ultimate goal of federal anti-discrimination law.
Only 18 states, mostly concentrated in the U.S. West and
Northeast, and the District of Columbia have laws that fully
guard against LGBT people being fired from jobs, kicked out of
housing or denied services in restaurants, hotels and other
businesses. This fight continues even after a U.S. Supreme Court
ruling in June 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage nationally.
Florida's strategy, years in the making, aims to build
bipartisan support with economic arguments and the passage of
similar measures locally that show the LGBT protections can
succeed. The bill's backers must convince a
Republican-controlled state legislature that all of Florida
benefits from LGBT protections.
"It's really about the math of being based here in Florida,
but competing on a global market," said John "J.T." Tonnison,
president of Florida Competes.
Tonnison is chief information officer of Tech Data Corp
, a technology distributor. In the state capital of
Tallahassee this spring, he told legislators about a prized
recruit reluctant to relocate from California, concerned about a
gay son visiting a state without strong protections.
"It sets us apart in a less-than-positive light," Tonnison
BUILDING BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Local LGBT protections are now in place in communities
representing 60 percent of Florida's more than 20 million
residents. In conservative north Florida, the state's largest
city, Jacksonville, recently passed a nondiscrimination policy
after a fight that lasted years.
Local successes helped convince 19 Republican legislators to
join 52 Democrats this year to cosponsor legislation that would
add sexual orientation and gender identity to Florida's civil
rights statutes, just shy of a majority in the 160-member
Representative Joe Gruters, an anti-abortion activist who
co-chaired President Donald Trump's state campaign, was among
the first Republicans to sign on. Perhaps an unlikely LGBT ally,
the first-term lawmaker said the case made by advocates, and a
prominent conservative colleague's support, resonated with him.
"I will continue to fight for this, and for any type of
right, that treats people fairly," Gruters said. "It's going to
By contrast, the Florida Family Policy Council, advocating
for conservative social values, decried the legislation as an
intrusion on religious freedoms and public safety by allowing
men into women's bathrooms and private facilities.
Such LGBT measures are "weapons to punish Christians for
simply acting out their faith in the marketplace," said its
president, John Stemberger.
"People are trying to force other people to do things," he
added. "Why can't we just disagree?"
But backers see Florida as a model for other states engaged
in long-term legislative efforts, including Ohio and
"Attracting bipartisan support really proves this isn't an
urban versus a rural issue, or a Republican versus Democratic
issue," said Dan Rafter, a spokesman for the advocacy group
Freedom for All Americans.
Florida, and most other states, avoided fights this year
over transgender bathroom access, possibly dissuaded by the
national boycotts organized against North Carolina before its
recent roll-back of restrictions enacted in 2016.
Nonetheless, Florida's LGBT protection bill never got a
hearing during this session, which will end within days. The
legislature's leaders did not comment on what stalled the
Supporters are reorganizing for next year with a more
"Inaction is not neutral," said Hannah Willard, public
policy director for the advocacy group Equality Florida.
During the strategy meeting last month at the state Capitol,
Republican Representative Rene Plasencia proposed mobilizing
business supporters to engage legislators in their hometowns.
"We are protecting people's rights to live freely, to not be
disadvantaged economically, because of the personal choice of
who they love," he said.
Looking over a list of lawmakers not yet on board, the lead
Democrat behind the House bill agreed.
"We need to persuade people before they get to Tallahassee,"
Representative Ben Diamond said. "That’s the challenge."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Matthew Lewis)