In my work as editor here at Hotspots, I have cultivated good working relationships with a number of LGBT organizations across the state, such as Equality Florida. In the past year, I’ve spoken with both CEO Nadine Smith and transgender inclusion director Gina Duncan, who both told me that we have now reached a point where a majority of Floridians are protected by all-inclusive human rights ordinances. These ordinances prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While I find it wonderful that we’ve gotten to this point, there are two places close to my heart up in north Florida that are not protected.
Nearly 30 years ago, I was born at the Naval Air Station Hospital in Jacksonville. I lived in the area for the first ten years of my life. My mother is from Jacksonville too, coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, Jacksonville had a reputation of being one of the most regressive cities in the South when it came to social politics and race relations. “Ax Handle Saturday,” in 1960, saw white people forcibly remove peaceful black protesters from the city’s lunch counters. My mother, who left school in 1968, never attended school with anyone other than other white children. (Desegregation wouldn’t occur in Duval County until the dawn of the 1970s.) Even when I was growing up, there was a noticeable divide between how whites and blacks lived in Jacksonville. That’s not to mention the Jacksonville City Council, which has been under the influence of the First Baptist megachurch for decades. What they say goes, and their influence stifles an otherwise proud and growing city — Florida’s largest.
Now that we’re in 2015, how far has Jacksonville come? They have elected a black mayor for the first time in the city’s history, so race relations have improved, but the First Baptist Church’s hold on the City Council ensured that any other progress would be slow to come. There is a renewed push for an all-inclusive human rights ordinance in Jacksonville, but this push hardly brings breaking news…after all, this is the fourth attempt in as many years. The most recent vote was roundly rejected when gender identity was added into the mix; when removed, only leaving sexual orientation protected, that ordinance was also rejected, but the vote was closer to 50-50. Equality Florida is fighting the good fight in Jacksonville, but judging by my experience and my mother’s experience there…I’m sadly not that hopeful. Until the Council is free of special interests, then perhaps the city can join the ranks of inclusive, world-class cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando.
There is a second city in North Florida talking about a human rights ordinance, and this one is also close to my heart. It’s Pensacola, where I went to middle and high school, and where my parents still live. Before I started working for Hotspots, I created my own LGBT magazine in Pensacola. Located in one of the most conservative areas of Florida, Pensacola has improved its standing among young, upwardly-mobile millennials in 2011 when Ashton Hayward became the first “strong mayor” of town. A former male model, he became the first mayor born after World War II, and he brought a lot of youthful, up-to-date ideas to Pensacola, helping to modernize the city. The downtown area is now a shopping and nightlife haven, there’s new chic housing in the same area, and the town has begun to market to LGBT travelers — all great moves. The Escambia County School Board enacted a non-discrimination ordinance for employees and students last year, to the surprise of quite a few locals, so the idea of an all-inclusive human rights ordinance for the entire town was born.
Right now the Pensacola ordinance idea is still in the planning stages, with a vote planned for November — or even later. Am I hopeful that Pensacola will pass this ordinance? I have to admit that I am. I originally left the city because I felt that it didn’t have much to offer to me as a young, openly gay man who was going places. Now, I feel like the city has progressed beautifully, and I think, at its core, that Pensacola is a place of kindness and fairness. Those attributes are what Pensacolians are proud of — and that’s why I think common sense will prevail.
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