Progress On The Rocky Road To Equality In Florida

September 24, 2013

Seated in a downtown St. Petersburg coffee shop, Nadine Smith holds court at a window side table. She keeps a frenetic pace between checking e-mail on her laptop and responding to incoming text messages.
 
As executive director of Equality Florida, Smith leads the charge of the state's leading organization advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians. It's been a busy week in Smith's world.
 
The IRS announcement that it would honor joint filings for gay married couples was followed by Wal-Mart's decision to offer benefits to same-sex couples. Not to mention Smith is just back from Washington D.C. commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which included a large gay and lesbian contingency.
 
"This is remarkable progress. But it didn't happen overnight,'' Smith says during a reflective moment at Kahwa Coffee while taking a break from her technology. "This is decades of pushing."
 
To push and stand up for what is right are among the many lessons Smith's parents taught her as a young girl growing up in Florida's Panhandle. Smith, 48, was the only girl in a family of five. Her father, an airman in the Air Force, stressed integrity, honor and honesty.
 
Those lessons helped Smith maintain a high level of self pride even among the prejudices she faced as a black girl growing up in Panama City, and later motivated her own pursuit of a career in the Air Force.
 
On paper, it's not exactly the background you'd expect of someone now on the front lines of the gay rights movement. And yet, Smith says it's the lessons taught early in her life that have motivated her to keep fighting for equality.
 
"Nobody's better than you. You've got to give people respect to get it,'' Smith says of the values her parents imparted. "These are your values, to stand up for who you are.''
 
The truth of who Smith was came to a head in the early '80s when she made the brave decision to leave the Air Force Academy. Gay cadets were being kicked out of the Academy left and right due to a wave of anti-gay fervor moving throughout the ranks.
 
Smith, who had already shared her secret with close friends, began to worry.
 
"I was becoming ill from the stress of it,'' says Smith remembering her fears.
 
When Smith arrived home after leaving the Academy, she eventually came out to her parents. The truth hurt, Smith recalls.
 
"It was the most isolated moment in my life,'' Smith says. "I felt like I didn't belong anywhere.''

Finding Camaraderie Around The Globe
 
The search for her place in the world took Smith to Europe after seeing an ad in a magazine about a fledgling international youth group. In 1986, Smith arrived in Europe at the first meeting of what would become the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization (IGLYO).
 
"I had never been around gay people who moved through the world expecting to be treated as equals,'' Smith says. "It was the first time I had realized how much I'd adjusted to being discriminated against and how deeply I had internalized this homophobia.''
 
It was a bittersweet transformative experience.
 
"It had a huge impact on how I view this work and the importance of progress,'' she says.

The experience fueled Smith to continue questioning injustice. Back in Florida, she earned her degree in Mass Communications from the University of South Florida and began work as an investigative journalist for WUSF. She explored living conditions of migrant workers and the treatment of psychiatric patients at USF.
 
"Every civil rights movement is about calling the question, 'Is this OK with me?','' Smith explains drawing a correlation between her journalism work and civil rights.
 
Smith went on to become a reporter at The Tampa Tribune, where she covered stories about Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa's first attempts to include protection for gay and lesbian rights in their human rights ordinances. The ordinances already protected people from discrimination due to race, gender and disability.
 
The inclusion of sexual orientation was denied by both jurisdictions. Smith left journalism and made a run as the first openly gay black woman for Tampa City Council.
 
"I felt I needed to come to the work with a difference voice,'' Smith says. Though unsuccessful in the race, Smith did earn the most votes in the primary.
 
Smith got involved with the Human Rights Task Force, which would eventually become Equality Florida.
 
In 1993, after hours of public hearings where anti-gay activists were bused in to speak, both Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa voted to include sexual orientation in its human rights ordinances.
 
Smith proved herself useful in the fight, says Keith Roberts, a local gay rights activist.
 
"She had come from journalism so she knew her way around the halls of government, which was obviously helpful,'' says Roberts, an attorney who was also working with the council.

Leadership Staying Power
 
In the early days with the task force, Smith remembers being the only person willing to stand in front of a podium to read a news release. The next day, her name was in the paper with the title "activist'' beside it.
 
"It felt heavy,'' she says about the label. "But there was no turning back.''
 
It was the culmination of the lessons her father had taught her: duty, honor, country.
 
When Equality Florida was founded in 1997, Smith became the first executive director and has remained in the role for the past 16 years. It's an unusually long run for organization leadership, especially for a nonprofit with traditionally small budgets and huge missions.
 
But Smith's style of leadership may be a clue to her staying power.
 
"She shares ownership with the entire staff. She's not someone who tries to hold all of this close,'' says Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida who helped found the organization. "She keeps lots of people involved in decision making.''
 
Equality Florida has a dual mission of working on both the political and educational front advocating for fair treatment and protection of the state's gay and lesbian community. The organization reaches more than 60,000 gay and lesbian households in Florida and thousands beyond.
 
Their job isn't easy.
 
Of utmost importance is addressing what Smith calls Florida's patchwork of sexual orientation inequality. For example, Pinellas County's human rights ordinance includes gay and lesbian protection, while Hillsborough County's does not. The City of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and the City of Tampa have domestic partnership registries, while Hillsborough County does not. That patchiness extends throughout the state.
 
"We have to consult a GPS to know if we're going to be treated as second class citizens,'' Smith says.

Victory For Gay Adoption
 
Also on Smith's radar is a bigger push toward the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination in the hiring process based on sexual orientation. Congress has yet to vote on the legislation.
                                                                                                                                                                        
It's that forward thinking at which Smith excels, colleagues say.
 
"Smith has tremendous vision about where we need to go, she takes the long view. And she's patient and disciplined and persistent and intelligent the way she sets about step by step to pursue those goals,'' Roberts says.
 
Among their most recent victories -- repealing Florida's 33-year gay adoption ban. It's a cause close to Smith's heart. Nadine and her wife have a young son named Logan.
 
"I'm going to tell Logan he was born in Vermont, because it was the only state that would protect our rights as parents,'' Smith says.
 
The story is much like Smith's. Her father married her biracial English mother while he was stationed in Europe. Once back in the United States, Smith's parents had to be careful about where they were stationed. Smith's mother was indeed bi-racial, but she looked white. They decided on Maine, where her parents felt they would be more accepted. Her brothers were subsequently born in Maine.
 
Smith says her own family's journey to accepting her lifestyle has been much like the nation's progress toward gay and lesbian rights. Fear based stereotypes have slowly dissolved along with predetermined images of what "should be.'' The next step: love and acceptance.
 
Smith's father walked her down the aisle at her wedding in 2009 in Burlington, VT. Her brothers were also in attendance.
 
"That was the best day of my life,'' Smith recalls. "To be surrounded by my family, my dearest friends and to be marrying the person of my dreams -- it was amazing.''

Nicole Hutcheson is a freelance writer who lives in Tampa. She enjoys writing about culture, business and lifestyle topics. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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